Review: Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy, 1976

by Rachel Creager Ireland

This isn’t a review blog, but I recently read a review on another blog of a book I’d read about twenty years ago, Woman On the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy’s 1976 feminist sci-fi novel about a poor Latina woman who is held in a mental institution. I thought it was time to take a second look, and found so much of interest, I feel compelled to write about it.

I don’t recall thinking of this book as a brilliant one after the first read, probably because I was skeptical of politically-oriented fiction. I thought that the politics would usually become more important than the quality of writing. This time around, the first thing I noticed was the rich, image-laden prose. It really is beautiful, and I can’t believe I didn’t notice that before. “Then the gates swallowed the ambulance-bus and swallowed her as she left the world and entered the underland where all who were not desired, who caught like rough teeth in the cogwheels, who had no place or fit crosswise the one they were hammered into, were carted to repent of their contrariness or to pursue their mad vision down to the pit of terror.” The rich language would be enough reason to read this book.

It seems that, last time, I thought, no one would really have the life that Connie Ramos gets stuck with. I knew that all the various ways the world abuses Connie actually have happened; that many poor women of color have been sterilized involuntarily, for example; that a large number of women face multiple abuses on the part of men through the course of their lives (was it even a crime for a man to rape his wife in 1976?); that attitudes held by professionals in the mental health system are strongly weighted against listening to and taking seriously the stories of the patients they claim to treat. Perhaps there have been changes in all these practices since the book was published; I don’t know. But I do know that I have run into some people who really have had this kind of life. Piercy was not being heavy-handed, or exaggerating; she was being honest. Often these people are invisible to those in the mainstream. Often they spend much of their lives incarcerated, just as Connie Ramos does.

Connie has the ability to communicate with people from the future. Her body stays in the present, unconscious, while she visits a future village. I was struck by the utopian feel of future life. Twenty years ago, “dystopian fiction” wasn’t a genre. It wasn’t unusual for the future to be imagined as a time when many social problems of the present will have been solved. Today, Piercy’s vision of the future is in startling contrast to the bleakness of many current futuristic novels.

Besides being utopian, it’s not a typical science fiction world. Science and technology are always present, woven into the fabric of daily life; but they are used mostly to improve life for everyone, to support a simple lifestyle which is close to nature. Resources are shared freely, so that everyone has enough of all the essentials, but no one accumulates wealth or material possessions. Yet, I suspect that, rather than being hailed for breaking new ground and bridging the gap between women’s literature and science fiction, Woman on the Edge of Time was probably criticized for failing to fulfill the expectations of existing science fiction readers.

Piercy’s vision of the family of the future was academic for me, when I was in my twenties; as a forty-five-year-old mother, it’s totally personal. In the future, families are not based on biology or gender. Children have three parents, none of whom gives birth. Babies are grown in tanks and ceremoniously presented to the parents, all of whom may choose to breastfeed, though they don’t live in the same house; they have a children’s house where they live when small, moving into individual housing in early adolescence. This brings up a little secret about feminism in the 1970s. Remember when ultra-right wing pundits always said, “Feminists are out to destroy the family?” The secret is, they were right. It certainly wasn’t all feminists, but there was a particular branch of radical feminism which posited that the roots of oppression of women lay in the structure of the family, and that the solution would require re-writing the whole system. (See Shulamith Firestone for more on that. She’s the Marxist feminist who had a chapter in her book entitled “Pregnancy is barbaric,” and didn’t see equality happening as long as babies are gestated in women’s bodies rather than in vats.)

With my earlier reading, I understood that Connie’s loss of her daughter because of abuse was of great importance to the story; but I didn’t feel it. I knew I was supposed to, and I didn’t blame Piercy, but I just didn’t have the life experience or, apparently, the imagination to get there. As for the revision of the family, I could see the reasoning, but didn’t feel a strong attachment to either the status quo or to her future vision. Maybe it’s partly because I’m adopted. But in the intervening twenty years, I’ve developed a relationship with my birth mom, fell in love and married (who would’ve thought?), and borne two children. Middle-class girls of my generation were expected to continue our careers after becoming parents; we knew we’d want to do “something with our brains.” When the time (finally) came, I wanted nothing more than to be present with my children as much as possible. If work was to be outsourced, why not pay someone else to do the mundane, unimportant work, so I could get to be there to watch and participate as my children grew and discovered themselves? But back in the 70s, everyone seemed to think that living with children and caring for them intensively were things no one would want to do. As for freeing women from bearing children, Luciente, Connie’s guide to the future, explains it this way: “It was part of women’s long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we’d never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers. Every child has three. To break the nuclear bonding.”

This is one place I simply can’t go. I don’t know what power would be worth giving up childbirth for. It’s one of the great experiences in life. Even though it’s not for everyone, I wouldn’t give up the option. I’m sorry that not everyone has it, but I was born with the potential, and I am grateful that no one has asked me to sacrifice it in exchange for his respect.  I don’t require life to be fair; but I believe it is enough to ask that we all treat everyone with compassion and respect, and that we strive to balance the unfairness when possible. No one need sacrifice his or her potential on my behalf, nor do I need to for anyone else.

At the same time, I’m so grateful to have a relationship with my biological family. I am one of them in a way that I never was with my adoptive family. I don’t wish for my family to have been different; but then again I might have benefited profoundly from having known some of my blood relatives when I was younger. I wouldn’t say that having a biological relationship with one’s family necessarily makes the family closer; but it can help us know who we are.

I don’t usually keep books anymore; more often than not, I don’t expect to want to read a book again. Fortunately, I did keep this one long enough to read it with new eyes. Thanks to Randomly Yours, Alex for encouraging me to dig it up.