Bosslight Interview with Christine Butterworth-McDermott, Author of Evelyn As.
From Fomite Press: Christine Butterworth-McDermott’s Evelyn As is a vivid, poetic account of the early life and career of late 19th and early 20th Century chorus girl, artists’ model, and actress Evelyn Nesbit. These dynamic, fraught, and textural poems provide a stunning and heartbreaking portrait of a life of stardom, violence, scandal, and survival, weaving together everything from the Persephone myth and Little Red Riding Hood to Rapunzel and Snow White—not to mention also gaze theory, the sometimes (wildly complicated) transformative power of art, and the roles we all play both willingly and un-. At its heart, Evelyn As is a compelling, gripping, and tragic blockbuster of a book, simultaneously cinematic, awe inspiring, and crushing.
How did you first encounter Evelyn Nesbit and what made you decide that she was a subject you could write an entire poetry collection about? It started with wallpaper. When I was younger, my mother put up a wallpaper which had faces of Gibson Girls all over it. Even then, I loved things that were centered on the turn of the century and I was interested in the hair and the costume of that time period. These women seemed very glamorous and romantic to me. Evelyn was one of the models that posed for Charles Dana Gibson. He immortalized her in a sketch called “The Eternal Question,” a profile which shows Evelyn’s hair as a question mark. So, I first encountered Evelyn as a piece of art.
Years and years later, I was still fascinated. In 2008, I read Paula Uruburu’s amazing biography called American Eve which detailed Evelyn’s life and her tumultuous relationship with two very powerful men: Stanford White and Harry Kendall Thaw. As I read it, I couldn’t get over how young Evelyn was—my book centers mainly on events from the time she met White at the age of 15 to his murder by her abusive husband when she was 22. Evelyn is remarkable for making her own money, but her body was her commodity, and she was powerfully defined by the relationship she had to the men in her life due to societal constraints.
I started working on the book in 2010-2012, during the election when many politicians were vehemently discussing women’s bodies, with some even going so far to question what “real rape” was and desiring to deny abortion rights even to victims of incest. I also had a good male friend who was going through trauma recovery. I wanted to talk about the complex issue of violations, especially in complicated cases, but didn’t want to go on a direct political rant. Originally, I wanted to look at three different women who had been shaped by famous photographic lenses—Alice Liddell, Evelyn, and Marilyn Monroe—but Evelyn took over. I felt she was exactly the right metaphor to talk about issues that were troubling me.
Your collection, much like her life, is both complex and complicated. As the title implies, you look at Evelyn through a wide selection of lenses, at different stages in her life. Did this framework come part and parcel of the bigger idea or did you develop it along the way? The “shape” of the collection changed several times. I first wrote it as a series of several short poems, taking my inspiration from Impressionist painting—could I reveal a whole portrait in blurred brush strokes? Then, it was one long narrative without breaks, a short of novella in poetic form. That ultimately felt too exhaustive. Some people suggested the manuscript be more linear, some suggested it was too arbitrary and that I should only follow one “portrait” (say “Little Red” or “Persephone”), some suggested I draw parallels to my personal story or make it much more viscerally violent. But I really wanted Evelyn As to be a rather quiet collection during which the reader would be forced to question what made Evelyn “Evelyn,” to contemplate multiple definitions of her. She was a girl who was constantly manipulated, posed, and named by others. This fit in with my feminist concerns.
Although Evelyn herself lived until 1967, I was interested in how she’s been frozen in time at a certain age. Eventually, I decided on the idea of a “gallery,” a museum where we see all the varying portraits of her. A photograph is an artifact but we often think it represents reality, but we can’t possibly know the model. Even so, we assume things about her from photographs, painted portraits, sketches. I wanted the reader to hold many pictures of her at once, to consider what they brought to the pictures they saw, to wonder what the hidden truth might be. We often meet smiling people who are suffering underneath a beautiful façade. I wanted to explore that idea more than anything else. The last thing I wrote was “Evelyn As Exhibition in Twenty-Four Pictures: A Guide” and the table of contents because the titles came late, me naming the “icon” or “stereotype” brought forth through the lens, or onto the canvas. Ultimately, I hope the collection feels like the old photographic process of development, where you’d put the blank paper in the solution and the overall image appears like a kind of magic.
In the very first poem, you write “....that may just be the way I see it.” I think that’s the only time we see the first person “I” show up in the collection. There seems to have been a conscious decision to fill the collection with the facts of her life, the times and places, the people of her life and let the sum total speak for itself. Can you speak to this? The book is bridged by two poems “Evelyn As Model” and “Evelyn As Elegy.” I used her as much as a model as any other artist did or would, to give voice to my own thoughts. So, I wanted to let the audience know that I was the director of this particular gallery. At the same time, the collection is also an act of mourning her and condemning the violence perpetuated against her. I have immense sympathy for Evelyn, for every person trying to find the way post-trauma. Is this the real Evelyn Nesbit’s specific truth? Not necessarily. I merely wanted to imagine what that truth might have been. So, truly, this is all filtered through my own view, it is Evelyn “as poems.”
A lot of the poetry in Evelyn As features line breaks that accentuate a fragmented or disjointed reading. Reading it aloud can be quite different than scanning the page. Can you mention how and why you made that particular choice? Was it there from the beginning or did it come about in the editing or what? Prior to this collection, most of my poetry was highly narrative and linear—although imagistic. For me, Evelyn’s story is so horrific and traumatic that it requires fragmentation. A terrific poet friend of mine—Tyler Heath—had used this technique and I thought I would try it out because it felt right. For many of us, when a violent event occurs, we “block out” parts of that trauma and there are strange silences, we forget things, or we concentrate on very specific details. This can feel like strobe lights which when they go off allow us to slow down images to “frames” or “flashes.” Alternately, there are moments during trauma, where our brains speed up and we hurry through the event in order to get to the end—I borrowed techniques from the poet William Brewer for this to deliberately create distortion, of not being able to hold onto reality. This creates a sort of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland effect. After a violent event, there are the things you can’t get out of your head: a smell, a sound, something you were wearing. I wanted to play with these temporal effects of trauma and convey them to the reader in a physical way. It also allowed me to highlight the several recurrent images and objects important to the Evelyn story (red velvet, fairytales, teeth, lights of cameras, chrysanthemums, spinning, etc.). I was trying to create echoes—a bit like keening during grieving, or repetition in a prayer.
People sometimes portray Evelyn as someone who was passive in her own life, i.e. the witness in the murder trials, the victim. Her life can be seen as a tragedy, but do you think she’s more than a tragic figure? Evelyn could be called the first modern age celebrity. She seemed to come along at the right moment, and she had a lot of good luck, at least initially, even if it seemed to lead to bad ends. What do you think Evelyn says to modern culture, and specifically, to women in 2020?
I wanted her to be very amorphous: a tragic figure, an epic metaphor, and just a girl. When we hear stories of abuse, the question becomes “how did this happen?” as if somehow knowing the facts would undo it. When faced with cruelty or crime, we often try to find an organizing principle for what is just horror. We all face that kind of tragedy: accidents, abuses (verbal and physical), undeserved cruelty, pain. But beyond that, there’s the specific toxic culture where targets of abuse are dismissed or belittled, portrayed as hysterical or liars. The last level is Evelyn’s specific story as a girl from the ages of 14-22 in 1900-1906, her very particular difficulty at that point in history, when women did not have certain privileges at their disposal.
At 14, her mother arranged for Evelyn to pose nude for paintings and photographs as an artist’s model. A year later, she was drugged and raped by wealthy architect Stanford White, who was in his forties. Shortly thereafter, she was manipulated into marrying a mentally ill multi-millionaire for whom the term “playboy” was invented. She didn’t know Harry Kendall Thaw was a sadist obsessed with White until after she married him. As a young woman whose virginity was “lost,” Evelyn didn’t have a lot of options and despite Harry’s physical abuse, she felt she had to marry him. She was psychologically fractured by the people who were supposed to protect her constantly.
She was only 22 at the end of this period. In today’s world, she might be graduating with a degree, she might have been empowered to speak out against what was happening, she might have felt confident to be on her own. Unfortunately, social systems weren’t set up to help her then. Even today, we still have a long way to go to end such trauma. Having worked with college aged students since 1992, I cannot tell you how many have confided to me past abuse, or have written about that abuse, how many girls (and boys) that age for whom I’ve arranged counseling appointments because they are haunted like Evelyn, engulfed by loathing and shame. I can understand that pain, and the difficult journey recovery can often entail. People can’t underestimate how seductive abusers can be either—with their apologies, gifts, or promises to be better. Evelyn called Stanford her “benevolent vampire,” which pretty much sums it up.
I think we still judge targets today by their supposed passivity in the face of abuse. We cast blame on what they say, or their wardrobe, or their supposedly intention to seduce their perpetrators. We question how much and when they “fight.” They’re labelled as “victims” and often we ask them to perform suffering rather than outrage. We’ve seen this in the Weinstein and Epstein cases in the last couple of years. Many of those girls were exactly Evelyn’s age when they were forced into sexual encounters. I think Evelyn’s story will continue to resonate until we do something about a toxic culture that allows this to occur, until we not only say no one deserves to be abused but begin to change the rhetoric and systems that allow it.
What I wanted to say more than anything with this narrative, and why the book is dedicated to “all the Evelyns,” is that Evelyns surround us. A hundred plus years later and they still form circles of haunting portraits. Rather than just “looking” at them, observing them, and then leaving the gallery, we need to talk to the model we think we “see” to find out the true story. We so often say abuse is horrible, but don’t do much to prevent it before it happens, or stop it once we’re aware of it—how easy it is to look away. Hopefully, the readers of Evelyn As will realize that while they can’t help the dead and buried Evelyn, they can help someone a lot nearer to them. They can, perhaps for just one person, eliminate the necessity of the repetition of “poor child.”
Christine Butterworth-McDermott’s creative work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Massachusetts Review, River Styx, and Southeast Review, among others. She is the author of Tales on Tales: Sestinas, All Breathing Heartbreak, Woods & Water, Wolves & Women and Evelyn As. A fairy tale scholar, who has written on Louisa May Alcott and Henry James, she is the founder and co-editor of Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, an online quarterly journal focused on publishing magical poetry & prose. A graduate of Purdue University, she lives in Nacogdoches, Texas with her daughter and husband, writer John A. McDermott.