"Nightbitch" & Wildness: A Descent to Soul
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
Nightbitch has created a tangled skein of ideas in my head and I’m not sure I’ll unravel it. You know how Austin Kleon does mind maps? I did that…. And I love the visual effect but the tangle remains.
But then I thought about assemblage and what a fascinating technique that is for living into our soul-selves. It’s a technique Nightbitch uses to reshape her identity after her descent to soul, as Bill Plotkin might call it. Or after her shamanic initiation as Joan Halifax might say.
The point being that untangled, orderly, linear may not be the goal and may not be possible. But to begin somewhere…
We begin Nightbitch with the mother caught in a mandorla. Bill Plotkin, in The Journey of Soul Initiation, defines mandorla as “the interplay of opposites, the inherent tension between them, the interaction and interdependence between apparent contraries.” The mother is caught in the tension between being a mother and being a working artist. Despite the common perception that “women didn’t have to stop their lives now, in this day and age, for babies. They could work in the office and work at home. They could work and work around the clock if they wanted!”
Yet reality requires a choice: her “endlessly crying son, alone, on the linoleum floor” at daycare while she pumps breast milk in a sterile cubicle OR staying home with her beloved child and a relentlessly dull schedule of devotion. “Was this boring? Yes, she knew it was, and she wanted someone, anyone, to understand the monotony, the mind-numbing routine, the way in which her mental activity began to slow the moment she woke each morning, beginning with high hopes, thoughts of art projects and energy, a sunny day and happy boy and goals fulfilled, and the slow yet steady grinding down of hopes to rote considerations of what to eat and what to clean…”
As Bill Plotkin explains, in a mandorla “we find ourselves unnervingly pulled by or even occupying both poles: I am this but somehow, inexplicably, also that — and I cannot be both. I know who I am and I don’t have a clue who I am. At such times, the tension between opposites destabilizes us and renders us vulnerable to an identity collapse. At the first sign of such tension, most people in conventional mainstream consciousness do whatever they can to escape it by fleeing to one pole or another. This is not what we do if and when we’re on a Descent to Soul.”
Descent to soul
And it’s not what the mother does in Nightbitch. She stands in the crazy place, growing hair on the back of her neck, craving raw meat, feeling completely unhinged and resisting the pull of two clear choices. She could join the Book Babies moms (“It was the veritable embrace of All Things Mommy, and the mother certainly did not want to embrace anything of the sort: she was indeed a mother, but she wasn’t that kind of mother, the sort that built her entire life and being around her child…”) or the working artist moms (“These other women—they were her friends!—had kids, but one had sold a piece of art for half a million dollars and also had a live-in nanny, while the other had the ability not to care about the horrible women and the day care, or at least not show it, not give in to it, and instead had enlisted her child in full-time day care, with before- and after-school programs, even before the child was in school.”)
Phase One of the Descent
When the book opens, the mother has already passed the first phase of Descent to Soul or shamanic initiation. According to Joan Halifax in The Fruitful Darkness, this first phase is Severance in which the “neophyte abandons or is severed from the familiar and begins to move into seclusion.” We meet the mother in her isolation at home with her son, cut off from the familiar groove of her work life and the support of relationship since her husband travels regularly.
Isolated when the book opens, the mother stands in the tension—the mandorla—between the only two available options for motherhood, and that tension works her dissolution, catapulting her into the second phase of shamanic initiation, which Joan Halifax calls the Threshold, “the fallow chaos.” It’s a time of testing the boundaries of self because the gates of the unknown have opened. Halifax writes, “At the threshold we experience ourselves as a multiplex. We are both mortal and god, human and creature, wild and cultured, male and female, old and dying, and fresh and newborn. We are rough and unmade, not held together.”
We see Nighbitch testing herself and her boundaries, learning the necessary limits of her power.
Much of this process is about shedding the limitations of ego to become a whole Self. At dinner with her working mother friends, Nightbitch’s ego is at its lowest ebb: “... sitting at that table, she saw quite starkly, through two glasses of white wine and an entire bale of kale, that she was … in a word, insignificant. She saw herself as these other women now saw her, a silent, flabby, woman sipping wine without so much as a single exciting comment or opinion to offer to the conversation.” Like the villains in every superhero movie, stung by her perceived slights and sense of insignificance, she uses her Nightbitch power to wreak havoc.
I was rooting for her when she roars and tips the table. I laughed when she says "I could crush a walnut with my vagina!" But when she grabs the burger of the young stranger “with a sparkling ring on her left hand, bright with love,” Nightbitch is verging into what we would today label “Karen” mode. The self-righteous older woman throwing her weight around to soothe her ego through “self-indulgent anger.” But it isn’t until she kills her pet cat, a horrific scene in the book, that Nightbitch is jarred into realizing that power run-amok isn’t the answer. She realizes she wants to be a monster, yes, but only if “being free to do what you needed and be who you wanted—truly free—[was] monstrous.” With this understanding, she emerges from the mandorla, knowing “she would need to grow focused and quiet, to narrow her eyes and look into the future and see there her success and then work toward making that success happen. No more pouting. No more aimless doggy games. She must be single-minded in her pursuit and effective in her approach. And she would get her son to help her, somehow.”
With her primal vitality now tempered by vision, Nightbitch prepares for stage three of the shamanic initiation, the Return. Through her Threshold experience, Nightbitch has found what Halifax calls the “life thread that sews together the fabric of our world. Here we can stitch together the robe of society with the stuff of creation to restore and renew the life of our peoples and help them see that culture only blossoms in the field of nature.”
The Boon of Wildness
Nightbitch emerges from her descent as an artist illuminating far more complex and rich possibilities for motherhood and selfhood. The gift Nightbitch brings back to her community (which includes us, her readers) is the understanding that we are wilder and freer than the image of the selflessly devoted mother would make you think. And that power lies in more than socially defined “success” and the validations of salary and position. She assembles her own sense of identity as mother, artist, animal, mythical creature, inheritor of her mother’s and grandmother’s creative and occult gifts and also inheritor of the primal rage of a caged creature. Carol Lee Flinders in At the Root of this Longing writes, “The Mother, then, in all Her manifestations, is earth and the continuance of life. She is death, too because death is part of life. She is movement and flow and action and change…”
Bringing back this sense of connection to earth and flow isn’t only a boon for women. John Burnside wrote an amazing article for the Guardian in which he explains the deeply enriching, mystical effect the hyena has on him. “Dreaming the hyena, I begin to be attuned to what every cell of my inner creature tells me is, in fact, the one Magnum Mysterium: the constantly shifting and transformative mystery of everyday life.” This more-than-human connection liberates the consciousness beyond the confines of the tame, civilized world, confines that we might be conditioned into believing are right, but which leave out an entire facet of our wholeness.
Bill Plotkin says that we all have a part of the self that he calls the wild indiginous one: “This facet is emotive, sensuous, instinctive, playful, erotic-sexual, and fully at home in the human body and in the more than human world.” It’s a facet that motherhood, and the primal experience of birth (that “wash of great pain and blood and shit and piss,” as Nightbitch describes it ) connects us with. But that connection to wildness has been severed, tamed, conditioned out of us. As Nightbitch says, “Modern motherhood has been neutered and sanitized” and Nightbitch’s performance art, the boon for the community with which she returns, reconnects us, her audience, with this potent force.
It’s by living this wild power, what Joan Halifax might label “enthusiasm,” that we live our deeper soul purpose and sacred connection to all of life. Halifax writes: “The word enthusiasm means ‘the god within.’ For me it refers to a sense of shared divinity that pervades all creation. It is this energy body that ties the universe together, that dances, makes love, sings, laughs and cries through us. It is the energy of sorrow and wrath, the energy of fear and aggression. Without our intrinsic energy we cannot live. Nor can we transform or be transformed by the conditions within and around us.”