BASS 2013: Suzanne Rivecca, “Philanthropy” from Granta, Spring 2012

"Scream" - pottery by Ursula Goebels-Ellis

“Scream” – pottery by Ursula Goebels-Ellis

And this, Cora told herself, was why she hated philanthropists. Their dainty aversion to real emergency and distress, their careful gauging and hedging of risks, their preference, so politely and euphemistically stated, for supporting programs that didn’t really need help to stay open… This was what she hated about rich people: their discomfort with their own unsettling power to salvage and save…

I was worried this would turn into a Movie of the Week, but I should have had more faith. It does walk the line for a frighteningly long time, but maybe that isn’t a bad idea in a time when Walmart and McDonalds, the Trumps and Romneys of the world, sometimes have us half-believing that funds from mental health programs would be better spent on tax cuts for businesses creating low-wage jobs, leaving the cleaning up of human flotsam to philanthropists. Still, the story’s heart lies elsewhere.

Cora is a former drug addict/hooker who now runs a last-chance waystation for current drug addict/hookers. Her task today is to beg funding from one Yvonne Borneo, a romance writer who has become rich off of books with titles like Ruffian and Seductress . This opening set-up reminded me of the meeting between Esther Greenwood and Philomena Guinea in The Bell Jar (a reflection of Plath’s real-life resentment of her financial dependence on Olive Higgins Prouty, first for her scholarship, then for her early psychiatric treatment), particularly in the characterization of the author’s books.

Of course, an emergency crops up while the potential philanthropist is visiting, in the form of a junkie in desperate need. Mrs. Borneo handles it with surprising aplomb but later disappears while Cora is tending to her charge. Scratch one donation. And that’s too bad, because Cora had a trump card, a card she didn’t get to play: the philanthropic writer once had a daughter. The daughter committed suicide, publicly attributed to schizophrenia, but Cora knew her “slightly” when they were patients at the same behavioral treatment center for runaways. This leads to a dramatic role reversal in the second act – a role free-for-all, really, a tossing of all the roles (mother, daughter, philanthropist, mendicant, wounded, healer) into the air and letting them fall where they may, on two people who meet in the middle from across a great chasm to simultaneously share those roles.

For me, the heart of the story was in Cora’s surprising reaction to her father’s forgiveness, and, by extension, Mrs. Borneo’s whitewashing of her daughter’s past:

…nothing had ever made her angrier than this: this artful abdication of responsibility, this consigning of every lost daughter to a communal slag heap of pretty Persephones. She remembered her father’s voice on the phone, telling her, “you can’t make amends for something that never happened.” How matter-of-factly he had absolved her of everything. How she wished she could accept his words as a gift and pretend they didn’t feel like a swift and brutal erasure of her entire adolescence as though it were some wartime atrocity, a stack of bodies to be buried and sprinkled with lime. He had excised part of her and left it on the cutting-room floor.… She knew what it was like to be Angelica in a way Yvonne Borneo could never know.

This may seem as ungrateful as Plath’s excoriation of her writer/benefactor, but those who are formed by ugliness feel the implicit shame and incompleteness this sanitization carries. Compare with the scene from The Bell Jar in which Esther recalls her mother asking Mrs. Guineau for financial help to keep her out of a state hospital:

Mrs. Guinea had telegrammed: “Is there a boy in the case?”
If there was a boy in the case, Mrs. Guinea couldn’t, of course, have anything to do with it.
But my mother had telegrammed back, “No, it is Esther’s writing. She thinks she will never write again.”

~~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Or, for that matter, compare with the adults in Quade’s “Nemecia“: reality makes people uncomfortable, and the burden is on the most injured to shield the whole from reality. Maybe real philanthropy is in allowing everyone to own her life, no matter how messy. Judging from Rivecca’s Contributor Note – “You shouldn’t have to disown and amputate your past in order to forge a future” – the heart of the story lies here for her as well.

One response to “BASS 2013: Suzanne Rivecca, “Philanthropy” from Granta, Spring 2012

  1. Pingback: BASS 2013: Closing the Cover | A Just Recompense

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