For February, our book club read Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser. In general everyone in book club enjoyed this book–new perspective on old tales, well-written, and inviting self-inquiry, which generally resonates with the folks who attend. I always write out my thoughts before book club, which I find allows me to avoid some of the group-think nature discussions can take, and in this case I was really glad that I did since I also enjoyed the book, but felt it was three books in one, and would really have preferred an entire book dedicated to the themes of the first section.
In Cassandra Speaks, Lesser starts by retelling stories from Western literature as if they were told from the woman’s perspective. This, along with her thoughtful commentary, pulling out quotations from the original texts is incredibly impactful. She walks through the stories of Eve, Pandora, Cassandra and others, urging us to look at these as tales of curiousity, inquiry, self-actualization–effectively hero’s journies rather than tales of women luring men into sin. She consistently speculates on why these stories are told/retold and the impact that have on people in Western society, and then she encourages us to be willing to see the stories differently. In all ways I found this to be the most thought-provoking and interesting section of the book.
In the second section of the book she transitions into a discussion of power, and how many women reject power, while admitting that powerlessness is dangerous. She endeavors to reframe power from the historical notion of “power over others” to the ability to change and improve the lives of ourselves and others. While I resonate with this definition, I found it a bit idealistic: of course I attempt to empower others through connection, love, engagement, etc., but that doesn’t change certain structural elements of society, nor maybe do I feel I personally need to change society, if I can approach my life with the lens of empowering others instead of asserting my power over them.
In this section she also talks about the importance of activism and innervism. Innervism is a term I believe Lesser has coined (certainly I hadn’t heard it before), which she defines as self-work feeding “the part of me that seeks inner change, inner healing.” She says activism and innervism are not things we practice either or, but rather these are mutual pursuits that are a check and balance upon one another. The importance of this mutual work, fighting for change in the world, while acknowledging that sometimes the change that needs to be seen is actually work within yourself, resonated. So often do I see people who fight so hard for their truth that they miss the opportunity to hear the truths of others, and ultimately become myopic and misguided. She walks through concepts here from Jung and others about shadow work, which for those who have never read about it is a form of psychotherapy that involves exploring the aspects of the self that a person hides, ignores, or dislikes. The basis is effectively that we learn to withold certain elements of ourselves in childhood because they are not received well by others (our parents, siblings, friends, teachers, etc.) and in that process we can feel shame, etc. about these sometimes very normal feelings or desires. Understanding the parts of yourself you have learned to withhold, and reclaiming the parts you want or need is important. Of this section, the importance of continuing self-actualization in any pursuit was my favorite part.
In the final section of the book she lays out some tools and techniques to aid in being a force for good in the fight for equality. While I still found her insights here powerful (e.g. the concept of “do no hard, and take no sh*t”), I really didn’t love this part because I found it held moments of dissonance with me. For example, she talks about the need for new voices in literature, but then gives her list of best literature, which only includes female voices. I am sure she was trying to turn up the contrast, but for a book whose general theme is to increase equality it rubbed me a bit.
At its best, this book encourages you to think about the influences behind your own thoughts, whether literary, societal, or familial. Questioning the parts that don’t resonate with your life and reclaiming surpressed aspects of yourself that you want to embrace is a beautiful call to action. Our past is and always will be pertinent to our reality, but every day is a new chance to choose who we want to be and how we want to show up. There is something deeply beautiful in that call to action, so less for activism and more for the insights on innervism, I really enjoyed the book.