Notable American Women

Notable American Women


The first documented instance of the Female Jesus appears in England in the form of a seven-year-old girl. Using rapid clapping and tongue clicks, the girl lures various species of birds from hundreds of miles away, who assume a circle of protection around her and raise a field of sharp wind in the area. When her father attempts to rescue her, the birds are able to beat out a rudimentary language of ricocheted wind to command his own hand against him, and he dies, a suicide. Several male witnesses also die, and the air that the birds have stirred with their wings remains sharply turbulent at the seaside site for the next five years, repelling any men who try to approach. This form of barrier comes to be known as "Jesus Wind." It will be used against men, together with a clear sock covering women's heads, to neutralize their language at the End of sound protest in 1974.

Finland proposes a separate language for women, becoming the first European nation to do so; all men and women twenty-four years and older not considered suicide risks are fitted with a Brown Hat, to enable or prevent them from performing the new language. The Brown Hat, in women, is fitted into the mouth to allow a broader range of vowel production, which is considered a vastly unfulfilled potential of women (see The Vowelists, 1940). The flesh-colored apparatus is meant to camouflage the head. For a time, it becomes a symbol of status and wealth; streamlined designs create striking new possibilities for the human head, accentuating its animal shape. Women in Finland seen without the facial gear are considered incompletely attired and are refused admission to the black-tie Head Theater conducted in the countryside. Men are to utilize a smaller, darker Brown Hat (the Carl Rogers Cage), resembling a bridle, which will restrict their vowel production and crimp the skin of the upper face to narrow the ear canals, deafening them to the new language. Both men and women will be advised to speak nightly messages of personal import into a cloth screen that will be used to test for a possible chemical element of language (see Language Poultice, Shame Towel, Prayer Rag, 1962). No chemical difference is discovered between the speech of the sexes, only a marked absence of water in each, which will prove to be vital for later projects of the Listening Group, who will add water to its language filters, Brown Hats, or Thompson Masks in order to scramble or falsely translate their speech.

The American Naming Authority, a collective of women studying the effects of names on behavior, decrees that a name should only have one user. The nearly 1 million American users of the name Mary, for example, do not constitute a unified army who might slaughter all users of the name Nancy, as was earlier supposed, but rather a saturation of the Mary Potential Quotient. Simply stated: Too many women with the same name produces widespread mediocrity and fatigue. A competition of field events, centering around deployment of a forty-pound medicine ball into hoops and holes, is proposed to determine which women shall rightly hold the title of their name, with all losers in the same-name category to be designated as helpers-subsets--of the winner, forced to wear wind socks or hip weights to slow down their progress, enslaved to the first Mary, the first Nancy, the first Julia, as the case may be. Parents still able to name their children begin to seek either unique names or names that are considered neutral by the authority, such as Jesus and Smith. Many girls are given the name Jesus Smith, which, when pronounced as an all-vowel slogan, becomes a crucial new word in the Silentist movement, and is also possibly responsible for enabling the new strains of female behaviors seen at this time.

Boston widow Claire Dougherty is arrested on her doorstep October 3 by detective Sherman Greer as she tries to swallow a coded message. In prison, she refuses to speak and appears to suffer at hearing any kind of sound, a condition termed Listener's Disease, in which even sounds produced by her own body appear to cause her agony. She must wear a soundproof suit and a life helmet. State doctors report that there is nothing unusual in Dougherty's hearing, but they agree to relieve her with a quiet cell in the prison and a full-body muffle, later termed a Claire Mitten and worn by young girls who are sickened or distraught at the sound of their own voices. Before she dies, in November, she writes in a letter to her daughter that ". . . a new sound is upon the world. We have erred greatly and will be killed for it. Look to the soil, for the sound to me was beneath it. Walk slow or do not walk. Hide. Duck. Listen." Detective Greer, the arresting officer, will die a year later, complaining of a "sharp noise" in the water near his home. His cause of death is listed as exhaustion. The two deaths will launch several studies of diseases caused by sound, and Greer's wife will later appear in the streets of Boston wearing an executioner's hood. Her body, upon examination, will reveal heavily damaged ears.

A woman is found collapsed in a field, her arms sheathed in metal sleeves, nearly burned down to the bone. Her mouth is void of teeth and likewise charred. When a microphone is held to her skin during a routine exam by a Listener, muted voices and noise can be heard, suggesting her body has been crushed or otherwise altered with sound. During the same month, a caravan of women is intercepted by the Texas Mounted Police. Among their possessions are found a set of foil-lined sleeves and leather hoods, which the women will only say are used to "fight sound." When they are addressed during a group interrogation, they use quick actions with their hands to nearly silence the questions coming at them. The turbulence they generate with their limbs is recognized as Jesus Wind. They are apparently able to quiet the local sounds in a room simply by making shapes with their hands. A child Jane Dark is among them, who demonstrates that by standing next to a passing train and engaging in an odd form of gymnastic pantomime that appears part karate, part dance, the girl can mute the forceful racket of the train so that it passes by in virtual silence. Late in her life, it will be this talent that will prevent her from hearing even her own voice, as the orbiting wind of silence she herself has created becomes so potent that it can no longer be penetrated, and she appears to the people around her as a character in a silent movie. She can neither speak nor be spoken to, a deprivation of language that causes her hands to wither.

The Women's National Pantomime group gathers on an athletic field in Dulls Falls, Wisconsin, for their largest event since their inception in 1946. Fifteen new gestures are introduced by the group leader, a slender teenager named Jane Dark, and so many women suffer seizures and vomiting after performing the difficult new movements that the local hospitals cannot contain them and Ms. Dark is forced into hiding. Four women die, while many others turn in their memberships in protest. The wounded women are so disoriented that they must relearn basic movements such as walking and kneeling, drinking and sleeping. The men's chapter of the Pantomime Association publicly renounces Dark and her followers, calling her modifications harmful and contrary to the chief purpose of Pantomime, which is to entertain. Dark explains that her fierce group of aggressively silent women will no longer exist to glorify the "false promise" of silent motion, or Pantomime, but will instead attempt a new system of female gestures, to replace sound as the primary means of communication, declaring motion the "first language," with a grammar that is instinctual and physical, rather than learned. It will be the first instance of a women's semaphore that will not be an imitation, but, rather, a primary behavior with, according to Dark, "very real uses in this country." Dark will begin authorship of a series of pamphlets called New Behaviors for Women. The pamphlets argue that gesture and behavior alone can solve what Dark calls "the problem of unwanted feelings." She also helps market Water for Girls, small vials of "radical emotional possibility," under the premise that water contains the first and only instructions for how to behave in this world.

The English language is first overheard in a wind that circles an old Ohio radio operated by an early Jane Dark representative. Words from the language are carefully picked out of this clear wind over the next thirty years and inscribed on pieces of linen handed out at farmers' markets. When the entire vocabulary of words has been recovered from the radio, it is destroyed, and the pieces of linen are sewn together into a flag that is loaned out to various Ohio cities and towns, where it is mounted over houses. Once the fabric is hoisted on a flagpole, the language is easily taught to the people inside of their homes, who have only to tune their radios to the call sign of the flag station, extract and aim their freshly oiled antennas, and position their faces in the air steaming from the grille of their radios. When their faces become flushed and hot, they can retreat to other rooms and say entirely new things to the children who are sleeping there.

A noise filter is created at Dark Farm to muffle radio and television frequency. It will be the first nonsacrificial attempt by Jane Dark and her followers to mute the noises of the air and bring about a "new world silence." Mounted upon the roof of a hilltop barn, the filter is a dish-shaped sieve filled with altered water that will supposedly attract and cancel electronic transmissions, including television, radio, and women's wind. The water, which absorbs the intercepted frequency, is considered a master liquid of supernutritive value. It is removed monthly and administered to the women as a medicinal antibody. The drink is called a "charge," or Silent Water, said to render women immune to sound.

Quiet Boy Bob Riddle constructs his home weather kit, to definitively prove that speech and possibly all mouth sounds disturb the atmosphere by introducing pockets of turbulence, eventually causing storms. By speaking into the tube that feeds the translucent-walled weather simulator, which resembles a human head-in this case, the head of his father-Riddle demonstrates the agitation of a calm air system. The language that Riddle introduces to the test environment-whether English, French, or the all-vowel slang of the Silentists-repeatedly smashes the model house within, proving that sound alone can distress and destroy an object. His essay, "The Last Language," argues for an experimental national vow of silence, claiming that spoken language is a pollutant that must be arrested, first by stuffing the mouths of unnecessary speakers ("persons whose message has already been heard") with cloth. Before his death, in 1991 he will build a mouth harness (the Speech jacket) that limits its wearer to a daily quota of spoken language, beyond which he or she must remain silent until the next day, or else trigger a mild explosive that will destroy the mouth. The Speech Jacket is tested first on children. Although it causes intermittent blackouts and fainting, it serves to restrict their speech to requests for food and short displays of all-vowel singing.

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Excerpted from Notable American Women by Ben Marcus. Copyright © 2002 by Ben Marcus. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.