Just finished up Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever. I thought I would really enjoy this book—it got good reviews, and, you know, lesbians! murder! insanity!—but I found it difficult to read (the chronology of events is confusing, and some of the design choices make it difficult to read on a computer) and, worse, it’s oddly patriarchal in its views.*
The historical event behind the book: In 1890s Memphis, Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, fell in love with each other at school. After Freda moved away, the two made plans to marry—Freda would sneak back to Memphis, Alice would disguise herself as a man, and they would get hitched at their local church. After Freda’s sister discovered their letters, she revealed the plans to Alice’s family and the relationship disintegrated. The heartbroken Alice waited until Freda made a visit to Memphis, then slashed Freda’s throat.
The book covers the girls’ relationship, the murder, and the subsequent insanity proceedings, in which the defense argued that Alice’s same-sex attachment proved that she was out of her mind and not fit for trial. Alice is obviously the more interesting figure of the two, just by virtue of living longer than Freda. But Coe valorizes Alice—a woman who dared to want to escape her mandated future of marriage and motherhood, who would love who she wanted to love, who supposedly screamed “I’m going to do just exactly what I wanted to do, and I don’t care if I do get hung!” as she dashed away from the murder scene. By doing so, Coe whitewashes that Alice’s rebellion against gender roles meant that she took on the worst of what it meant to be a “man,” ultimately leading to her lover’s death.
Alice may have wanted to escape her future as a wife or old maid, dependent on the whims of a man, but she didn’t extend that same freedom to her own lover. By planning on transforming herself into a man, she also planned to transform herself into a patriarch, assuming her rightful power over a wife-to-be. Alice’s letters reflect this view: Freda should be a model wife, a woman who never deceived, who was her spouse’s first and last love, who cooked and sewed buttons for her one and only. Freda enjoyed flirting and dreamed of going on the stage, but after she had promised herself to a future “husband”—whether that husband was male or female—she would have to forsake all others, even before marriage, and confine her dreams to the home. By transgressing those boundaries, Freda became a “bad woman” in Alice’s eyes. As her fiance and the “man” in the relationship, Alice had the right to kill her, a right which she made very clear in her various death threats to Freda, in letters or face to face. When Freda removed herself from Alice’s life, whether by choice or by force, Alice took advantage of her rights and killed her.
Coe’s depiction of Freda reinforces this old pernicious view, that a woman who isn’t fully submissive and loyal deserves to die. Coe describes Freda as “an incorrigible flirt” and states that Freda “callously” wanted to go on the stage despite her engagement. It’s especially troubling because Coe is describing a 17-year-old, barely out of girlhood even by 19th-century standards.
The whole courtship seemed to be a game of youthful dalliance that Freda greatly enjoyed; proposals were like trophies, accolades she enthusiastically accepted without seriously considering what came after. And yet, Freda continuously assured Alice—or rather, Alvin J. Ward, her fiance—that their marriage would inspire fidelity, and she would embrace the virtues of true womanhood. Freda blithely encouraged the transition, never truly grasping the peril the terms of her engagement put her in.
Yeah, no shit, it was a youthful dalliance because Freda was youthful. And she probably didn’t expect that her peril would include her being murdered in the middle of the street. Way to blame the victim, Coe.
I’m being a bit harsh, I guess—it’s not like I don’t enjoy sordid murder stories, I just don’t like sordid murder stories transformed into cri de coeurs for a higher cause. Coe uses the whole affair to argue for the right to same-sex marriage (which, at the time the book was published, was illegal in Tennessee), utterly ignoring what Alice’s treatment of Freda says about the concept of marriage in itself. There have been plenty of committed same-sex partnerships throughout history, partners who uphold our best ideals of Western, modern marriage—a union that reinforces the love between two people. But this particular relationship highlights the dark side of marriage: the idea that partners somehow become each others’ property, and that there’s a “male” power role that somebody has to play. Do same-sex couples now have the same right to destroy their partners as men have over women in heterosexual marriage? Same-sex marriage is now legal in every state, but really… who would want to get married after reading this book? Are you sure that you’re not entering an outmoded institution that oppresses women and all those who have to play the “female” role, the female who must be dutiful at all times, who has to hold up the world but never leave the kitchen? Are you sure that you want to enter this patriarchal death trap? I’m tempted to side with the anarchists of old and declare for free love only.
* Also, there’s some really inept dropping of Foucault bombs, which makes me think that this was somebody’s Women’s Studies 102 final paper before it became a book. Girl, don’t think I don’t know you! With your Madness and Civilization!