Author’s note: there are spoilers in this review.
I treated Sarah Doughty’s Just Breathe the way I treat any book that holds my fascination – if books could speak the Holy Bible and Webster’s Advanced Dictionary wouldn’t want me near them. First, I read the novel three times, put it down for a couple of days, returned to it, reread it, put it down again, and returned to it today, reread it, and now I am ready to review it. I do this when I want to carry a book around in my head, as a source of reference – this novel is that good. Plus, after what I have put it through in one week I didn’t feel the book wanted me near it – I feel Sarah Doughty’s novel needs to just breathe.
What fascinates me about the novel is Doughty’s knowledge of witches. Through my second reading I realized this has to be some sort of autobiography. I remember texting Doughty while going through the novel the second time to ask, ‘Are you a witch?’ she said ‘No.’ I don’t believe her. That’s how real this supposed fantasy is. The characters live off the pages – from Aisling, to Angela, to Connor, to the adorable were-dog, Shadow, to Zoe, to the venerable vampire, Liam, to the despicable step-father, Martin, to the ‘lawnmower’, the cat, Bugs, who breathes like he is dying. All very real, all very impressively developed. I love it when a writer pays attention to every character. The late Nigerian playwright, Ola Rotimi, holds a place of fascination with me. He was able to achieve filmic effects in his plays by the way he developed each and every character and the action – Doughty did this in Just Breathe. Even the triplet pixies, Bubba, Baby, and Bogsley, were given proper treatment. Through Doughty’s treatment, I am starting to believe, like Aisling that “Pixies are real,” (55). That said, my job here is to write a review, and to do that I will first consider the novel as an autobiography.
I do recognize that all great fiction is autobiographical since authors write most effectively about what they know. And I also do recognize that Just Breathe is a combination of several halves – an autobiography, a bildungsroman, a fantasy novel, and an abuse/feminist narrative. The last half is where I find the scatterings of autobiography in Just Breathe. But, to what extent Just Breathe is fiction infused with autobiography or autobiography infused with fiction and fantasy is debatable, but the interplay of these two modes of writing pervades the text. Consider this, Aisling Green is a writer who was made to consider herself not good enough to breathe, let alone write, lives in Indiana, had/has a dog, and has a friend who has a psychotic cat. Also, although one can read the text successfully without any prior knowledge of Sarah Doughty’s personal history, the added knowledge that, Doughty “lives in Indiana with her husband, son, an aging dog, and psychotic cat,” reveals to the reader an undeniably autobiographical aspect of the text – the story is based in Indiana, but it is especially in Aisling’s relations with her step-father, his abusive treatment of her, and the consequent ptsd effects on her as an adult that I find undeniable autobiographical traits. I believe Doughty is able to describe Aisling’s life and contestations with her flashbacks with such impeccable detail and vividness partially because of her autobiographical connection to the text. And, it has to be said that Doughty’s ability to meld both fact and fiction into one narrative so delicately woven and infused with life yields a masterpiece, indeed. However, while noting the autobiographical details, I wish to provide here a restricted feminist reading of the text.
Just Breathe tells the story of a twenty-year old girl, Aisling Green, who has just lost her grandmother, a witch, having previously lost her mother, also a witch. At the time her grandmother passes, Aisling is unaware of her status as an Earthen witch. Her grandmother, in fact, dies so she can attain her full potential as an Earthen witch. An act that introduces the concept of sacrifice that runs throughout the novel. Hence, with the help of Angela, her best friend, Connor, her mentor/lover, and the 300-year-old vampire, Liam, she discovers herself, and is finally able to harness and use her powers as a pure Earthen witch to destroy her abusive step-father, and the angry Zoe, Connor’s scorned ex-lover. However, it is in her interactions with her abusive step-father, a witch-hunter, her lover/mate, Connor, and the vampire who helps extract her powers, Liam, that we notice aspects of the feminist narrative in this novel.
Feminist criticism concerns itself with “…the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (Tyson 2015, p. 79). Feminist criticism focuses on how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated) and “…this critique strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing about women” (Richter 1346). To many cultures, feminist literature has brought a re-evaluation of the role and status of their women and girls, and the conditions under which custom prescribes that they must live (and suffer). Just Breathe, in my opinion, provides insight into child abuse, but Doughty goes further than a cursory feminist critique of aspects of the social practice of female abuse. She broaches also the seamier, oft ignored manifestations of such abuse on those who receive it. Just Breathe examines: the beating of women – Aisling says, “I never knew my real father. Martin was my step-father. He married my mother when I was three, and started beating me almost immediately after. My mother never knew and only left him because he beat her one night when I was eight.” (Ch 11, 48); child grooming – “He grunted and rubbed the bulge at the front of his pants. I looked away, trying not to gag. “You will be a damn fine treat in a few years, won’t you, darlin’?” (Ch 22, 88); “Your step-father murdered your mother, Aisling. He wants you now. Tell me, did he ever tell you how much he wants? … He taught you who you really were, did he not?” (Ch 31, 126); transfer of hatred from wife/mother to child – “You’re sorry? You’re always fucking sorry,” he said with another kick to my hip. “Sorry doesn’t cut it, girl. You are nothing. You aren’t even worth the air you breathe … Daddy loved this part. Making me wait for the first blow. He said it was like Christmas morning. I held up my arms and covered my face, squeezing my eyes closed, and waited. Daddy wasn’t careful with where he hit me. I would have visible bruises the next morning to try to cover up. Again. After a while, when there was nothing left but him and me and the pain, Daddy punched my head and my vision went black,” (88). It is not just the description of the abuse in this passage that is bile-engendering, it is the child’s constant refrain, “daddy,” that gets your blood boiling as a reader. So you can imagine, being a witch, living in constant fear of discovery and destruction, her horror when finds out who her chief pursuant is. “[T]he leader believes he was sent on a mission from God to gather power for a higher purpose … He’s reported finding someone he believes is Earthen. Pure Earthen … Aisling, the leader is your step-father,” (Ch 27, 111-112). Or the pain of finding out from the vampire, Liam, that her step-father also killed her mother. “She came to me when she realized someone close to her learned her secret … I agreed to help … I believed it would take more time for them to investigate.” He shook his head solemnly. “She was dead two days later.” Anger crept into his voice, “Yes, indeed, your step-father was the murderer,” (Ch 29, 120). Doughty also captures the sheer brutality of this man in her graphic description of his nonchalance while inflicting pain on Jackson, young Aisling’s dog. “He kicked Jackson in the side and a bone snapped. An agonized yelp filled the silence … Jackson was on the floor, wheezing and whimpering. I whimpered with him … Your mutt just ate antifreeze, and he’s going to die. Slow and painfully … This is going to be fun to watch,” he said as he walked away and settled into his chair. He took a long gulp of beer and turned on the television to watch football. I rubbed Jackson’s fur, careful to avoid his broken rib. By the time my mother got home, I was frantic, sobbing, and trying desperately to help the suffering dog. Jackson’s screams were haunting. Not a howl. Not a whimper. They were screams,” (Ch 36, 143-144). This brutal torture of an animal Aisling is fond of is repeated at the beginning of Chapter 50 (190-191) when he tortures Shadow with kicks that break his ribs after poisoning him, as he did with Jackson, with anti-freeze. Though the main focus of the abuse of women is from Martin, Just Breathe takes us through the three recognizable stages of feminism that expose more abuse from the other two men in Aisling’s life – Connor and Liam.
Feminists subscribe to no single doctrine or set of goals. All are united, however, by a belief that women have historically occupied a subordinate position in politics, education, and the economic system. Modern feminist thought traces its roots to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). The book traces the assumptions, customs, educational practices, jokes, laws, and modes of speech that socialize young women to believe that they are inferior beings. For instance, we already know her step-father tells her, “You are nothing. You aren’t even worth the air you breathe,” (Ch 22, 88). Discussing why she is the way she is, Aisling tells Connor later, “… I know it’s illogical and stupid for me to believe, but it’s just one of those things I was told over and over again while I was little … That I was worthless. I wasn’t worth the air I breathed, stuff like that,” (Ch 25, 97). Aisling is so broken she says “I’m sorry” forty-five (45) times in this novel – to Connor, to Liam, to Angela, to Shadow, to the pixies, to even the people that died while trying to kill her. forty-five times! She is so damaged cries at every opportunity. It gets so bad Connor has to tell her at some point, “Stop saying you’re sorry for crying,” (46) and right at the end of the novel “You have nothing to be sorry for. I was the one that didn’t understand what was happening,” (Ch 58, 213). The torturous scenes with her step-father that rendered her a ‘damaged’ being is conjured up again later. “Tell me, Aisling. Did you tell Connor everything your step-father said? Everything he did to you? Everything he planned?” Anger washed over me … All I cared about was shutting up the voice of my step-father as he spoke to me in my bedroom. He tore me down physically. Until I was broken. He tore me down mentally and emotionally. Until I believed everything he ever said. It was in preparation for my adolescence. An image of him flashed in my mind. “Stop!” I screamed with what sounded like a thousand voices that reverberated from my body. Several fluorescent lights exploded from above, sparks and glass raining to the ground around me. My hands sparked and crackled with little bolts of electricity as I glared at Liam. Connor turned as much as his position on the mat would allow and froze with a gasp … Liam smiled back at me. He crossed the line. He forced me to acknowledge inside myself what I refused to see. “There is your power, Aisling,” (Ch 31, 127-128). To get her to achieve her maximum power, Liam has to force her to break the hold her step-father has over her by recalling how he made her feel inferior. “He rubbed himself through the front of his pants and said, “You will be a damn fine treat in a few years, won’t you darlin’?“ (Ch 31, 127); “Just like I hoped, my step-father couldn’t resist taking control. Since Connor and I went to stay at Liam’s home I thought a lot about my step-father’s actions. He demanded control, kept me quiet, never wanted me to talk back to him. He got off on fear. That’s one of the reasons I was so attractive to him when I was a child. I wasn’t playing by his rules anymore. And I intended to throw him off his game,” (Ch 51, 194-195); and “My step-father loved it when he broke me down. Reduced me to cries, whimpers, and apologies,” (Ch 53, 200). There’s no doubt that her step-father succeeded in making her feel inferior, and damaging her being – but it is (more) painful that she is aware of it. In her own words, “I’m damaged,” (Ch 17, 72-73)
However, it is with her bond to Connor that the bigger inference of inferiority, though subtle, is made. “When you bound yourself, you said those witches attacked you and something stopped them … That’s a defense mechanism that some of the Earthens had. The shield is actually one of the more rare traits … I know this is going to sound strange, but I think Connor was supposed to help you, that’s why you don’t have it. Fate is mentioned quite a bit in the lore,” (Ch 28, 114); “Connor had a defense mechanism called shield, which protected him from magical attacks meant to harm or kill him. Being at the wrong end of Zoe’s wrath verified that shield was not something I possessed,” (116). And when Zoe freezes her mind and she almost dies, Connor comes to her rescue. “I was hoping you would borrow my shield. It worked,” (Ch 34, 139). Without Connor, Aisling is a vulnerable, incomplete Earthen witch, her awe-inspiring powers, notwithstanding. This has to be the height of the imposition of inferiority on a person, any person. Forget being an incomplete witch, without Connor Aisling is an unfulfilled being. This leads to my next point – women as unfulfilled beings.
A decade and a half later, Betty Friedan made another important contribution to the development of feminist ideology. In The Feminine Mystique, she analyzed and criticized the role of educators, psychologists, sociologists, and the mass media in conditioning women to believe that they could only find fulfillment as housewives and mothers. By requiring women to subordinate their own individual aspirations to the welfare of their husbands and children, the “feminine mystique” prevented women from achieving self-fulfillment. First, there is Aisling’s description of how Connor makes her feel and his worth to her (183-184). And then, “Aisling, open your eyes,” … I opened my eyes and saw Connor wasn’t kneeling. He was standing, arms in the air, touching my hands as I levitated about three feet off the ground … “Feel it, Aisling. Feel it.” I could feel it alright. I felt love. For Connor. For everything he was. And he was everything to me … “That, my dear Aisling,” Liam said, “is how you will defeat the Malleus … Connor was always the key to unlocking your power, Aisling. I had to show you what you could do without it. But he was always the answer … That is how you will survive.” I nodded, looked back to Connor, and smiled. It was him all along,” (184-185). As a woman, her survival is tied to her love for Connor. So, without this (sexual) attachment to Connor, she cannot be self-fulfilled – all she is is a self-willing sex object.
In the years following the publication of The Feminine Mystique, feminists developed a large body of literature analyzing the economic, psychological, and social roots of female subordination. It was not until 1970, however, that the more radical feminist writings reached the broader reading public with the publication of Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. These books argue that gender distinctions structure virtually every aspect of individual lives, not only in such areas as law and employment, but also in personal relationships, language, literature, religion, and an individual’s internalized self-perceptions. Even more controversially, these works attributed female oppression to men and an ideology of male supremacy. “Women have very little idea how much men hate them,” declares Greer. As examples of misogyny these authors cite pornography, grotesque portrayals of women in literature, sexual harassment, wife abuse, and rape. There is no need going over what Martin did to Aisling, but suffice to say he kills his wife, Aisling’s mother, grooms Aisling as a sex object, and continues this with Zoe. “It’s too bad you’re not the girl I wanted you to be. But Zoe makes up for that nicely.” Walking to her … he grabbed one of her breasts and squeezed it roughly. Pain flashed across her face before she forced it away. He dropped his hand and stepped behind her, bending down so his face was next to hers, and watched me. Our eyes locked and I waited … He took a deep breath and smelled her hair. Then he slid his hands up her arms in a sensuous caress and leaned back. In one swift motion, he snapped her neck. There was a collective gasp as most of the dark witches and I watched Zoe’s lifeless body fall to the ground,” (Ch 54, 203-204); “My step-father just killed his most powerful witch. He killed Connor’s ex-girlfriend. He didn’t take her power either. How did he expect to become the most powerful being in existence without her?” (204). Martin is after all, an archetypal male – obsessed with power, afraid to share power, incapable, when it stares him in the face, of recognizing real power, “You are the most irresponsible person I’ve ever met. You are your own class of moron. One of the first things a witch ever learns is that a spell will dissolve when the witch who cast it dies — unless that witch designs it to last beyond the grave,” (204). The most audacious of male dominance in this novel has to be when Liam says “You must never accept blood from another vampire. Understood?” Liam asked. I assessed the vampire in front of me. Was his ego that big that he wanted to be my personal blood supply? Maybe it was just a dominance thing. And god help me, but I was beginning to like the bastard. My eyes narrowed, “Why?” “Because I said so, Aisling,” (Ch 45, 173).
There is some kind of poetic justice in the end when Martin unwittingly robs himself of power by killing Zoe who had conjured a spell to destroy Aisling. The spell is rendered ineffective because, “a spell will dissolve when the witch who cast it dies — unless that witch designs it to last beyond the grave,” (Ch 54, 204). And when Aisling kills her step-father, she says “I bind you to the Earth, Martin,” (207). In case this point is missed, the earth is a woman in popular folklore.
I learnt a lot of lessons reading this text: I learnt something about binding spells – “Binding spells are like blessings. The witch blesses the moon, and the moon grants power … “Binding spells are to be done at sites that hold extreme significance to the person doing the Spell,” (27); I learnt that witches use sight – “Seeing through the eyes of something else,” (31, 38-39, 77). For instance, Aisling reading Connor’s thoughts and seeing things from his perspective – even in dream sequences; I learnt that were-animals cannot be killed by bullets (91) – they can only be killed by using iron ore (98); I learnt something about the Kramer Scholars who hell-bent on eliminating witches (91); I learnt that others cannot get any diseases or infections (99); I learnt that vampires can have children and how they are made (99); I learnt that vampires like the long game, “… a con. They take their time, lure someone in for whatever reason, and get them right where they want them. Because they’re immortal, sometimes they’ll wait months, sometimes years to get what they’re after. They’re very, very patient,” (116); I learnt that vampire blood heals them and humans (173); and I learnt something about linking (191), for instance, when the soul of one (Aisling) is linked to that of another (Shadow), so any pain inflicted on the one is inflicted vicariously on the other. “How was that linking spell, by the way? You must’ve stopped it pretty quick, because you aren’t bloodied up and wheezing like you should. If you ask me, it looks much better on you anyway,” (199).
Last thoughts: phenomenal writing, great knowledge of subject matter, deft handling of recurring themes, vivid characters, evocative narration of abuse – one word, brilliant. It was uplifting to see that Aisling finally finds a way to beat her troubling flashbacks about her step-father – “Liam was a genius. I was glad that we spent ten days with him and his nest of vampires getting my ass handed to me. It was a very effective tool to curb the flashbacks,” (203). Just one last thing – and this is not in condemnation of the work, but a reminder that as Doughty herself says, Others have more stamina than humans – sexually. “It made sense that witches didn’t operate under the same physiological limitations of humans. Witches needed the strength and stamina to use magic,” (106). I heard a while back of a certain Spanish singing hombre who has sex everyday, and that this is an open secret. I wondered at the time what happens when he spends a day away from his woman? We have to be grateful the Guinness Book of World Records hasn’t decided to turn this into a ‘sport’. Creatively, Doughty is doing her darnedest to give them something to consider. The pace of the novel is breathtaking – the fight scenes, the training scenes, the love-making scenes. This may just be my puritanical mind getting agitated here, but this novel is littered with detailed love-making scenes. One such scenes in this novel lasted 12 pages – right from Chapter 39, through Chapters 41 to Chapter 42. At the end I was pleasurably exhausted – and I needed to just breathe.
F-K Omoregie 2016