The Worming of America, Or, An Answer to the Arraignment of Women, by Autumn Leaf. Free-Grace Press, August 2018. 344 pages. $29.95, paper.
Please, do not get comfortable.
To worm is to move with difficulty. To worm is to foist one’s way into. To worm is to make a rope smooth by winding lengths of fiber between preexisting strands. To worm is to create momentum through artful and insidious means. To worm is to move as its namesake—in the dark, under the ground, remaining unseen, absent, and forgotten. Worming requires patience. Worming requires secrecy. Worms are multi-hearted. Worms, when severed, become multiple worms.
Autumn Leaf’s The Worming of America, Or, An Answer to the Arraignment of Women is meant to disrupt status quo and inspire deeper thought. It speaks to a range of social topics and will, undoubtedly, confuse. Which is just fine, because it was born, albeit fictionally, from a seventeenth-century arena of such befuddlement; formed in a landscape where personal and national treason abounded. Worming of America is a genreless document wrought with a shamefully recognizable American brokenness.
A quick flip-through finds chapters opening with initiums—fanciful drop caps whose flair bolsters the period tone. Also interspersed are deep black charcoal sketches of the author’s classmates, minor characters within. In common are their enlarged heads, minuscule appendages, hard lines, and jagged countenances. These images support the destitute mood. Perplexed and dolorous. To further illustrate: the draft on page 282 is captioned, “William / Billy Peeing in His Pants.” His trousers drenched with urine.
Necessary context: Autumn Leaf was born Susan Hutchinson into a Boston family of nine brothers and sisters. She is the sole household survivor of a Lenape Indian attack, spared due of the harvest color of her hair, then renamed for it. She lived amongst her captors for five years and grew accustomed to their matriarchal society. After being ransomed back to extended family in Boston, she questions the very idea of civility:
I relax again and remember pleasantly living in the woods with the Indian terrorists for five years. I’m lost about why our Judeo-Christian civilization still, even after the Reformation, suppresses femininity with no guilt. I against I, women against men—the heroic arraignment of women continues!
The Worming of America finds Autumn Leaf in a classroom on the day before her mentor, Mary Dyer, is to be, “Punished as a murderer, but … arguing freedom of speech.” Hanged.
The book’s Forward and Preface offer contemporary summaries of what’s to come. The former, written by Genealogist X (female) in 1987, summarizes the author’s forthcoming testimony:
The book is puzzling in a post-modern sense—it is full of modern questions and references and is not strictly true to its own historical context. Time collapses and layers itself with the reinforced themes that a musical work might have.
Another way to put it—there’s a lot going on all at once.
The Preface, contrarily, was penned in 2004 by Professor X (male), a self-proclaimed “professional middle-aged married man with a family, but really just a hedonistic boy—a hypocrite … who lives for the attention of college girls.” He describes Leaf’s work similarly:
Autumn Leaf jumps around within philosophy, history, and ethics not using haiku but haibun with a metafiction prose. The prosimetrum meter becomes not just an expressive tool, a “mathesis” style, but all together—a mathemaku style. This metafiction and mathemaku style is not just a post-modern and hyper-modern style, but a meta-modern style.
Taken at face value, readers may wonder, WTF? But herein lies a foundational metaphor meant to spotlight patriarchy’s use of smoke and mirrors to demand and hoard power. In the name of civilization, its constituents are continually duped. So much so that beguiling bombast becomes the accepted truth. Kind of like the modern era’s fake news. Leaf’s response to it as noted in Chapter One, “My eyes are still lightly closed, fluttering … I feel Nothing, but something.” It is here that her awakening begins. It then continues with: “I abhor society, I’m afraid of society because it takes away my life—my breath.”
The Worming of America questions what it means to be alive. To be human. To be a woman. It challenges Christian doctrine. Interrogates paradigmatic beliefs. It hearkens back to Jane Anger’s scathing defense against the preponderance of male supremacy, Her Protection For Women (1589), an early catalyst for feminist consciousness. The Worming of America channels 500 years of exasperated female voices. A surrogate fiction meant to highlight our nation’s disregard for the other. A negligence remaining all-too-familiar today.
Leaf uses accounts of her classmates to provoke thought. To share ideas. In Chapter Seven, “Is Your Daddy a Wounded Warrior or a Wounded Murderer—Because God Told Me,” she introduces Samuel Payneson, an admiral’s son, and at precisely the same time a blackbird crashes into the classroom window. Samuel then erupts into a diatribe about the importance of war and capitalism—even quotes Capitalism for Dummies—while working up a sweat that reeks of his blindered upbringing. He is scathed by the opinionated teacher, Ms. Appleton, who has heard enough regurgitated proclamations such as, “I work for my family, I work for my Country, my one God! God is awesome! My father is awesome—I love God!” Ms. Appleton admonishes:
Listen, Payneson, you may love God, but you DON’T obey his commandments. I think God wants you to obey him rather than love / abuse him with your depraved neurosis you call love. Do you know the difference between discipline and the poison of gift-love? Your diseased love is an excuse to hate. Your love is a front to abuse. Your love is a front to kill.
Chapter Six, “Black Knight Daughter—Religion is War,” focuses on Laura Kraven. This chapter too begins with a bird image—a blue heron—as Ms. Kraven draws the class’s attention to her own social contributions before recommending that the students pray for Mary Dyer. Her address ranges from religious conversion to Separatism, to the terrorism of nonbelievers:
Continuing in lullaby tones, Laura lustfully eulogizes, “We are the chosen people! Written into the Bible, we are too big to fail / too proud to fail because we are doing the King’s and God’s Divine work. Please let us love our one and only true God, our one and only awesome God. Oh, awesome God, thank you for your light. Please, God, bless my classmates and save them with your light!”
Similar to Samuel Payneson, she too endures the teacher’s refute. But this time Ms. Appleton questions which population of believers is protected by this so-called God. The ensuing exchange sends Ms. Kraven from the, “safe shore of religious delusion and psychosis and onto the slushy, lightly frozen lake of water called The Truth.” Ms. Appleton is a rule breaker. A touchstone for future voices.
The story of America’s worming is a narrative of menace, exposure, and crisis. A record of the dangers of assimilation. Of outspokenness. Of ignoring what’s actually happening. Page 287 is blank except for one centered word at the foot which says, “Nothing.” This serves as the thematic precursor to the concluding image—a woman swinging by a noose around her neck. It is captioned, “The Boston Ballet”:
My mouth becomes metallic and bloody. I gag, I swallow … no use—I heave, sweating a cold sweat—I swallow hard again …
I beg your pardon, dear reader, for sharing so much during these last four hours, but hear me pray and see my drawings from this fine spring day.
For all I can see are women dancing and all I can hear is America singing, “Away with the witch. Away, away, away!”
But it need not be like this. Especially not anymore. So yeah, do not get comfortable. There is danger in doing nothing.
Tom Griffen is a writer and artist currently living in Spokane, Washington. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner, and others. In 2018 Tom walked across the United States. A book about his journey is forthcoming. Follow him on Instagram at @tomswalkinglife. tomgriffen.com.