blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Bluebeard’s Closet

I visited the Museum of Death to see the preserved head of Henri Désiré Landru, the serial killer known as “The Bluebeard of Paris.” In 1922 Landru was guillotined for murdering ten of his fiancées, as well as one woman’s teenaged son. Although no bodies were ever recovered, the prosecuting attorney argued that Landru dismembered his victims and incinerated their body parts in his coal-fired stove. The vanished women, most of them war widows, had responded to the fraudulent personal ads Landru placed in Parisian newspapers, in which he’d posed as a wealthy widower. Beneath the Museum of Death’s glass display dome, Landru’s gaunt face recalled the color and texture of charcoal, and his fibrous lips looked like the edges of a dried mango slice. The murderer’s facial hair—a black Vandyke beard and waxed mustache—had been shaved in preparation for the guillotine. As my husband inspected the adjacent exhibit (a full-size replica of Florida’s electric chair), I stood to one side of Landru’s mummified head so other visitors could lean in.

The museum, founded in 1995, with branches in Los Angeles and New Orleans, aims to “fill the void in death education in the USA.” Certain exhibits I avoided entirely. Others I encountered by accident (like John Wayne Gacy’s eerie paintings of Pogo the Clown) and hurried past. The California Death Room—which I glimpsed from the hallway but refused to enter—offered a gruesome wallpaper: an ensemble of crime scene photographs from the Charles Manson murders. I turned down one corridor decorated with enlarged color photographs of American soldiers sprawled on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, then pivoted toward another hall. As I turned to the broad, left wall, I realized I stood nose level with a spread of black-and-white photographs of 1950s automobile accidents, with decapitated or maimed bodies slumped over seats and steering wheels. I looked away, hoping no one had noticed, and escaped to a side room.

Other exhibits at the Museum of Death captivated me. I lingered over the collection of logo-engraved pocketknives from 1970s funeral homes. I admired the tender mementos of Victorian mourning jewelry: the silver pins and lockets that held intimate wisps of a dead beloved’s now mouse-colored hair. I paused in front of a case of formidable prison shivs from Alabama. My favorite display was the small room packed to its ceiling with taxidermy. In the hallway entrance to the room sat two celebrity-owned pets: Liberace’s grizzled blond cat, Candy, and an apprehensive-looking Chihuahua that had expired alongside Jayne Mansfield in the actress’s 1967 car accident. Inside the room, I squatted to examine the contents of a lower shelf: a black-humored barbecue tool set in which the legs of deer formed the trophy handles of the grilling utensils—fork, brush, knife, spatula, two skewers—each one tipped in a hoof.

I spent the longest amount of time standing in front of an entire wall of albino animals: a white muskrat, squirrel, possum, skunk, fox, fawn, and a nearly impossible-to-recognize flaxen raccoon striped in faint amber. What are the chances that this uniquely phosphorescent herd might meet and decide to travel together through a forest? The only suitable vista in which they could survive and seek camouflage would be an arctic one: pure white. The animals—red-eyed, platinum-bristled—crouched in a Siberian pastoral, that winter fable that never got told, or translated, in time.


In 1964 my mother joined a social club during her freshman year at Mississippi State College for Women, in Columbus, and as part of her pledge duties, the Lancers asked her to tell a story to the group. She picked “Bluebeard” and performed the tale in a brooding, theatrical voice. Her selection of a story in which a deranged serial killer slaughters multiple women and tosses them into a secret chamber may seem at first a perverse choice for an audience of students who attended a small women’s college in the Deep South. But the horror story must’ve had a special resonance among women on the cusp of their future lives, many of them as young wives. In 1964, only a year since the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the students at Mississippi State College for Women had to reckon with the lingering conventions of 1950s domesticity (as well as the particular regional tradition of the southern belle) and the beginnings of the second-wave feminist movement. My mother wore embroidered peasant blouses, grew out her hair, and sang in a folk trio—the Guineveres—but she also practiced walking with a book balanced on top of her head during her required college course Personal Appearance. In the class, the male teacher would inspect his students’ nude pantyhose and subtract a point for each white run. The women had a midnight curfew on the weekends, with a male dean in charge of its enforcement. On weekdays, men were forbidden on campus. What must “Bluebeard” have said, in this context, about sexual power dynamics? What must it have meant to my mother?


Multiple versions of the “Bluebeard” story exist. Since Charles Perrault’s original tale, writers and artists as various as the Brothers Grimm, Béla Bartók, Sylvia Plath, and Margaret Atwood have added their visions to that enduring horror story of sexual politics. Nothing supernatural happens in Perrault’s version—unless you count the key’s indelible bloodstain as supernaturally obstinate; thus “Bluebeard” is technically a cautionary tale rather than a fairy tale. Perrault, the seventeenth-century French author, published his influential Stories or Tales of Past Times with Morals (subtitled Tales of Mother Goose) in 1697, when he was nearly seventy. The slim yet celebrated book includes only eight tales. My copy of his La barbe bleue, which bears the Americanized title “The Whimsical History of Bluebeard,” first belonged to my maternal grandparents. The oversized yellow volume is part of their handsome collector’s set titled The Evergreen Tales; or Tales for the Ageless (1952), translated by the British writer and critic Arthur Quiller-Couch and illustrated by the Danish painter Hans Bendix. My grandfather subscribed to the Limited Editions Club, based in New York, and filled the shelves of his home library with rare, leather-bound books in shades of ruby, topaz, sandalwood, and plum. I especially loved the sinister wood-block prints in Dante’s Divine Comedy and the special edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The two volumes of Swift’s work came with their own upholstered carrying case that had a vast slot for the cutting-board-sized hardcover A Voyage to Brobdingnag, and a narrow groove for the miniature volume A Voyage to Lilliput. My grandfather’s limited edition of “Bluebeard” is number 1052, out of two thousand copies, and the general editor, Jean Hersholt, signed its final page in faint, lapis ink. As a child, I used to touch the embossed spines of my grandparents’ books, believing their gilt titles were inlaid with real gold. As a child, my mother sat on the red Turkish rug in her parents’ library and turned the pages of the story, fascinated by Bendix’s gestural watercolors, particularly his illustration of the villain’s forbidden room.

In Perrault’s “Bluebeard,” a repulsively ugly widower, who lives in a castle and belongs to the vulgar nouveau riche, marries the young aristocratic woman Fatima, who resolves to overlook her suitor’s hideous blue beard. Before leaving town on business, Bluebeard gives his new bride the keys to the castle, including one that unlocks the door of the chamber he’s forbidden her to enter. Predictably, Fatima can’t suppress her curiosity and unlocks the door to reveal the corpses of Bluebeard’s former wives. In her horror, she drops the key, staining the metal with blood. Bluebeard returns early, discovers the bloody key, then threatens to decapitate Fatima. She begs for a few minutes to say her prayers, which gives her time to enlist her older sister Anne’s help. Anne stands on the roof and waves a kerchief as a distress signal to their brothers, who approach the castle on horseback. The brothers speed up as they notice Anne, burst through the castle doors, and stab Bluebeard to death with their swords, rescuing Fatima.

As baffling as Perrault’s cautionary tale may be (what drives Bluebeard’s perverse demands and reactionary violence?), it remains one of the most widely known stories in the folktale canon. Bluebeard refuses to explain or repent his violence; we never understand what mysterious circumstances drive him toward serial murder. In his classic, Freudian exploration of the meaning and significance of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment (1975), Austrian-born American psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argues that “Bluebeard” advocates a “humane morality which understands and forgives sexual transgressions.” “Marital infidelity,” Bettelheim suggests, “symbolically expressed by the blood  . . . on the key, is something to be forgiven.”

But “[i]s this tale truly about marital discord?” asks Jack Zipes in Why Fairy Tales Stick (2006). Neither partner marries for love, Zipes notes. Bluebeard weds for status and Fatima for money. Fatima profits from Bluebeard’s death, remarries, and forgets her past. Bluebeard remains opaque and unknowable. We discover his murderous secret alongside Fatima, but we never understand his reasoning or intent. He veers from laughing amiably at a prank (Fatima and her sister chop off the stem of Bluebeard’s rare aloe that blooms only once per century) to brutally attempting to decapitate his bride. Zipes doesn’t believe readers seek out “Bluebeard” for the wise insights into marriage it provides; he thinks we’re drawn to the story for its puzzling, provocative explorations of “the instinctual drive for power that misfires.” I suspect my mother didn’t tell “Bluebeard” to the southern belles pledging the Lancers to help them become more obedient wives. I suspect she told the Lancers—those women named after lance-wielding soldiers—as an act of celebratory defiance. Who hasn’t wanted to pry open a secret?

“We open the successive doors in Bluebeard’s castle because ‘they are there,’” writes cultural critic George Steiner in his treatise on the decline of classical humanism In Bluebeard’s Castle (1971). “[E]ach leads to the next,” he continues:

by a logic of intensification which is that of the mind’s own awareness of being. To leave one door closed would be not only cowardice but a betrayal—radical, self-mutilating—of the inquisitive, probing, forward-tensed stance of our species. We are hunters after reality, wherever it may lead.


To find out whether she wanted to become a psychiatrist, like her father, my mother worked in 7 East, the psychiatric wing of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, during the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of college. My grandfather, Dr. L.C. Hanes, taught and practiced psychiatry in Jackson from 1959 until his death in 1987. He worked at the Medical Center during a number of those years. My mother’s main duties as a psychiatric aid involved socializing with the patients in 7 East—chatting with them and playing bridge. One of the patients, my mother learned, was on suicide watch and required special protocol. My mother was supposed to “01 her,” which meant she was to carefully shadow the patient, who I’ll call Ruth. Ruth was in her early twenties, short-haired, slight, and wiry. Her father had often left her alone as a child with her depressed mother while he went away on business, and during one trip Ruth’s mother killed herself. Until her own suicide attempt during her first year of college, Ruth had been a student at Millsaps College. She had an IQ of 160 and a scornful nickname for my mother—“Turd,” a word that wasn’t yet part of my sheltered mother’s vocabulary. One day, my mother peered into Ruth’s room through the door’s small observational window, but the space looked empty. As soon as my mother opened the door and stepped inside, Ruth quickly slipped out of the room, slamming the door behind her, which locked automatically. Although my mother wasn’t stuck in the “01” room for long, and staff members soon located Ruth in another part of the hospital, my mother decided not to pursue a career in psychiatry. Ruth finally learned upon her return that Dr. Hanes was my mother’s father. “You’re Father Hanes’s daughter,” Ruth said reverentially, figuring my grandfather as a priest, her confessor. From then on, she called my mother “Father Hanes’s Daughter” instead of “Turd.”


The expression “skeleton in the closet” arose in the early nineteenth century. In an article published in the UK monthly periodical The Eclectic Review, the minister and editor William Hendry Stowell employs the metaphor as a description of the urge to keep hidden from family members the knowledge of hereditary diseases. “The dread of being the cause of misery to posterity,” Stowell writes, “has prevailed over [men] . . . to conceal the skeleton in the closet.” The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definitions of the expression: “a private and concealed trouble in one’s house or circumstances, ever present, and ever liable to come into view” and “a secret source of shame or pain to a family or person.” The phrase’s exact origins remain mysterious. Although Perrault’s chamber of corpses in “Bluebeard” suggests one plausible source, a number of people have surmised that the image of the hidden skeleton refers to the clandestine use of anatomy skeletons by physicians or artists who had not received legal permission to dissect corpses. Thus, people interested in directly exploring the human body—or academics who wished to use cadavers as teaching tools—kept their black-market materials discreetly tucked away, locked in wardrobes, cupboards, or closets.

For years, my grandfather kept a secret in his closet.


My grandfather saved a fragment of the skull of his medical school skeleton. Throughout his studies at UT Austin, he’d used the yellow, bowl-shaped hunk of parietal bone as an ashtray, before finally deciding that doing so was in poor taste and retiring the object to a cardboard box in the attic. Most of the patients he treated at the University of Mississippi Medical Center were female neurotics or gay adolescent males. Although my grandfather never shared privileged information about patients with his family, my mother suspected that he urged his gay patients to accept themselves rather than seek some dubious “cure” for their sexuality. He actively steered the teenagers away from a particular colleague of his at the Medical Center who specialized in an insidious form of “behavior modification therapy” for gay men, which involved attaching electrodes to the patients’ testicles, projecting slides of nude men and women on a screen, and shocking the patients’ genitals each time a picture of a naked man materialized. “He got apoplectic about that doctor,” my mom said. Throughout his career, my grandfather remained skeptical about treatments that aimed to change a person’s fundamental character, including electroconvulsive therapy. His own mother—depressed since her oldest daughter, Joyce, died from strep throat—suffered severe brain damage from early electroshock treatments. Before the final round of shock therapy launched her into a permanent vegetative state, she experienced a psychotic break and chased my grandfather’s other sister, seven-year-old Jeannette, into the backyard waving a BB gun. Jeanette shimmied up a chinaberry as her mother fired at her, pacing back and forth in the grass below. The little girl stayed in the tree until her father returned from the barbershop to steer his wife back inside.


Although I’m attached to my grandparents’ copy of Perrault’s “Bluebeard,” I prefer the early-nineteenth-century version of the story retold by the Brothers Grimm, titled “Fitcher’s Bird.” The Grimms’ revision of “Bluebeard” remains similar in plot to Perrault’s, although it contains a number of supernatural elements, which makes their story a true fairy tale rather than a cautionary one. In “Fitcher’s Bird,” the Bluebeard figure isn’t a rich man in a castle; he’s a wizard in a dark forest. The wizard dresses up as a beggar, lugging on his back a magical wicker basket into which he compels women to jump. During one outing, he arrives at the home of a family with three daughters, makes the oldest sibling hop into his basket, and carries her back to his house in the woods. In addition to giving his kidnapped bride-to-be the key to the forbidden room, he hands her an egg, which she must carry at all times. Like Fatima in “Bluebeard,” the oldest sister unlocks the wizard’s forbidden room and discovers the bodies of murdered women. The Grimms’ macabre vision of the carnage surpasses Perrault’s in its violence: the wizard had dismembered his victims and dumped the hacked-up parts into a bloody basin in the center of the chamber. Instead of dropping the key, she lets go of the egg, staining its shell with blood. The wizard returns, slaughters the oldest sister, returns to the family’s house, and snatches the middle sister, with whom he repeats the murderous scenario. The youngest sister, however, outsmarts the wizard after she’s kidnapped, tucking away the egg for safekeeping before she enters the forbidden room. She notices her sisters’ corpses among the bodies, and, horrified, reaches into the bloody basin to recover their severed limbs, arranging them in order, like human puzzle pieces: “head, body, arms and legs.” “And when nothing further was lacking,” the Brothers Grimm recount, “the limbs began to move and unite themselves together, and both the maidens opened their eyes and were once more alive. Then they rejoiced and kissed and caressed each other.”

Unlike Fatima in Perrault’s “Bluebeard,” who remains passive as she relies on her siblings to devise her rescue, the youngest sister in “Fitcher’s Bird” brings about her own salvation. When the wizard returns, he finds the egg pristine. “He now had no longer any power over her,” the Brothers Grimm write, “and was forced to do whatsoever she desired.” The young woman hides her resurrected sisters in the wizard’s basket, covers them with a layer of gold, and forces him to deliver the load to their parents while she pretends to prepare the wedding feast. She invites the wizard’s friends. She invents a double for herself: a grinning skull wreathed in flowers, which she places in an upstairs window. Next, “she got into a barrel of honey, and then cut the feather-bed open and rolled herself in it, until she looked like a wondrous bird, and no one could recognize her.” She flees the house and slips past wedding guests on their way to the house, answering their questions with her savvy, bird-like song:

“O, Fitcher’s bird, how com’st thou here?”
“I come from Fitcher’s house quite near.”
“And what may the young bride be doing?”
“From cellar to garret she’s swept all clean,
    And now from the window she’s peeping, I ween.”

She meets the wizard on his way back to the house, fooling him, too. The fairy tale ends when the family of the bride arrives at the feast, locks the wizard and his friends in the house, and burns the place to the ground.

I prefer “Fitcher’s Bird” to “Bluebeard” for its unstable, shifting power dynamics, and for the central female character’s agency and resourcefulness. She doesn’t just quiver in terror, hoping Bluebeard won’t notice her betrayal. She restores her sisters’ bodies to wholeness and transforms herself into a golden bird, making for herself a magical skin from honey and feathers.


In his classic phenomenological text The Poetics of Space (1958), the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard explores the spaces—cellars, attics, corners, and more—that comprise a home. In the chapter “Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes,” Bachelard describes these “hiding-places in which human beings, great dreamers of locks, keep or hide their secrets.” Elsewhere, he writes:

Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed, without these “objects” and a few others in equally high favor, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy. They are hybrid objects, subject objects. Like us, through us and for us, they have a quality of intimacy.

Does there exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word wardrobe? . . .

And to fine words correspond fine things, to grave-sounding words, an entity of depth. Every poet of furniture—even if he be a poet in a garret, and therefore has no furniture—knows that the inner space of an old wardrobe is deep. A wardrobe’s inner space is also intimate space, space that is not open to just anybody.

C.S. Lewis famously employed the intimate space of a wardrobe as a fantastical portal into the land of Narnia, filled with marvelous talking animals, mythological creatures, and a fearsome White Witch. Most “poets of furniture,” however, evoke more ambivalent and haunting figurations of the secret space. In Bill Knott’s poem “The Closet,” a young speaker opens his mother’s wardrobe to find (after she had died in childbirth) “the hangers are sharper, knife-’n’-slice, I jump / Helplessly to catch them to twist them clear . . .” In Saeed Jones’s “Closet of Red,” a baroque cascade of foliage blooms within a space that would contain or control queer desire: “In place of no, my leaking mouth spills foxgloves. / Trumpets of tongued blossoms litter the locked closet.”

Once, a tattoo artist who had to break his lease gave me a tour of his apartment. I’d responded to the ad he’d posted online about the rental. As I admired a hardcover art book on his coffee table that featured a collection of Alberto Vargas’s vintage illustrations of midcentury pinups, he said he often used Vargas’s nude women as templates for “naked lady” designs on clients’ biceps. I imagined the women would resurrect, like the sisters in “Fitcher’s Bird,” each time muscles flexed and twitched the tattoos to life. Before I left, he showed me an armoire that came with the apartment, since it was too heavy to move. He said he wanted to show me a secret, and lifted the false bottom of the armoire to reveal a hidden compartment lined in purple velvet. Later, after I had moved in, I peeked into the secret drawer and found that he’d left the Vargas book there for me as a gift. The real gift, though, we both knew, was our sharing the intimacy of a secret.

Once, while cleaning out my grandfather’s house after his death, my mother discovered a stash of gay porn magazines hidden in a green canvas backpack in his closet.


In addition to being a psychiatrist, my grandfather was an amateur painter, a classical guitar player, a fencer, a civil rights activist, an interfaith community leader, and a collector of newfangled technologies. He was the first person on the block to own a color TV. I grew up staring at a framed oil painting he made that hangs on the wall in my father’s home office. It’s a still life done in a heavy, impressionist impasto: three oranges in a wooden bowl beside a half-filled water pitcher placed on a white-and-blue plaid tablecloth, one end of the material folded back. The perspective is wrong—unintentionally and confusedly cubist. Due to the table’s angle, I shouldn’t be able to see the tops of the oranges. But I like that I can see them: their skins splotchy and bright, the white light coming in strong and from all directions.


The expression “coming out of the closet” is a mixed metaphor. The phrase blends “coming out,” which evokes the celebratory “coming-out party” of a debutante, with “skeleton in the closet,” which connotes a shameful, hidden secret. So these sociolinguistic origins warp the metaphor’s vehicle as well as torque the tone. “Coming out,” before the 1950s, suggested an optimistic entrance into society, whereas “coming out of the closet,” after the Stonewall Riots, implied an exit from the oppression of a secret.

Although my grandfather never came out of the closet during his lifetime, choosing to remain in a heteronormative marriage, my mother had suspected her father’s hidden identity for several decades. Every now and then, she told me, she’d “catch whiffs” of his secret. “Like what?” I’d asked.

My mother, who belonged to a community theater troupe, developed a crush on a costume designer, Bob, who’d moved from New York to Jackson to work on a local play about the true identity of Shakespeare. (This was the play during which the lead actor—the guy who played Shakespeare—succumbed to his flu and threw up on my mother backstage.) She told her father how talented and funny Bob seemed, that he’d make “a nice marriage partner,” and that he was bisexual. When my grandfather advised her against pursuing a relationship with Bob, saying it “wasn’t a good thing for a woman to enter into,” my mother believed he spoke from his expertise as a shrink. She realized much later that he might have spoken from personal experience. Throughout his married life, my grandfather maintained a circle of openly gay friends and invited them over for dinner with his family. There was Leslie, the male choir director at the Episcopalian church at which my grandfather served as a lay reader. There was the interior decorator, Hal. There was Jim, a fellow shrink he’d met at the University Medical Center and with whom he founded Riverside, the first psychiatric hospital in the vicinity of Jackson. (The other hospitals in the area offered only psychiatric wings.) My mother remembers Jim coming over for dinner many times with his younger boyfriend Skip, who Jim was putting through college. They’d play duplicate bridge with my grandparents. After Skip graduated, he left Jim and eventually married a woman. My grandfather would get drunk and drive over, alone, to Jim’s house and stay for hours. My mother believes Jim was her father’s long-term partner, though she never asked either of them about it, even after her father’s death, even after she found the magazines, even after—at the funeral—she saw Jim’s anguished face.


Part of me grieves for my grandfather’s secret: it must’ve been a harrowing burden to bear. And part of me shivers with the knowledge that his secret is why I’m alive, why my mother, aunt, and sister were born. Four people. I’m grateful. I’m horrified. Didn’t he know, as a shrink, that his sacrifice was destructive? How could he advise his patients to accept themselves when he couldn’t show that same generosity toward himself? He wore love beads in the sixties. He worked to advance integration policies in Mississippi. He welcomed the Summer of Love. Why didn’t he tell his family? My grandmother had to have known. Before they moved to Jackson, she’d threatened to leave him in New Orleans, even calling her former nursing supervisor in Austin and arranging to return to her old job. What did he have to promise her? When he couldn’t give up Jim, why didn’t he at least finally tell my mother? Why didn’t he live with his lover and find happiness after my grandmother died?

Before my grandmother died from terminal emphysema in 1985, she and my grandfather used the money they’d received from selling their stake in Riverside Psychiatric Hospital to travel the world. In 1981, they visited Paris and London. They flew to Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, and Nepal. They visited my parents and me in suburban Dhaka. Advised against the trip, my grandmother told her doctor that she’d rather die visiting her baby granddaughter in Bangladesh than live in fear in Jackson. She crammed a folder with a two-inch stack of her photocopied medical records and packed it in her suitcase.

During a tour of the yellow, smoky streets of Old Dhaka clogged with rickshaws and ghastly traffic jams, my grandmother began wheezing. My parents took her back to the house while Susheel, their household staff manager, remained with my grandfather, who said he wanted to continue sightseeing. My grandfather returned after midnight, drunk, with a rambling, incoherent tale about how he and Susheel had gotten lost. My mother wonders whether he’d convinced Susheel to take him to a gay brothel.


A number of scholars and biographers have suggested that the nineteenth-century Danish author Hans Christian Andersen created an allegorical self-portrait of his bisexuality in the fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” originally titled “The Daughters of the Air.” As early as 1907, Andersen’s biographer Hans Brix equated the Little Mermaid’s unrequited love for the prince with Andersen’s love for his male friend, Edvard Collin, who married a woman. Andersen wrote love poems to Collin and confessed, in a letter: “How I long for you, Edvard! I think the separation has turned my friendship into love.” Andrew Teverson suggests in Fairy Tale (2013) that “Andersen is silent the suffering half-half creature, unable to speak his love, but also unable to give it up.” Like the hybrid mermaid, who must choose between sea and land, body and spirit, Andersen must negotiate opposing geographic and existential realms: “between the Odense of his childhood” and the Copenhagen of his adult life, between erotic and literary fulfillment. Andersen, like his mermaid, strives to win the love of a man who can’t return his affections. According to Jackie Wullschläger’s biography, Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller (2000), Andersen couldn’t accept that the mermaid’s acquisition of an immortal soul depended on the reciprocal love of a man. He couldn’t bear to let her die and turn into nothingness—a layer of empty, golden foam floating on the surface of the sea. He revised his story so that even though the Little Mermaid doesn’t find happiness with her prince, she becomes one of the rare, ethereal sprites, called the “daughters of the air,” who fly around doing good deeds for hundreds of years, eventually creating their own immortal souls. Wullschläger suggests that Andersen substituted his erotic desires with his literary ambition and longing for fame. Toward the end of his life, she notes, Andersen wrote to congratulate a young correspondent on his recent marriage, saying:

You have got yourself a home, a loving wife, and you are happy! God bless you and her! At one time I too dreamed of such happiness, but it was not to be granted to me. Happiness came to me in another form, came as my muse that gave me a wealth of adventure and songs.

What must’ve Andersen felt when Edvard Collin married Henriette Thyberg? He wrote to his friend: “My dear, dear Edvard—God bless and go with you!” He then evoked, in harrowing detail, the Little Mermaid’s anguish: every step she took on her new legs felt like “walking on knives.” Finally, Andersen rested beside his friend in death, when Collin granted the author’s wish: Collin, his wife, and Andersen were interred side by side, as a threesome. Years later, the bodies of the married couple were exhumed by relatives and buried in a family plot, leaving Andersen alone in the grave.


“Never get sick on a Saturday,” my grandfather liked to say, “or a Sunday.” Holidays were out, too. Why, then, did he schedule his hernia operation for a weekend, when the regular, full-time staff would be gone? He must’ve considered the surgery too routine to worry about. He didn’t know that the doctor would nick an artery; that the cavity of his chest would slowly fill with blood overnight; that by the time he rose in the dark, thinking the pressure in his gut meant he had to pee, he would realize he was bleeding out. As he fell to the floor of his hospital bathroom, he yanked the emergency lever.

My grandfather died from the botched hernia operation when he was sixty-two, at least twenty years before he should have. He died when I was seven, when I was too young to know him. He should have lived into his eighties, like everyone else’s grandparents, Skyping with me from my dorm room and politely complimenting my maudlin early poems. He should have lived to see popular opinion about gay rights—and civil rights laws—change. I don’t know if the memories I have of him are actual ones or whether I remember the video footage of the taped Christmas visit I’ve watched dozens of times, the one in which my grandfather seems—to borrow my husband’s phrase—“elegant and kind.” There’s that mechanical Santa Claus he gave us who drives a red fire truck that blasts “Jingle Bells” as it crashes repeatedly into the bookcase. There’s our graceful, long-haired, gray tabby—over twenty years gone—who stalks across the frame. There’s the slight West Texas drawl in the way he says my name. I’m afraid they may be memories of the video and not my own. I see myself—an impossible perspective—crouched under the green wire pine.


Hans Christian Andersen was so phobic about being buried alive that he kept a note by his bedside: “I only appear to be dead.” This way, no one would stick him in a pine box and shovel six feet of dirt on him as he dozed. On his actual deathbed, at age seventy, he begged a close friend to do him a favor: after he died, please slash his veins, to make sure he wouldn’t wake up, alive, confined in a dark, airless coffin. Perhaps I visited the Museum of Death because of a similar sort of horror. Or maybe I remain furious at the museum’s subject. But what can I do with the severed head of the Bluebeard of Paris except stare? Or with lockets and pins stuffed with the hair of Victorians? What stories can these taxidermied albinos tell through their impossible tableau?

Bluebeard’s wife Fatima remains silent after discovering his murderous secret. She says nothing at the party to her friends about what she’s seen in the forbidden chamber. Couldn’t someone have helped her? Why did she accept her fate and try to hide the key? My mother remained silent about her suspicions at the Christmas party she attended with her parents and my father in the early seventies. As she looked around the room, she realized every guest—save the ones in her party—was gay. She studied her father’s gestures as he stood next to Jim. Leslie played the piano, the many members of the local community theater group talked animatedly and clinked their drinks. Maybe he felt he didn’t need to say anything. Maybe he felt that cross the Ku Klux Klan once burned in his front yard in Jackson had said enough. Maybe he believed the truth would damage our family.

I’m glad my mother shares with me her stories, especially the dark or surprising ones. They help me better understand my family, including the members whose lives overlapped only briefly—five years, seven years—with my own. I’m glad she was voted “resident storyteller” in her college social club. Since I can remember she’s been my resident storyteller, too. There isn’t an anecdote out there too terrifying or gruesome or scandalous. They’re our Tales of Mother Goose. There isn’t a forbidden door in the castle that she won’t unlock. Father Hanes’s Daughter. There’s a Bluebeard or two shifting shapes in the story, a grandfather who died, a tattoo artist hiding bodies in the secret chamber. Like the clever daughter in “Fitcher’s Bird,” I’d find those limbs, arrange them, and watch the fragments begin to resurrect and walk.  


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