The Husband Stitch, by Carmen Maria Machado

I’m writing this review of the The Husband Stitch, by Carmen Maria Machado because I can’t sleep. Hurricane Ophelia is starting to creep across my country today. I am dreading both work tomorrow and the walk there. It also struck me as a particularly relevant short story for our times.

The Husband Stitch

The story is an adult take on the classic children’s story The Green Ribbon.

Machado’s version is named after a procedure where an episiotomy is performed. Afterwards the surgeon puts in an extra stitch to tighten the vaginal opening and enhance the pleasure of the woman’s male partner. The existence of this procedure has been bandied about since the 1880s. There is discussion about whether it is even real. One account described it as a “maternity ward Slender Man”.

If it is real, then it is an abomination; the worst kind of intimate betrayal. Anecdotal accounts have reported it causing excruciating pain, physical disability, later difficult births. And after all that, extremely painful, often impossible, intercourse.

It’s hard to tell whether it is a message board myth borne from the agony of childbirth. Or a twisted atrocity that should be generating malpractice and divorce suits.

The Ribbons

By Hamed Saber – originally posted to Flickr as 6th Day – Close Your Shop, Like My Mouth, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7088706
“I have given you everything you have ever asked for, I say. Am I not allowed this one thing?”
The narrator / protagonist wears a green ribbon around her neck. She asserts early on that it is hers, and that her lover cannot touch it. She gives him her kisses, her body, her hand in marriage. That one thing is hers. Of course, he persists in asking for it, in asking to cross her one boundary.
“He could have done it then, untied the bow, if he’d chosen to.”
There are scenes reminiscent of rape, involving the ribbon. He pins her wrists and hurts her, demonstrating his power. Later, her young son tries to touch and untie the ribbon. She refuses and uses aversion therapy to train him to desist. The setting of that modest boundary breaks their mutual trust, in a small but significant way.
She talks of other women with ribbons. One woman is a frustrated mother, with a pale yellow ribbon that tangles her up, impedes her and makes her cry. Another woman is a stunning beauty she desires, with a red ribbon around her ankle – red, the anklet, all symbols of lust and sexuality. Her desire for this woman is yet another thing her husband appropriates. He refuses to let his wife keep the secret of her lust, and takes it from her to satisfy his own.
As an aside, women in Iran wore green ribbons while protesting in favour of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a reformist politician who promised to re-implement equality for women and end the scourge of the ‘morality police’.

The Fables

The story is interspersed with fables, themed around death, sexuality and delusion. They illustrate the blood stained reality of a woman’s life; how sex, children and marriage can damage or even destroy you. Several of the stories deal with a female having her truth and reality denied. One involves her father rewriting her reality. Another retells an elaborate conspiracy to gaslight a young woman who loses her mother.

The author has said she was influenced by Angela Carter, a writer known for her dark and twisted reimaginings of fairytales and fables. She also says:

“We live in a real-life horror story… I feel like the dynamic is between women who have no control versus women being taught to do that to themselves so that other people don’t have to. Those things are in synchronization with each other. I think I’m using the genre the way a lot of my foremothers did.”

The Maternity Ward

 The Maternity Ward | The Husband Stitch
The maternity ward itself is a fable. The name of the story is invoked in a shameful interaction between doctor and husband. The fear of a dreadful conspiracy to steal her agency while she is sedated, even though she begs them not to. A wink and a joke between the two men that could be a misinterpreted jest or a dreadful violation. But even the suspicion demonstrates how powerless she feels in that moment. It explores the fear of women at their most vulnerable, forced into the hands of people who may or may not be trustworthy.

Read any article, any message board about birth and pregnancy. There are women on every page who feel violated. The key shared experience is lack of autonomy. It can be an overbearing doctor cutting them without their permission. Or a supercilious, overbearing midwife refusing them appropriate pain relief. The key factor is the lack of control, a humiliating, frightening and devastating feeling. One that many women experience *outside* the ward as well, but is magnified in that very vulnerable moment. 

At The End

She makes it clear, several times, that she loves and desires her husband. He is oblivious, not cruel. He demands, he takes, he wants; it does not occur to him to consider his wife. The scene in the maternity ward is meant to illustrate that it doesn’t really matter whether the men are joking or sincere. Either the man she loves means to mutilate her for his own sexual pleasure, or he thinks the concept is funny; neither is particularly edifying.

The Husband Stitch it is a good name and analogy for a tale of the profound love and darkness within any personal relationship. How a single word, a boundary crossed, can devastate, and leave both parties desolate. And how even a good man can be a monster – just by not thinking or challenging the status quo.

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