The Price: A Queer Daughter of a Queer Mother
Patricia Highsmith, Carol, and confronting family history
I am doomed to die an ugly death or at least to be separated from my partner, probably violently. So is my queer mother and my partner and my cousin and many of my friends. We are all doomed, it seems, because this is the only story American media tells about queer women. In fact, after the recent death of a popular lesbian character on the TV show, The 100, Autostraddle even created a list of the 156 (and counting) queer women on TV alone who have died, usually violently. If you believe this story, which is really the only story, queer women like me have no future. It seems we are doomed to the same future we’ve been marching and protesting and just living our lives against for so long. And the past is denied to us as well.
Maybe that’s why I’ve locked onto Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which has re-entered the popular imagination via last year’s film adaptation, Carol. Because The Price of Salt is one of the only windows into the queer past for most of us that doesn’t end with the proscribed tragedy. It’s one of the only records of history we, as queer women, have that isn’t another dead end. It is still one of the only narratives we have about that supposed golden age so many conservative politicians want us to return to, a time when segregation was legal and being queer wasn’t, when being a (middle class, white) woman meant staying at home and rearing children while the men went to work. Or this is the (false) narrative of that time we’ve been sold by films and books. The Price of Salt gives us a rare glimpse of an alternate past that existed inside and beside that popular story manufactured by Hollywood. And that other past we get a glimpse of in The Price of Salt gives us at least the chance to rewrite the future for ourselves and a different past.
My story (and my mother’s) starts with photographs of the past: my parents’ wedding. These are are elegant black and white images like stills from a 1950s movie full of glittering, glamorous promise, but if you look carefully you can see that something isn’t right. After my parents divorce, I would bring out their wedding album looking for something about them that wasn’t about after but before. I was probably looking for clues to the disaster of their divorce, but I didn’t understand it that way at the time. Maybe I thought, in the naive way of seven-year-olds, that seeing these photos of their beginning would inspire in my parents a reunion and everything would go back to the way it had been. But all I learned was that these photos made Dad smile painfully and sometimes cry, made Mom angry (and probably sad) in that tight-lipped turning-away way of hers.
In those gorgeous wedding photos, my mother looked so tired and drawn, feverish, her smiles forced and cheerless even though she looks beautiful still. Maybe that’s why she looks so beautiful and I never questioned it: we’ve been taught to think of the tragic in women, its evidence, as beauty. My father told me long before they divorced and even after that Mom had been sick the night before the wedding and that was why she looked so raw.
It took twenty years before my mother would tell my girlfriend, my partner, the truth: She was in love with her maid of honor who had begged her to run away to San Fransisco and graduate school where they could be together. They spent that last night together crying because my mother chose the only route she understood, the one expected, and married my father. In her world in that time (and as Gabrielle Bellot points out in her essay, “The True Price of Salt: On the Book that Became ‘Carol’”, still in our world, our time) this was the only path to a happy, middle class life, which was the only life possible. Following her heart was a path that lead only to depravity and darkness. Everyone knew that tragic story.
I didn’t read The Price of Salt until I was in my late twenties even though it sat on my mother and her partner’s book shelves along with Adrienne Rich, Vita Sackville-West, Audre Lorde’s poetry, and, of course, Rubyfruit Jungle. Their bookshelf became a sort of do-not-read, anti-recommendation shelf for me. These books were queer and I wasn’t; I couldn’t be because I was nothing like them, so I drew a circle around these books that lasted even through most of my undergraduate life at Vassar. So I didn’t understand how radical The Price of Salt was, how strange and fabulist it is in parts, how hallucinatory and real. I didn’t know how revelatory a book could be to a life lived trying so hard to be normal. But the script of my life isn’t what you’re assuming either. My mother didn’t leave my father for another woman and my father was not in any way Harge. At any moment he could have taken my brother and I from our mother and her partner (this is still a reality for many children of LGBTQ parents), but he didn’t. And my mother loved him. When she realized she was in love with him after twelve years of marriage, she decided to be brutally honest and tell him the truth about her wedding night. She felt that he deserved that. But some truths are best left buried. This one (and probably other factors I haven’t been told, will never know because my POV is limited) broke their marriage. And them. And us.
Andrew Wilson’s biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, reveals that she wrote The Price of Salt at a time when she was undergoing therapy to prepare her for a normal, heterosexual marriage. The Price of Salt was her own escape fantasy, based on a woman she saw while working at a department store much like the store where Therese worked in the book and film, the woman, much like Carol. And Highsmith wrote them a ‘happy’ ending, which was unheard of at the time, and as Gabrielle Bellot points out and anyone who watches TV and movies knows, is still an incredible rarity. Lesbians in popular film, books, and TV still don’t end up getting the girl and the happy ending; they are more likely to end up raped and murdered. This is the story that our culture and its media has written for us as the script of our lives, a cautionary tale. See what happens when you live outside the heteronormative lines? It’s not pretty. But The Price of Salt is. Breathtakingly so. It is everything we hope for even while the threats (Harge, the gun in the glove compartment, the private investigator) hover always at the edge of vision, the edge of our lives, menacing, always ready to explode into violence.
My partner and I met in college, but she was a year ahead of me because I was forced to take a year off after high school for financial reasons. It took me some time to come out of denial, during which she, the best friend, waited patiently while I went through the motions of falling for different guys who never turned out to be exactly right even though they were wonderful people. I was following the same script as my mother thinking it was somehow rebellious. Thinking I could never be like her, the woman who ruined her marriage, who, despite her advanced degree, lived in near-poverty with another woman, both of them such an embarrassment to my teenage self that I could barely stand to look at them. That was not my story. I would live the life she had failed to live and be a success. That was what I told myself and caused a great deal of pain to me and my partner, my mother, and those men as well. I tried to kill myself my freshman year, but told myself it was strictly chemical, no ‘real’ reason for it. My partner was the one who talked me down and tried, without saying as much, to tell me how my life was also hers and to take care with it.
I wish I could say that I read The Price of Salt at a time when I needed it, my ‘formative’ years that were really about unforming, but I didn’t read it until after. After I was queer. But I still needed it even then. This lone affirmation in the face of an entire world trying to negate us, erase us. An alternative to the standard narrative, printed and read by thousands of others. Like magic. Before the internet, this was its own net(work) connecting us through this story and its difference, the difference of its readers bringing it into the world with every word read and silently shared.
I’m often told how much easier it must have been for me having a queer mother and in some ways I guess it was. I didn’t have to fear being thrown out or abused because of my sexuality. All I had to fear was the ‘I told you so’ looks and remarks from them and all of my friends. But when your parents don’t fit the normal script or image of family, you work hard to distance yourself from them. Or I did. When your mother is as far off the norm as mine was, that distance becomes so large you can no longer see that it’s there. And I saw firsthand what this life meant, the stress and toll of it, on every minute of every day.
My mother chose not to talk to me about the fact that she was queer, thinking it was better to put it off until I was older even though she was living, we were living, with another woman, her partner. I found out the hard way. A mean girl who was friends with my best friend used the word ‘lezzie’ at soccer practice to describe someone she didn’t like and they all made faces as if this was the worst possible thing they could imagine. I had no idea what the word meant so she explained it to me with obvious delight and I can still hear her voice years later: “A lezzie is a woman who sleeps with other women.” They all made puking noises as I thought of my mother and her partner in their bed, sleeping, me trying to wake them up without making it too obvious, so they would make pancakes. Then the horrifying realization that my mother and her partner were monsters and my best friend had spent the night so many times, she must have known, but she never made the connection.
To them it was an abstract, a monstrous possibility that lived outside their world; to me it was a terrifying reality and I began at that moment to lie. Not only did I lie to my friends about my mother, but I created a silence at home that extended to everything from displays of affection (not allowed in my presence) to my soccer games and school functions, which they were no longer allowed to attend. I was a tyrant, punishing them not just for their queerness, but for lying to me, and for leaving me so unprepared for and vulnerable to the hatred that fills the world. I was the tyrannical director, writer, set designer forcing my own family to follow the script, to live in a world that couldn’t hold them. I told myself without telling myself that I was nothing like them. I was normal and they weren’t. I would never be like them. And because they felt guilt and shame about who they were and for making my life more difficult, they accepted it. And I became that mean girl I hated.
All of this because there was no other narrative but the one presented by that clueless mean girl who got that story from everything around her whispering and shouting it all the time or simply erasing us so that we didn’t exist at all except as monstrous mythological villains like werewolves or demons. I wish, like so many people, that I could have my childhood back. That I could live it without shame and guilt, without shaming my mother and her partner. It’s more complicated than this, of course (it always is). None of this would have been possible if my mother were the type of person who was open with her feelings, who talked about things. But she wasn’t. She isn’t. She learned early in a southern Methodist family full of secrets to keep her ‘perversion’ to herself. In fact, lesbianism was so taboo, so unspoken, she had no idea that all the making out she and her high school ‘girlfriends’ were doing (practicing for boys) was in any way wrong until her mother cornered her and asked her if she was ‘like that.’ When my mother asked what she meant, all my grandmother could think to say was that ‘girls like that’ touched each other’s breasts. My clueless, incredibly popular teenaged mom was so confused she said no, because they hadn’t done that. She hadn’t even understood that as a possibility.
Re-reading The Price of Salt, I realized that on my first reading I had missed so much — joy, humor, the strange, almost hallucinatory descriptions, stunning writing — because I was so worried, terrified that the tragic ending our culture promises was waiting for them both. I skipped over entire scenes, just to make sure they survived. I was sure they as a couple or as Carol and Therese would not, could not survive this book, this love story. There are so many guns on the mantle in this book — the check, the letter, the actual gun in Carol’s suitcase, Therese and Carol’s illegal relationship, the long, low-speed car chase of the road trip — Highsmith plays on the very real heteronormative narrative limits to create this sickening dread without any real ‘action’ taking place. It’s difficult to remember when reading this intimate relationship novel that Highsmith is a writer famous and popular for her thrillers, until you understand how she played with these threats and the way they would and should operate in a different narrative. There’s no high-speed chase and the gun never goes off, but the letter does and it does as much if not more damage. Even though it was written by a wishful, naive Therese, that letter explodes Carol’s life. And the ever-absent Rindy’s.
That’s not to say that action and danger aren’t present in the book. Carol and Therese are constantly watched and surveilled by men — boyfriends, family, friends, the maid acting as an agent of Harge, private investigators. When they finally consummate their romance in a hotel room, Carol and Therese are spied on and recorded by the private investigator hired by Harge through a hotel room wall in a scene that has a disturbing contemporary mirror in the Erin Andrews trial. So there’s no tragic ending, the gun doesn’t go off, but as so many women and LGBTQ people still experience, there’s no end to the surveillance, the constant intrusion or threat of intrusion into their lives, which is its own insidious violence.
Think of the current cultural storm over bathroom laws, which have only ever been about cis-het men policing the bodies of women and non-binary people in what was once a relatively safe space. These powerful men are letting us know by writing laws on bodies, that no place, no body is safe from their gaze, their control and intrusion. That they can enter any space, control any body, in the name of keeping women safe.
This time, re-reading The Price of Salt, I thought of one of the many endings in the book, that girl losing her mother and all of my childhood fear that I would lose mine. Because that was the other unspoken story that always murmured under my denials: because of who my mother was, who she loved, they could take me from her at any time. If my father had been a different person, he could have easily gotten custody of both me and my brother. And he wanted custody badly, he just wasn’t anything like Harge. He was absolutely gorgeous and brilliant and broken and decent. He never fit the ideal of toxic masculinity and he suffered for it. He showed his love and affection frequently. It shouldn’t have to come down to my father’s decency, his love for us that was stronger than his need for revenge, but it did. It did.
Rindy, that fictional child Carol lost because she refused to lie, because she refused to fulfill the tragic narrative and denounce her love for Therese, lost her mother and the possibility of another story herself. She was only a threat and a pawn to be used by Harge and his family to bend Carol to their heteronormative will, away from the happy ending. There is Rindy (and me, always me) moving away, manipulated by those around her, by the men and the patriarchal system that controls the narrative. Rindy’s story is my story. And then there is me again, Therese, finding the thing she didn’t even know existed and falling, falling away from everything she is told told to want. Away from the things that are supposed to be safe. Then there is Carol, my mother in another reality and somewhat in this one, beautiful and troubled, finding herself and her story with a younger woman, risking and losing everything for it. But for my mother, it could never be that woman she denied on her wedding night for the normal story and she was never again truly happy in love. Her love story had already had its tragic end and we were living in the aftermath.
Watching Carol was revelatory in different ways. The differences between the film and the book were the first things I noticed, the first things I criticized. Of course. It wasn’t my book anymore; Carol is its own separate, parallel universe. The translation from book to screen is never lossless, and with a book like The Price of Salt which relies so heavily on style, characterization, and sentence-level writing to tell a story that really barely moves despite all the travel, the loss was inevitable. But Todd Haynes, Blanchett, and Rooney as well as the entire crew of Carol create something new, a hybrid world, and a story that moves to a similar ending along different lines. This difference is probably because the story in the novel centered on Therese. In the novel, everything we knew about Carol was filtered through Therese’s naive, desperate, lovesick gaze, including Harge who barely appears, acting instead through agents (private investigators, lawyers, Rindy). But with an actor like Cate Blanchett in the role, it was always going to become Carol’s movie, and I think it suffers a bit for it. Because now we see too much of Harge. Instead of one more male presence circling Carol and Therese who are at the center of the story, Harge becomes more human, and sympathetic, a character in his own right. In the novel we don’t see the confrontation in the lawyer’s office that, in the film, leaves Harge looking more human, and worthy of our sympathy despite the fact that he’s taken their daughter from Carol and put her (and Therese and Abbey and his own daughter) through hell. He deserves no sympathy, but as moviegoers, we’ve been trained to look through the faults of male characters to see the pain beneath, and Harge is no exception.
In the novel, we know all about Therese, her tragic childhood, the orphanage, her drive and desire to succeed in set design, her stilted, bittersweet relationship with Richard, but the film barely scratches the surface of Therese’s world, focusing instead on Carol and her relationships. It’s Carol’s world and Harge, as the villain, is centered in a way that he wasn’t in the novel, pushing Therese to the margins. The book is Therese’s world; the film is Carol’s, and, to a certain extent, the audience’s.
Todd Haynes described the recurring theme of viewing Carol and Therese and their world through windows in an interview at rogerebert.com:
“It’s sort of about what we’re doing as viewers watching a movie. That looking is … we’re supposed to be invisible watching movies in the dark, anonymous, [the] camera is hidden, all of the apparatus is hidden. And we’re pretending that this thing is just happening by itself. But in fact, all of the machinery of looking is informing what we’re looking at. And so when stories and characters are looking at each other, or at things, or as in “Carol” — when the things being looked at are seen through windows and window panes and glass that’s dirty — the act of looking, and even the act of a camera looking is suggestive in that.”
I like things like that. I like making you think about … the thing that we’re not really supposed to think about, and yet all of our power comes from the act of looking, and what we project onto what we see.” I understand what Haynes is doing and that he is commenting on the omnipresent male gaze that is the real violence in Carol, but this reverses the novel’s perspective, which is Therese’s. It reverses the queer woman’s perspective, her only power. Todd Haynes, in making us aware of the male gaze, centers it, and Harge. Therese becomes the object of the gaze rather than the subject and the center she is in the book.
I do wish that Carol had kept Therese’s occupation as an ambitious, hard-working set designer rather than a casual photographer who sort of falls into a job at The Times via a male friend, although I understand why they didn’t. In a film, photography can act as a more direct analogy for the process of filming itself. It’s also more immediately accessible in terms of the film viewer and acts as a visual stand-in for Therese’s obsession with Carol. But set design was such a brilliant choice for Therese. Alone with a script or play in her own decrepit apartment, creating idealized rooms (designed for men, always for men) that no one would ever live in. Rooms and worlds that were only ever for a backdrop where people would act out lines from a memorized script day after day. I could see my younger self in that role: redesigning our lives, our house to fit the script and the director’s (always men) interpretation of the story. Maybe that was always my role.
I can say that I was lucky. The man in our life, my mother’s life, was not Harge, but the rest of the story (the media, TV, books) is one dominated by invisible, threatening men and their omnipresent gaze. From the bosses who used my mother’s sexuality and her need to hide it to threaten and harass her, to keep her out of stable professions like teaching, to the medical school that refused to admit my mother despite her high MCAT scores because they felt she should stay home with her children, to the rich pedophile who used our poverty and outsiderness to (almost successfully) groom my younger brother, to the teachers and advisors who tried to keep me in my place despite my test scores and grades. Patriarchy is not just the invisible system of oppression, it is individual men (and women) who carry out its violence, its daily micro-aggressions to ensure that women (and other men) stick to the script. With all the advances we’ve made in terms of LGBTQ rights, it’s difficult to remember that in most states, including Kentucky where I grew up and now live, it’s perfectly legal to fire someone because they’re not cis-gendered and/or straight. It’s legal to deny us housing as well. More threats, more silent violences that could explode our lives at any moment.
The Price of Salt was a fantasy Patricia Highsmith wrote for herself, a sort of fanfiction for her own life, her own lovers, real and imagined, at a time when she was undergoing therapy to rid herself of this potentially lethal love. I bring up fan fiction because I’ve written it myself for shows and worlds that didn’t include me, because it’s a way that those of us who live lives outside the norm to write ourselves back in using the characters and worlds that exclude us. Highsmith took that narrative, her own (it’s never her/our own), and re-imagined it, wrote herself and all of us back into the story, wrote us all, if not a perfectly happy ending, at least one with the possibility of some happiness.
In my reimagined, rewritten life for my mother, in that other universe so close to ours, she and the love of her life are driving on those same highways all the way to San Fransisco and I am fading. Or maybe I’m not. I believed for so long that those were the only two possibilities, the only possible universes: the one that results in me and the one where my mother lived the life she didn’t even know she could dream of. Now I can finally believe that both and all are possible and maybe I am living that other life, the one she believed to be a literal dead end. I’ve lived the happy ending, am still living it with all of its difficulties and discrimination and thanks to Highsmith, I know that I’m not just living but writing that happy ending and the world with it, along with my partner, our friends and family, every difficult, terrible, beautiful day.