THIS YEAR, New York Times editors Amisha Padnani and Jessica Bennett launched the revisionist history project “Overlooked,” a section that runs obituaries for historical figures who, at the time of their deaths, did not receive them because of their race or gender. It now has over a dozen obituaries, almost exclusively of women, including Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus, and Marsha P. Johnson. The fact that most of these names are now commonplace, but at the time of their deaths in 1963, 1971, and 1992, respectively, they were not given their due, speaks to the historically undervalued accomplishments or simple humanity of women. Karen Green’s Frail Sister fits squarely within this. It documents the life of 1940s woman Constance Gale, a fictional character modeled on Green’s own aunt who went missing. Her story is told visually, with fragments pieced together from her life’s detritus — photographs of Connie and her family, scraps of paper with typewritten letters, newspaper clippings, and doting notes from male suitors.
The story begins when Connie and her sister are child performers, at four and six years old respectively. A newspaper fragment — pasted below a photograph of the girls and their show business benefactor, the playwright Marcelin J. G., whose face is obscured by a burn hole — notes the children’s upcoming performance: “Sisters Connie and [name scratched out] in ‘thirty Minutes of Sunshine.’” Connie’s typed text above explains, “He tells me my hair is too dark, even in this afternoon light, and my nose is too long,” but of her sister, “Your hair is goldenrod and you’re an easy sitter.” The early pages are filled with black-and-white and sepia-tinted images of the young girls interspersed with admiring letters from M.J.G. The narrative is unsettling, the danger of women’s sexuality, even as children, looms over the entire story. “Ma is having a Catholic episode,” Connie writes over a child’s drawing of a young woman in a long dress and dress hat. Her mother instructs them to always keep their legs crossed “until matrimony or it’s brimstone, etcetera.” Across the page, below the photograph of a stoic but captivating young girl in a dance costume, she typed, “Sister, You float & I fall,” beginning the ongoing narrative of Connie’s inability to keep to her family’s strict lessons (“I know Mama’s theory is I’ve gone wild, but maybe I was born so”).
Faced with limited options, Connie leaves her home to join a group of traveling war performers: “Besides the USO shows, our duties include dancing with them, listening to their miseries, and keeping them away from the local [inked out] most of whom were perfectly nice girls before this started and are only bad now because they are starving to death.” Coupled with tiny photographs of Connie in fatigues and trench coats alongside soldiers and her fellow female entertainers, many of the letters from this period recount her struggles to follow the rules, to not get too involved with any of the men, and her horror at their stories and what she witnesses. She describes the bombing of a bridge “filled with crying dogs and children” and later laments, “If there is a God, and Sis I grow more skeptical by the hour, He’s a mean one,” highlighting the harsh juxtapositions of her current position where “[y]esterday afternoon I saw a mound of children’s bones and by nightfall I was singing.” The contrast of her own writing against the soldiers’ love letters is especially striking, as it presents the interiority of a woman’s emotional state against her status as an object of entertainment in the eyes of men who write to her as “Paper Doll,” “Darling,” and “Dearest,” professing their love and desire for her while they unload their harrowing war stories onto her. Women’s roles remain so limited — object of affection or comforting mother.
Many of the notes are typed on scraps of paper, hymn booklets from church (“Angels, Bear the News to Mother” and “Jesus’ Blood Covers Me”), envelopes from letters received, and studio portrait photographs. When the text is typed on top of existing text, as with hymns, Green is careful to avoid complete illegibility, instead creating a multilayered reading experience. This collaging of materials is both familiar and jarring: locks of hair are affixed to sweet notes as tokens next to photos of soldiers whose faces are scratched over with messages indicating their deaths.
In Frieze magazine, writer and editor Jörg Heiser explores the relationship between memory, trauma, and collage. “The literal meaning of the word ‘trauma’ is ‘wound’, which indicates a parallel between collage — defined as the bringing together of different elements — and an injury that needs binding or stitching in order to heal.” In Frail Sister, this aspect is amplified, as fragments used to connote a sweetness, a sense of traditional femininity (a photograph of a woman in a beautiful dress standing in a field), are placed against the detritus of war (test results for effectivity in weapons, tactics, and field activities). A studio portrait, possibly of Connie, obscures her face with a mask and nurse bonnet, the words “WAR HAS SWORDS LOVE HAS DARTS WAR BREAKS HEADS LOVE BREAKS HEARTS” scratched across her chest. The childishness of these rhyming phrases is at odds with the clear violence of the environment and emotions, Connie refutes the myth of quiet femininity to tell a story of extreme suffering, often at the hands of men.
The most telling example of this is Connie’s harrowing account of her illegal abortion. Across a photograph of a woman signing on stage she writes, “I only have one towel. There is a battlefield on what Mama used to call my Dirty Front.” Across the top she scratched in “THE NEEDLE IS ALSO THE GAY ASSEMBLER OF BONNETS & BOOTIES.” She goes on to explain why her friend had to leave her alone to hemorrhage because she was afraid, having witnessed another woman executed (“placing her head into the lunette” of a guillotine) when her abortion was uncovered. The designs and cute doodles sit against a narrative of painful trauma, a physical ripping apart and sewing back together. The needle functions as both an instrument of feminine pastime as well as a tool to try and stitch her whole again.
Of the evolving psychology around collage, Heiser explains, “Collage could involve, say, getting survivors of a flood to paste together pictures in order to deal with their post-traumatic stress — a therapy of seeking sense and redemption not through words but images.” In Frail Sister, much is left unknown to the reader, such as whose collection of fragments we are reading and where Connie ends up after a series of abusive relationships. Presumably, the ephemera was collected by Connie’s unnamed sister, because so many letters are addressed to her. But some moments seem to suggest that the memories were gathered by Connie herself, perhaps in an attempt to come to terms with her life. At one point, Connie wonders “if the Germans have a word for the ways in which war surprises and alters one. I feel a new skin growing. And the surprise is that there is still room for enchantment.” Despite Connie’s story being one of trauma and loss, demonstrating the hardships placed on women, Connie herself seems to remain hopeful, nearly to the end.
References to broken hearts echo throughout, as does a fixation with the concept of a bridge, which also relates to the function of collage, another method of joining things together. Toward the end of the book, after she experiences a series of particularly disturbing events at the hands of men, she pastes in a picture of a bridge between two mountains. Each mountain is painted white with text scratched in: “THIS WORLD” on one and “THE NEXT” on the other. Over the bridge between the text “faith” is collaged in.
A parallel narrative that runs throughout the story is that of a woman found dead, Jane Doe, who remains unidentified throughout the book. Connie returns to this, continually troubled by the details that unfold about her death but none that emerge about her life or identity. “CAN A WOMAN IN AMERICA STEP OFF THE EDGE OF THE WORLD AND NEVER BE MISSED???” she asks. Green shows us how, after years of abuse and neglect, a woman can hold on and sustain herself. Though fictional, Green’s elegant collaging of image and text makes for a compelling story that stands in for so many women’s lives cut short by the whims of men and the objectification of their bodies.