March 29, 2011
Remembering the girls of Triangle
For the vast majority of my life, I never felt like I had much in common with other girls. Most of the people who ever tormented or abused me were girls or women, and so before I was very old, I didn’t have much desire left to have anything in common with them. I could never call myself a feminist. I read Mary Pipher’s much-discussed book about the emotional lives of adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, in high school, thinking “surely this expert will be able to articulate what’s really wrong with my life and then I’ll be able to explain it to everyone who’s getting it wrong (and not least of all, to myself).”
I was bitterly disappointed. It was a marvelous book (and I still think so), but it was like reading a very fascinating book about a completely alien species. Not me.
Then there was a sequel of sorts, Ophelia Speaks, a compilation of teen girls’ own responses and reflections on their lives and the original book, seeking to let girls speak for themselves about their lives and somewhat fill in the gaps they felt were left in Pipher’s book. I ran out to buy it. “Now someone will tell the truth for me, surely now someone will get it right!” I thought.
Nope. It was another fascinating book, this time in the words of the fascinating aliens themselves. But I recognized myself nowhere among them. I started to accept that either there were no girls like me anywhere, or I wasn’t a real girl at all. I don’t even remember there being any women who made me think “I could grow up to be like that.”
And then (to make a very long story short), I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and in reading the blogs and books of other autistic women and developing supportive relationships with them, I found a way to identify with other women at all for the first time.
I don’t write much about my work, for a variety of reasons, but it’s been no big secret lately that I’ve been working on a particularly difficult production, which has taken more or less everything out of me in the past couple months. It was a choral music piece called From the Fire, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had its 100th anniversary this past week. On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly teenage girls and young women, either burned or jumped to their deaths because they were locked in on the 9th floor of the factory building near Washington Square when a fast-moving fire broke out in a bin of cotton scraps. The tragedy proved a watershed moment in the social history of America, for workers’ rights and unions, mandates for workplace safety, and voting rights for women.
Within the first couple weeks, the rehearsal process had become so hard that I felt myself starting to shut down emotionally and detach myself from any real feeling for the show, which was the last thing in the world that I wanted, since what this kind of show can accomplish is exactly the reason that I wanted to work in theater in the first place.
Then one night in vocal rehearsal, I sang along silently in my head as the chorus of girls sang a line of a song: “Blessed are you oh lord our God who made me a woman, yes, a woman who can work.” And it hit me: I am one of these girls–the ones in front of me. I was there to look out for them, backed up by a strong union, in no small part because of what happened to the girls of Triangle. Performing artists are still a vulnerable population in many ways, and I was one of them, and as hard as things were still going to get, my job was to protect them. I was there to be on their side.
In the final song of the show, a cascading canon of voices sing out the names of girls of the Triangle factory, both survivors and the dead. The performers had been directed to abruptly face outwards, to an individual member of the audience, as each one sang her line. It wasn’t until the third performance, which happened to fall on the actual anniversary of the fire, that I realized that one of the student actresses, in the down right corner of the stage, was turning directly to me (where I was calling the show from an improvised platform) when she sang “Lizzie will be remembered.” I teared up. I couldn’t hold her gaze for more than a moment.
I could practically feel the ghosts of the Triangle girls around me.
And they were all my girls.
More on the production:
From the Fire production homepage