Tolerance

This week’s read is one long, painful chapter. It made me think about how much pain one could tolerate. And also how one could be sol intolerant to unleash such pain–and feel justified about it.

After the first few sections have established the scenario, the more you think about it, the more you realize how many things can (and likely will) go wrong for Dana.

Each time Dana is sent back in time, the gap between instances grows.  Time doesn’t pass in the present the same way it does when she goes back.  She had been gone for nearly two months but when she returned home she had been “gone” for less than a day. This time discontinuity has to mess with her head even more.

Now that Kevin has remained, she fears for him as well and those fears are completely reasonable–he was treated well in that world because he was white.  He looked forward to watching the expansion of our country West.  Could he become a hardened white person if he was there for too long?  Kevin seems like a pretty decent fellow and doesn’t seem like he would become an owner of anyone, but you could see him getting caught up in everything that’s happening. I’m curious if this was also a commentary on the fragility (at least from societal pressures) of interracial marriages even in 1979.

Dana tells us about her relationship with Kevin and how neither his sister nor her aunt and uncle approved of their marriage.  Kevin’s sister had married a racist doctor and she refused to allow her brother and his new wife into her house.  Meanwhile, her aunt and uncle were offended because they assumed she’d marry a man like her uncle–proud and black.

Then she woke up and realized that every part of her body hurt.  She could barely move.  She had been whipped.  Brutally (although we find out later that Rufus’ father went “easy” on her).  Her clothes had bled and stuck to her body–this detail really got me. She managed to clean herself off and made sure she would not get infected (from a whip that had been tempered by oil and blood). It’s details like this that really emphasize elements of the barbarism.

Kevin had not returned with her.  She was by herself so she prepared for her next inevitable return.  She grabbed a denim bag and filled it with necessities–medicine, a knife, pens and paper, clothes.  Eight days later, she was whisked back to Rufus’ side as he was once again in danger of being killed.  This time, a black man–Isaac, all grown up–was beating him to within an inch of his life.

Turns out hat in the decade or so since she was last there, Isaac had married Alice, (even if it was not legally binding for slaves to marry).  But Rufus still wanted her.  He was willing to do anything to have her.  He had tried to take Alice but Isaac was having none it.  It was Dana who spared Rufus’ life by calming Isaac down.  She also spared Isaac’s life.  If Isaac had killed Rufus, he would have no hope of survival (although I do wonder who would know it was Isaac who did it). She encouraged Isaac and Alice to flee and promised that Rufus would not say anything. How foolish was this for Dana to do this? Did she not realize how impossible it would be for them to escape? Her own failure later shows just how hard it was.

Rufus was as good as his word, but Isaac and Alice were found anyway.  Alice was sent back.  After being beaten so badly she forgot a lot (including how she felt about rufus).  Although her memory did come back slowly.  But Isaac (and therefore Alice) wasn’t so lucky.  They sent him down south.  And they had cut off his ears(!). What the fuck.

Dana went to Rufus’ house.  Things were different.  His mother had left.  She had given birth tow two girls who both died.  She had a nervous breakdown).  Rufus’s father was still there but seemed to be tempered somewhat.  Rufus even said that he was a fair man–not kind, but fair–after all, he beat and whipped people but only what the deserved.

Rufus father recognized Dana immediately.  He seemed to have a strange kind of grunding respect for her.  He had seen her disappear, which clearly made him think she was a witch or something. Although I have no interest in Rifis’ father’s point of view, I do wonder what he must have thought when she just disappeared like that.

Dana heloped nurse Rufus back to health.  She gave him some of her aspirin.  She had also brought a history book with a map of the area.  But when he saw the history books she had brought, he grew angry at what they said (it sucks finding out you’re on the wrong side of history).  He didn’t believe the things he was reading.  Then Dana realized people like Harriet Tubman could be in trouble if a white man heard about what she was doing. 

It’s easy to forget the science fiction-y nature of the book because everything is so visceral and real. But then you get a moment like this where you have to pull back and say, yes, we’re talking about time travel here, she could really be changing things in the future. And no matter how much she’d like to change things for the better, all signs point to her giving away important secrets.

Rufus insisted that she burn the book–including the map of Maryland that she had torn out of the book. 

If she did all that he would allow her to send a letter to Kevin.

Kevin had left Maryland for the north and had been there for a few years.  He was in Boston or possibly Maine at this point.  Dana wrote him a letter and imagined he’d be there to take her away within a few weeks.

But Rufus had no intention of sending her letter.  He told dan that she was home now and he meant it.  He “loved” Dana and didn’t want her to leave him.  So he did to her what he had done to Alice–whom he also “loved.”  He used threats and duress to keep them near him.  He wanted to have sex with Alice– luckily not with Dana.  But he held Alice’s safety over Dana’s head–she should talk Alice into sleeping with him or he would take Alice by force.

I wondered if Butler was commenting on contemporary men as well with this segment–and the way men “possess” women even in the late 20th and 21st century.

Dana was there for a long time.  She became a part of the family–and was more or less a slave even if she wasn’t “owned.”  She had no proof of her freedom and, as people pointed out, any papers she carried could be torn up and ignored, anyhow.

But once she realizes that Rufus had not sent the letters–that Kevin had no idea she was even back, she decided to make a run for it

She plans out everything but doesn’t consider that one of the servants doesn’t like her.  And tells on her.

This was an aspect I hadn’t considered either. That there would be jealousy among the slaves (understandably) but that pissing off anybody could get you in serious trouble. How fragile your survival was.

Dana is very quickly found by Rufus and his father.  They bring her back and she is whipped to within an inch of her life.  A pain so fierce it seems like it should send her back home.  But she must have known that this wasn’t going to kill her, so instead she had to stay there and bear it.

That’s another detail that is really striking. A pain so bad you wish you were dead but you know it won’t kill you.

She was laid up for days. Rufus did tend to her.  And explained that his father only whipped her because he couldn’t allow other slaves to think a runway would go unpunished–that whole “fair” thing.

When she was able to walk, she saw a white man–old and bearded–riding a horse on the property. She couldn’t believe it was Kevin.  And he barely recognized her.  When he saw what had happened, he was (understandably) furious.  But Dana knew she might arrive back here again and told him to be cool.  Anything he did now would come back to haunt her if (when) she came back. She planned on riding off with him without saying a word.  Until Rufus sees them walking out of town.  He stops them with a gun.

This is the second time a gun sends her back home.

We don’t know if Kevin is with her this time or how long she’ll be home.  But since there’s 70 pages left its safe to assume she’ll be heading back to Maryland at least one more time.

4 thoughts on “Tolerance

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston March 9, 2021 / 12:05 am

    Kevin seems like a pretty decent fellow and doesn’t seem like he would become an owner of anyone, but you could see him getting caught up in everything that’s happening. I’m curious if this was also a commentary on the fragility (at least from societal pressures) of interracial marriages even in 1979.

    Knowing that Butler was Black, I made dumb assumptions when starting the book that Dana and Kevin were also both Black. Kevin was worried about the cops early on — a typical worry for a person just living while Black in America, right? So it was a little jolt for me when I learned that he was white. And I wondered too if it would become sort of a commentary, or whether it was more like a convenience that gave Butler a pretext for having Dana not initially picked up as a runaway slave. I’m still not sure, though I think an interpretation of it as purely utilitarian would probably be an uncharitable interpretation. Surely in a book about the past and the present, there’s some message about how the horrible past compares to the not-as-horrible-but-still-not-great present.

    Dana heloped nurse Rufus back to health. She gave him some of her aspirin. She had also brought a history book with a map of the area.

    I kept wondering how these artifacts from the future might wind up influencing people in the past and thus changing the future. Would Dana inadvertently change the course of the medical field? Would Rufus take the map and use it somehow to improve his family’s holdings such that history was drastically changed?

    He used threats and duress to keep them near him. He wanted to have sex with Alice– luckily not with Dana. But he held Alice’s safety over Dana’s head–she should talk Alice into sleeping with him or he would take Alice by force.

    When I saw how Rufus treated Dana, I kept thinking “this poor woman is effectively in an emotionally abusive relationship with this dipshit!” Which, all things considered, is a pretty silly realization to have. Still, the relationship here has a lot of the hallmarks of a classic abusive relationship, even with the cruelty of enslavement set aside.

    • Jeff Anderson March 13, 2021 / 9:51 pm

      What a great point, that even to whatever extent you can read parts of Dana and Rufus’s relationship as being outside the system of slavery, it’s still abusive. Butler’s working a lot here with ideas that we recognize now as dealing with intersectionality, even though this book is 10 years before Kimberlé Crenshaw crystallized the concept. It more or less goes without saying how a White slaver is abusive and oppressive on a racial axis; regardless of how he may treat one or another enslaved Black person in any given moment, Rufus is still hostis humani generis. But Butler’s careful to show us that he learned in his childhood how to abuse women too, even White women, with his treatment of his mother when he’s recuperating in bed. And we know it’s intentional because Dana makes the connection—in moments when Rufus doesn’t feel sufficiently comfortable exerting his power over her as a White person over a Black person (because she refuses to let him ignore the “person” part like he’s so used to doing), he resorts to the emotional abuse he practiced on his mother, coming at Dana instead as a man exerting his power over a woman.

      But it’s true in the novel, as in life, that a person is never one thing. Dana and Alice and Sarah aren’t only women and they aren’t only Black—they’re Black women, which means their experience of either part of that combination is inescapably inflected by the other part. They’re oppressed in unique ways because of that combination. As the very most obvious example, they’re in the only category of people whose rape was legally and socially sanctioned. I think I’m pushing a bit into next week’s reading with this comment, but the spoiler line is only a day or two away, so: For me, that intersectional idea is what makes some of the things with Kevin resonate the most. The little things he says that give Dana the willies, the similarities Butler draws between Kevin and Rufus, that occasional sudden gulf that springs up between Dana and Kevin—it seems so facile as to feel unsupportable in the text that these are just a matter of Whiteness binding Kevin and Rufus together. (What I mean is: Dana’s known White people, but that doesn’t keep her from feeling safe loving Kevin. She knows he’s #NotAllWhites.) What I see happening is the full force of White men’s misogynoir being literally etched into Dana’s flesh and her being more acutely sensitized to it. Sure, it’s probably reasonable to say that Kevin would have asked a White wife to type his manuscripts too; but if he’s willing to say to Dana while she’s being forced to submit to a version of enslavement that it’s not as bad for her and the other enslaved people on the plantation as he expected it to be… There’s more to say about Kevin, of course, and a lot of it is very much in his favor! But trauma does what trauma does, you know? And when it comes at the intersection of multiple axes of oppression, it’s going to make anybody wary of people who sit at the intersection of the other ends of those axes.

      • Daryl L. L. Houston March 16, 2021 / 10:47 pm

        Whew, good stuff here. I hadn’t run into the term misogynoir, which is such a delightfully perfect (well, and horrible) word.

  2. Paul Debraski March 18, 2021 / 1:51 pm

    You guys have both crystallized my thoughts pretty nicely. Thank you. I saw misogynoir recently and didn’t have the opportunity to look it up before I forgot about it. Thanks for bringing it up again. Shame all of our most recent clever words are to talk about horrible things.

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