Lessons from City of Girls

Dad, Lucinda, Mom

“Contemplate these words, nothing matters, and you think it does.” ~ Neale Donald Walsch

I consider myself to be an extremely tolerant person. 40 plus years of being involved in theatre taught me that there are all kinds of people in the world, and most of them are good at heart.

My spiritual practice has taught me that even the people who do evil things are connected to the Divine, just like I am. It’s just that they have a different purpose, which might be to shake us out of old belief systems that need to be examined.

These two ideas merged in a book I was eager to read because of it’s theatre setting. It’s City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. You might remember her from her enormously popular book Eat, Pray, Love which was made into a movie. After reading that book, I’ve been following Elizabeth Gilbert’s career. I’ve read other of her books, but when I heard her talk about City of Girls, I was hooked. There aren’t many books that take you behind the scenes of the theatre world.

The story is the main character Vivian’s answer to Angela’s question, “Vivian, … I wonder if you might now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father?” Trust me, it’s not what you think. Okay it’s not entirely what you think.

Vivian has to tell her whole life story to answer Angela’s question. And as we follow her on her journey, there are, or at least were for me, some extremely uncomfortable parts. I have to confess, I nearly put the book down at one point because of Vivian’s life style. Later I was glad I stuck with old Vivian because what she had to say is extremely important.

Over twenty years ago, I was involved in the theatre scene in Portland, Oregon. I met people from all walks of life, with different points of view, different sexual orientations, and backgrounds very different from mine. Mine was sheltered.

My family went to church. My father was a lay minister. My parents didn’t drink or smoke, or even use foul language, unless you consider “darn” cursing, as one church member did. We sat down to meals together and talked. We talked about the news, the TV shows and movies we watched, and our lives. If I had a problem, I knew I could go to my parents for help and advice.

Many of the people I knew in the theatre companies I worked in didn’t have lives like that. And that was okay with me, because I learned to care for all kinds of people while I was growing up. More than once my parents took in people who needed a place to live until they could get their lives together again.

And though I’d go out for drinks after rehearsal, or go to the opening and closing night parties, I didn’t stay long. I wasn’t into smoking, getting drunk and carousing.

Vivian does all of that when her parents send her to live with her Aunt Peg who runs a ramshackle theatre in New York City. The story takes place before, during and after WW II. And even though I’d made friends with people with life styles like Vivian’s, I didn’t know all the details. That helped me like them without too much personal involvement. I was deluded into thinking I accepted them as they were.

Vivian’s life is so raw. It made me really uncomfortable. She gets drunk every night, sleeps with anyone who is willing, and they’re always willing. But eventually, because she’s letting life happen to her instead of weighing consequences and making plans for her future, something devastating occurs and she’s thrown out of the world she loves. She’s got to go home to her detached parents.

What makes it worse is that her disapproving brother is the one who has to bail her out. He gets one of his Navy buddies, who owns a car, to drive them home. And, spoiler alert, the driver ends up being important later in Vivian’s story.

Near the end of Vivian’s narrative, she tells Angela of something that happened to her father. During the war, he’d been on a ship that had suffered a Kama Kazi plane attack and he’d been burned on most of his body. That made touching and being touched impossible for him. He couldn’t sit at a desk, even though he was an engineering genius. So he became a beat cop because he could be outside and walk every day. One day he had to appear in court. One of the attorneys was one of his shipmates on the doomed ship where Frank, that’s Angela’s father’s name, got blown into the water. Those men who ended up in the water were considered cowards and the inept captain of the ship tried to have them court marshaled. But, of course, that case was thrown out. But the prejudice persisted and the attorney said some nasty things to Frank.

Frank’s PTSD was triggered by the encounter so he called Vivian in the middle of the night. He wanted to talk the incident through with her. She was always able to calm him down. When he’d told his story, she didn’t know what to say. But something occurred to her and she told him that what that man said meant nothing. Frank needed to remember what he’d told Vivian. “Life is never straight.” Something terrible happened to Frank. It didn’t make him a bad man, it meant nothing. It just happened. And something bad probably happened to the attorney too. That’s why he said those nasty things. But what he said meant nothing. Vivian kept using examples from her own life and finally Frank understood what she was saying to him and calmed down.

Things happen to us. We have quirks in our personalities that make us choose to do things that other people might judge, or at the very least cringe at. But that means nothing because as the blurb for the book states, “You don’t have to be a good girl, to be a good person.”

When Vivian helps Frank by telling him what happened to him means nothing, I got one of the things Elizabeth Gilbert was trying to say. Men can do almost anything they want and we don’t think a thing of it. We don’t judge or condemn them. But women, oh boy, we rake them over the coals for the slightest deviation from what we think is acceptable female behavior. When that idea exploded in my head, I fell in love with Vivian. Though she’s only a character in a book, she did what I’ve always wanted to do. After she learned some really tough lessons, she lived life on her terms and didn’t let anyone’s judgment or condemnation deter her from living the life she wanted to live.

It’s still not my style to carouse, but I have made some decisions that went against what some people thought I should do. My husband and I decided not to have children. I’ve continued my connection to theatre. I left the church in which I grew up. I’ve followed a spiritual path that some would consider unconventional. And other little rebellions against the good girl, bad girl binary viewpoint that we’ve suffered with for centuries.

Now, the message of City of Girls challenges more than just the attitudes of circumspect female behavior, because we put men into categories too. And that’s another thing I love about this book.

In the end, I learned something from reading City of Girls and I’m glad I didn’t abandon it as I was tempted to do. Sometimes it’s the uncomfortable stories that have the most relevant messages for us.

Thanks for reading, liking and commenting. Do you have a story that made you uncomfortable, but in the end had a great message? I’d like to hear about it.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2020

Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a little bit like Outlander in that it’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, novel. Except that Jenna’s life is shattered and she must put her life back together. When she finds old journals as she’s clearing out her mother’s house, she joins consciousness with her three-times great-grandmother, Morgan. She is able to come back to her own life at intervals and apply what she’s learned to heal and forgive.

The Space Between Time is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords and for Kindle at Amazon, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. If you prefer a physical copy, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. Stay tuned for news when the audiobook version is published.

Published by lucindasagemidgorden

I grew up in the West, the descendant of people traveling by wagon train to a new life. Some of their determination and wanderlust became a part of me. I imagine them sitting around the campfire telling stories, which is why I became first a theatre artist, then a teacher and now a writer. They are all ways of telling stories.

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