Re-writing the “Master” Narrative:Sue Monk Kidd’s Journey to the Black Madonnaby Kathleen CaricoIt is hard to imagine that anyone who loves books inAmerica has not heard of The Secret Life of Bees(2002), by Sue Monk Kidd. It made the New YorkTimes bestseller list, and its professional reviews areglowing. Book clubs for adolescents have chosen it ashave book clubs for adults. The movie version wasrecently released, to the delight of its fans, myselfincluded. Numerous reasons make it compelling: thecharacters are unforgettable, the drama is real andhistoric, and the language, particularly main characterLily’s narration, is lyrical.However, even though I joined the millions ofreaders who love this book, I was vaguely irritated byone feature: the religious aspect as depicted in theworship of Black Mary, a statue that another of themain characters, August Boatwright, kept in her livingroom. I would have been happy with a psychologicalapproach to a story that showed the power of love andconnectedness, but I was not as happy with what Icould see only as a religious solution to the maincharacter’s problems.Having spent too many years oppressed byfundamentalist Christian doctrine, I initially thoughtthe book slightly marred by the devotion to the BlackMadonna. I knew that her message (delivered throughAugust to Lily Owens) represented the fullness ofeach one of us, our goodness, and our strength.However, I thought she also represented a tradition Ihad rejected and was still struggling to recover from,and I wondered why she had to be included.Then I read Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of theDissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey fromChristian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine (1996). Asa result, I came to understand much more clearly, Ibelieve, what Mary was intended to represent, and Iknew certainly that her presence in the novel wasWILLA Volume XVI 2007-2008essential and even desirable. In Mary, Sue Monk Kiddwas re-writing a master narrative, one she herselfstruggled to recognize and deconstruct in her memoir,The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. In this article, Itake a brief look at this master narrative and the twopeople who lived it, first, Sue Monk Kidd and thenLily Owens, the fourteen-year-old protagonist of TheSecret Life of Bees.The Master NarrativeOriginally stemming from the work of Jean-FrancoisLyotard, the meta- or grand narrative (what iscommonly referred to as the master narrative) is “thesupposedly transcendent and universal truths thatserve to justify and legitimate Western culture”(Bertens, 2002, p. 246). Rosen (2003) sees it as theone story that “generates all the other stories”(Paragraph 1). His application of the master narrativeto his own profession, journalism, provides a currentexample of how this might work:In standard coverage of political campaigns . . .the master narrative for a long time has beenwinning—who’s going to win, who seems to bewinning, what the candidates are doing to win,how much money it takes to win. . . . Winning,then, is the story that produces all (or almost all)the other stories, and when you figure in it youare likely to become news. (Paragraph 3)Lyotard’s examples of metanarratives, first discussedin 1984, include his arguments regarding the societaloutcomes of a political metanarrative versus aphilosophical one (Bertens, 2002). Since then, manyauthors have identified the existence of masternarratives within their own domains: Rosen’s mostrecent example in journalism; Aldridge’s (2006)21
Caricoexamination of history textbooks, particularly in theirrepresentation of Martin Luther King; Aguirre’s(2005) consideration of academe, especially as itlimits personal narrative; Lawless’s (2003)exploration of a transformed master narrative inreligion as women “shift the religious subject”; andRichardson’s (1997) analysis of modern literarytheory and its restrictive master narratives, to nameonly a few.It is Lawless’s look at the master narrative inreligion that is most directly relevant to the journeySue 1 takes in Dissident Daughter. Lawless restrictsher discussion primarily to Western culture and theChristian faith, and uses the term “religious masternarrative” to describe a narrative “in which males areprivileged by culture, society, and the church” (p. 61).Her study of women in the pulpit suggests that womencan disrupt the narrative “by their presence, voice, andexperience” (p. 62). It is both reminiscent of andperhaps a fulfillment of the implied promises in twogroundbreaking works on women’s issues. First,Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule’s Women’sWays of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice,and Mind (1986) shows a study of women, who arevery much like Sue Monk Kidd, whose naturalthinking and learning processes have been negated bya master narrative that does not include them. Second,Gilligan and Mikel Brown’s Meeting at theCrossroads (1992) shows adolescent girls, who arevery much like Lily Owens, who have learned toexchange natural discourses for those that are“approved.” Neither text mentions a master narrative,but both the younger and older women of each onelive under its oppression.The Dance of the Dissident DaughterThe religious master narrative as suggested byLawless (2003) is indeed the topic of Sue Monk1Convention would dictate the use of the last name, and inthis article, I began by using “Monk Kidd.” I was slightlyuncomfortable each time, and, in the spirit of the books Iam reviewing, I finally paid attention to the discomfort.“Monk Kidd” was not working, seeming at odds with thesubject as well as with the spirit of the journal I replaced itwith Sue, and, though it is a liberty I took, it is not meant tobe less formal or less respectful than Monk Kidd. It seemsmore connective.22Kidd’s memoir and the focus of her journey. Sue wasraised in a Southern Baptist Church, and as an adultwas married to a Southern Baptist minister whoserved as a chaplain at their local university. Shetaught Sunday School and, of course, attended churchregularly. In her context (as well as in my formercontext), the term “master” narrative is a mostrelevant and also most tragic pun: Jesus is oftenreferred to in the New Testament as “Master”; man issaid to be the “head” (master) of the wife; man is tohave dominion (mastery) over the earth and subdue it.Thus, humans, animals, and the earth are all to begoverned by the male of the human species, and, toreinforce that, the governing deity is masculine. Rosen(2003) writes, “the longer [the master narrative] hangsaround the more natural the thing seems” (Paragraph10). This particular religious master narrative has been“hanging around” for approximately 2000 years, timeenough to perfect a framework that answers almostany life question or concern with a response thatderives “naturally” from its structure.The Dissident Daughter chronicles Sue’s processas she re-writes this narrative, and she maps thejourney in four stages, shown here only in the mostcursory of summaries: the recognition of a “femininewound” and her struggle to conceive a “feminine self”(Part One: Awakening); her introduction to the“feminine divine” through her exploration of mythsand dreams (Part Two, Initiation); her conscientiousstudy of the Divine Feminine through researching“Goddess” in ancient history (Part Three: Grounding);and her exercise of and experiences with the newpower that her journey opened up to her (Part Four:Empowerment). Parts Two and Three are mostrelevant to the later discussion of Black Mary fromThe Secret Life of Bees, so here I will elaborate brieflyon them.Dreams, Images, Messages, and VisitationsAlthough the focus is on Parts Two and Three, I dipback into Part One to begin a discussion of dreamsthat will continue throughout the book. Sue writes thateven before starting her journey toward the “SacredFeminine” she had made a habit of writing down herdreams, “believing . . . that one of the purest sourcesof knowledge about our lives comes from the symbolsWILLA Volume XVI 2007-2008
Caricoand images deep within” (p. 11). It is through a dreamthat her feminist awakening begins, a dream in whichshe sees herself pregnant with, then giving birth toherself. Clearly always a thinker and learner, shemuses on her dream, wondering what kind of personthe baby girl would grow up to be. In anticipation ofthe events to occur following her “birth,” she buys anew journal—a pink one.Sue’s dreams continue. In one, she is standingoutside her church, where an old woman appears toher, holding a walking stick with a snake woundaround it. She admonishes Sue to consider where herchurch is taking her. The old woman would appearoften in later dreams. On other occasions, Sue dreamsof red snakes (another recurring image); of labyrinths;of a figure she called the “Bishop,” whom sherecognizes as an authority figure who wishes to keepher in submission to male authority; and of Nefertiti,the long-necked, Egyptian queen, a symbol to Sue thatshe is “sticking her neck out” quite precariously in thisnew venture. Sue begins to research her dreams inearnest, visiting libraries, bookstores, and museums,and she enters Jungian analysis to receive clinical helpin understanding their meaning for her.Dreams can reveal the power and intelligence ofour subconscious and of humans’ connectedness toeach other—even across the centuries. Sue’sintelligent subconscious showed her the Bishop, whosymbolized her anxiety over leaving behind thereligious tradition she had been steeped in her wholelife. Bringing it out into the open helped her face itand release it. Her subconscious also showed herimages and symbols of the sacred feminine that wouldconnect her eventually to the Feminine Divine. Sheeven found an artistic rendering of the red snakes ofher dream in a picture of two statues, one holding ared snake over her head and the other with a snakewound about her arm. The statues were from theMinoan culture, and this discovery led her to a studyof Greek myths, particularly the myth of Ariadne,which would connect with her labyrinth images andprovide her with a metaphor to guide her journey insteady and reliable, yet miraculous ways.WILLA Volume XVI 2007-2008The Feminine in Christian TraditionA next major step for Sue was an effort to trace thefeminine in historical accounts of the Christiantradition. It began with her study of the Goddess asthe female deity: “I began to discover that for manythousands of years before the rise of the Hebrewreligion, in virtually every culture of the world, peopleworshiped the Supreme Being in the form of a femaledeity—the Great Goddess” (p. 134). At some pointduring this time of exploration, the idea of femalesacredness and power—of Goddess—began to feelreal to her, and the reality was manifested to her as adeep feeling of love.Sue walked further into this reality as she lookedinto the Hebrew tradition and the Old and NewTestaments for any signs of a Feminine Divine. Shefound them: Wisdom personified as a woman;Wisdom known as Sophia; Sophia becoming Christ;Christ referring to Mary as “his divine Mother, theHoly Spirit” (pp. 146-152).The Secret Life of BeesThe entirety of The Secret Life of Bees is premised onthe sacredness of the female, a tradition that is quiterecessive in the genes of Western Christian life andthought. Western Christianity has a powerful tradition(master narrative) which requires a powerfuldislodging (major revision). Sue’s dreams, sprungfrom her subconscious, were powerful enough topropel her on a journey to find who she was, howvaluable she was, and what she wanted. Sue’sjourney, though for different reasons, was also Lily’sjourney. A full, functional, loved human existence forboth depended on its outcome.Lily Seeks Her MotherThe novel starts with a journey, of Lily Owens and hercaretaker Rosaleen, a large, African-American womanwho must flee Lily’s peach farm in Sylvan, SouthCarolina, because of Rosaleen’s altercation with threewhite racists over her attempt to register to vote. It is1964, and the Civil Rights Act has just been passed.Even though Rosaleen now has a legal right to vote,Lily knows she will not be protected from the anger ofthe racists in town and that her life is truly in danger.23
CaricoAt the same time, Lily has had enough of her father’scruelty and decides to run away and take Rosaleenwith her. Lily is led only by the name of a town,Tiburon, South Carolina, written on the back of whatseems to be a decoupaged picture of a BlackMadonna, one of the few belongings Lily has of hermother’s. Tiburon holds the only clue for Lily in herquest to discover her mother, killed ten years earlier ina horrible accident. Arriving in Tiburon, Lily stops ata store where she spots jars of honey with the samepicture of the Black Madonna she used to choose herdestination. The Black Madonna honey is made bybeekeeper August Boatwright and her two sisters,May and June, who live together in a hot pink houseoutside of Tiburon. Lily and Rosaleen travel there andtake refuge.Lily is an adolescent in crisis. She has no friendsand feels love from no one except Rosaleen, and thedistress she feels as a constant undercurrent in her lifekeeps Rosaleen’s love from being sufficient. Herfather T. Ray is physically and verbally abusive; she ispoor; and she has a great hole in her heart since hermother’s death, which has also left her with manyquestions: Is it true, as her father says, that her motherleft her a few months before her death? How did hermother die? Did Lily really accidentally kill her?Then, after she finds the Boatwright’s, she has morequestions to add: What will happen when they find outthe truth about her? Will they still love her? What willhappen to Rosaleen if the police should discoverthem?Landing at the Boatwright’s is almost a fairy talefor Lily. Rosaleen is safe; Lily and she findthemselves useful to the three sisters and happy to beso; Lily makes a friend in the teenage boy who worksfor August; and both find genuine love from theBoatwright’s. However, Lily still liv
The Dissident Daughter chronicles Sue’s process as she re-writes this narrative, and she maps the journey in four stages, shown here only in the most cursory of summaries: the recognition of a “feminine wound” and her struggle to conceive a “feminine self” (Part One: Awakening); her introduction to the
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