I have several unplanned novels in my writing bank, Gentle Reader, and some, I don’t think I’ll ever get to. They were ideas, first ideas, some smart, some silly, some ridiculous, but I’ve kept them, over the years, to see if I ever find any moving toward fruition.
There’s the End of the World novel in which Humanities scholars save the world, instead of the STEM scholars they usually call. Led by a Robert Browning scholar, this band of liberal arts misfits find themselves pulled together by the President Herself to save the world.
That one’s my favorite of the unfinished drafts. I just never got around to writing it, and then, McSweeney’s did a parody of a similar plotline, so it felt unnecessary after that.
I’ve others, too, a dozen, dozen and a half of started novels, unfinished attempts, that may never see the light of day. But for now, please enjoy the first chapter of HYSTERIA:
“So when it’s all boiled down, hysteria was considered strictly a feminine malady. The term itself comes directly from the Greek word for female, or womb. A woman gets a hysterectomy, for example, which removes all of her reproductive organs.”
There was a murmured undertone throughout the class. A sort of “aha” moment.
“So if it is a strictly feminine malady, then it would be impossible for men to be hysterical, right?” I clicked the remote for the slideshow and presented a photograph of W.R.R. Rivers. “But in World War I, tens of thousands of men were sent to hospitals suffering from symptoms similar to hysteria. So what did they do?”
“They changed the name?” a student said, from somewhere in the fourth row.
“They changed the name.” I gestured the remote at the screen. “W.R.R. Rivers was a psychiatrist who treated many of these men who suffered, not from hysteria, but from shell shock. Later in the twentieth century, it would be called Gulf War Syndrome, then post-traumatic stress disorder.” I clicked the remote again. “And there were cures, hundreds of cures. Hydrotherapy, massage therapy, a wacky new therapy that suggested talking to patients called psychotherapy, or psychiatry, thanks to Papa Freud.”
There was a collective titter from the student body. I moved past the slide of Freud and a blank screen confronted us. “Forced hysterectomies, clitorectomies, sexual abuse through massage of the genitalia, incarceration, lobotomies, confinement to mental institutions, the nineteenth century thought of any manner of nastiness to subject hysterical women to.” I nodded to my graduate student, Ankh, and she turned on the lights. “But why only middle-class white women? Is it because working class women didn’t have time for histrionics? Or because centuries of gendered oppression finally caught up with the middle class? One thing’s constant.” I set the remote down and turned to face my class. “Society is all too willing to discount disease, medical issues, and mental illness that seem particular to women. Even now. Ask yourself why Viagra is covered by most health insurance companies, but birth control is not.”
The class began to shift in their seats as the rustling of paper became almost overwhelming. Time was almost up. A door opened in the back of the room and several heads swiveled around to see.
I followed their gazes and caught sight of three men, in varying shapes and sizes, standing. All three wore black suits with dark ties, and dark sunglasses. A throat cleared next to me, and I shifted my gaze to Ankh. She bustled forward, a large stack of papers in her hand. “Right,” I said in a soft voice, before I turned back to my class. “Your next paper assignment. Choose one of the following short stories and write a brilliant 2,500 word analysis adhering to a psychological and feminist theoretical approach. Keep in mind the history of hysteria while you write. At least four outside sources are required, and all must be valid academic resources. Wikipedia does not count. And please, let me urge you, plagiarize at your own peril.” I gave them a grave smile. “We check, guys. Every single paper.”
Ankh began distributing the assignments, and I rattled off titles of short stories. “‘Story of an Hour,’ Kate Chopin,” I said. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman. ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’, Joyce Carol Oates. Or, finally, “All My Darling Daughters,’ Connie Willis. For the brave and bold among you, you may attempt to write about two of the stories at once. But only if you’re very, very brave. And that’s it. See you guys next week.” A wave of titters rose and fell again, across the class, from left to right. Then chaos ensued as the mass exodus began, up the stairs to the back of the lecture hall, past the dark men in their dark suits, who were heading down the stairs, straight to me.
“Dr. Kinsey?” Ankh asked, her voice small and questioning.
“I have no idea, kiddo. Believe me, I’m as lost as you.” We both watched the men approach and I wracked my brain, trying to figure out why exactly spooks would come to see me now, during class time.
“Dr. Kinsey?” the shortest one asked when they reached us. And then all three flashed their IDs, in unison.
I was wrong. Only one was CIA. He was the tallest. The shortest was FBI, and the middling one was Secret Service. “May I help you?” I asked.
“Are you Dr. Romola Kinsey?” Secret Service asked.
“You’re in my classroom. Why don’t you tell me?” I began shuffling the papers on my desk, while ignoring Ankh’s slackjawed look. She hadn’t been my graduate student last year. This kind of thing was actually new to her.
CIA cleared his throat and moved forward. “Dr. Kinsey, we need you to come with us.”
“Is it a matter of national security?” I was joking, of course. Joking was an automatic response from me, during times of crisis. And this seemed to be such a time. There were very few reasons these men would come to talk with me, and really only one I could think of. If they were coming with that news, then, well, I didn’t want to hear it. Not now. Not in front of Ankh.
CIA’s face was grave, under those glasses. “It is, ma’am. Please, we must ask you to come with us, posthaste.”
It was the posthaste that did it. The strange archaic little adverb that made my face crumple. “Is it Gwen?” I asked in a soft voice. “Is she okay?”
They all exchanged a look, but it was CIA, again, who spoke. “No, ma’am. Your sister’s fine. But I’m afraid we have a graver issue at hand. You’re not in any trouble. We’re merely here to ask for your expertise.” He shot a glance at Ankh, and she began wiping the dry erase board with a fury to be reckoned with. “That’s all I can say in front of a civilian.”
“Ankh?” My voice was soft. “Could you man office hours for me today? Just take everything up with you, and I’ll be in touch later.”
“Are you sure?” She shuffled and the long skirts of her orange wrap dress whispered against her legs. Her cheeks flushed, as if she were appalled at the sound.
“I am.” I gave her a reassuring smile. “Go ahead. I’ll drop you a line tonight.”
She darted one final look at the suits, then clutched the remainder of the handouts to her chest and half-ran from the lecture hall.
As soon as she was gone, I edged against the desk and rested my hip on it. “I need to see some credentials before I go anywhere with you.”
“We’ve already shown you our IDs,” Secret Service said.
“No,” I said. “I want to see proof.”
FBI was the first to move forward. He handed me his ID again, and a piece of thick linen paper folded into thirds. I opened it and read a memo, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, asking one Clifton Balliol to head to College Station and pick me up. “For a matter of utmost national security,” it read. Then Secret Service turned his over, different name, similar letter. After I finished with Donald Hastings’ badge, I turned to CIA.
“Rhys Lindsay,” he said, and passed me his letter. This one was straight from Senator Butler herself, and demanded my immediate presence in Washington.
When I handed back his information, I saw that my hand was shaking. Not surprising, but perhaps more emotion than one wanted to demonstrate to the Feds, the spooks, and the thugs all at once. “This is all well and good, but I’m afraid I still don’t understand. I’m an English professor. What possible expertise could I have that would help a threat to national security? What, did Robert Browning come back from the dead and hook up with a terrorist cell? Is George Eliot leading an army of militant feminists through time?”
“I’m afraid we can’t answer those questions,” Secret Service—Donald Hastings—said. “Because as of 0915 this morning, your security clearance became higher than ours.”
I remembered CIA—Rhys?—taking my arm as I began to list towards the ground. Then something sharp and ammoniac assaulted my nostrils. Smelling salts, I suppose. How ironic that a women’s literature professor should need smelling salts. But my last thought of clear consciousness was simply that if my graduate students were playing an elaborate prank on me, they were doing a damn fine job. Then, I didn’t remember anything at all.