ALAN v21n3 - The 'Different Truth' for Women in Sue Ellen Bridgers' Permanent Connections

Volume 21, Number 3
Spring 1994

The "Different Truth" for Women in Sue Ellen Bridgers' Permanent Connections

Karen Mitchell

Young adult literature offers many possibilities for readers of all backgrounds. By no means limited to the stories of growth and change of adolescent characters, it also involves adult characters in the same struggle with issues of esteem, identity, and independence. In Permanent Connections , Sue Ellen Bridgers focuses not only on the stories of adolescents Rob and Ellery, but also on the stories of adults Coralee and Ginny. Bridgers' fiction considers and discusses the interrelated lives of two women who are not the protagonists nor the adolescents, but who are nevertheless coming of age.

Erik Erikson describes adolescent coming of age as the time when life-history intersects with history, when traditional stages of separation, individuation, autonomy, and freedom occur ( Gilligan, Making Connections , p. 2 ). Yet, for women, adolescence encompasses more: it encompasses a different truth, a truth that involves complex sets of social interactions and personal relationships. In that "different truth," Shea suggests, women come to think in terms of the responsibilities of one person to another, unlike men who think in terms of individual rights (p. 37).

In "In a Different Voice," psychologist Carol Gilligan bases women's different truth on the conception that the adolescent female's idea of self evolves from the exchange between the individual and the social world in which she lives and of which she tries to make sense (Kant's theory that knowledge is actively constructed rather than passively received). What women construct in their social world and what is considered typical for their development is their notion of "good" -- "what pleases or helps others and is approved by them"( Gilligan, "Different Voice," p. 484 ). Gilligan later discovers that women construct their own morality -- the moral woman is the one who helps others(whose goodness is service) and who meets obligations and responsibilities for others, if possible without sacrificing herself ( "Different Voice," p. 486 )."Without sacrificing herself" is the key for what constitutes the central moral problem for women struggling between compassion and autonomy, between virtue and power, between self and others. Thus, the ultimate "crisis of connections"for women becomes choosing between being good and being selfish ( Gilligan,"Different Voice," p. 491 ).

Sue Ellen Bridger's two main characters in Permanent Connections represent this crisis of choosing. We are first introduced to the good woman, Coralee Dickson, gray-headed, sixty, and fearful. She has agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, and has not been out of the house for three years. Her brother Fairlee describes Coralee as someone who "never wanted to get a job or anything; she never was real smart at school; and she seemed happier following Mama around the house and helping her" (p. 85). Later, Ginny Collier is introduced as the selfish woman. Ginny, redheaded, freckled, and forty, is newly divorced and has recently built a home in the mountains of North Carolina with her seventeen-year-old daughter, Ellery.

For Coralee and other women like her, such male conclusions, as that of her brother Fairlee, contribute to their perception that they have no choice,"correspondingly excusing them from the responsibility that decision entails,"making them "childlike in the vulnerability of their dependence . . . " Gilligan, "Different Voice," p. 487 ). Coralee's character reveals her childlike insecurity. In addition to Fairlee's comments that she "followed" Mama around like a child (p. 85), her sister Rosalie remarks that Coralee never could take care of anything (p. 147) and now couldn't even be coaxed out into her own yard(p. 236); and Coralee concedes that everybody, except Mama, treated her like a baby (p. 104). Even friend Ginny's initial perception of Coralee is like "a child in a communion dress" (p. 99). Gilligan points out that young women often see an "opposition between self and other, tied in the end to dependence on others and equated with responsibility to care for them" ( Shea, p. 39 ).

What Coralee becomes then is a caretaker. The "caretaker" is a role women often choose or have chosen for them: they become responsible for the entire world but not for leading their own lives. They allow their life to be shaped by other people's claims and consequently cannot separate themselves from those in their care, having an unclear sense of self (Beatty, p. 2). With an unclear sense of self, it is easy for Coralee to give in to the patriarchal-ordained boundaries for women where care taking seems a natural avocation. She becomes the one, then, who stays home to take care of Papa after her mother died, unlike her siblings, Fairlee and Davis and even Rosalie, who make their way into the world.

Coralee represents the typical caretaker of any culture, a good woman and a good Christian. In Western culture, this "selfless" position has been enhanced with idealized images of mothers ( Gilligan, Making Connections , p. 318 ). In Coralee's case, this translates into imitating her mother and, like her Mama, into being controlled by the family and their needs, in particular to men and their needs. As Mama "waited on him [Pa] hand and foot" (p. 117), so does Coralee. Women often ive to men and children until they are angry or exhausted or emptied of everything. Ginny first notices the way Coralee's care taking has emptied her. Ginny sees ". . . the way she stood now holding the tray of glasses as if it were a gigantic burden tugging her out of herself, sapping all her energy" (p. 117). Coralee follows this with her wish about her care taking:"I just thought I'd reach the time when I didn't have to take care of nothing but me . . . I want that feeling one day before I die" (p. 117). With the exception of her agoraphobia, what we see in Coralee then is the typical adolescent progression from the egocentrism of a child, through the conventional goodness of a girl, to thinking about achieving the autonomy of an adult ( Gilligan, p. 317 ).

As the novel unfolds, Ginny has achieved the autonomy of an adult: her adulthood is newly found; and, in many ways, she is still unsure of herself and still troubled. Our first indication that Ginny is barely out of adolescence(like her daughter, Ellery) is when she confuses her life with Ellery's life: Ginny "couldn't distinguish the child from the mother, as if she were living her young life again in Ellery" (p. 72). Later Ginny tells Ellery, "Maybe we're actually the same age and I just look older" (p. 89).

But Ginny is not only older but also wiser. She has "finished doing her duty and taking care of things she hadn't chosen herself" (p. 63) when she gave up the life of a banker's wife and moved to the mountains. Yet just yesterday she was a child, like Cora: she didn't make her own decisions "until [she] ... was almost 40" (p. 198) and went "from cleaning my room at home to cleaning a dormitory room to keeping house" (p. 198). Now, as she operates her loom and weaves her life, she's trying to do what she needs for herself and learning to"live with what [she's] made" (p. 73).

Curiously, doing what Ginny needs for herself and living with the life she's made causes problems for her daughter Ellery. Ellery blames Ginny for the loss of her old life and challenges' Ginny's right to choose her own life. She tells Ginny that she's always thinking about herself. Ginny responds that perhaps she is, perhaps she's being selfish -- the ultimate sin for women (p. 91). Gilligan describes "the judgment of selfishness and the morality of self-sacrifice"( Shea, p. 40 ) as a struggle to develop a positive sense of self and not to relinquish that struggle in an effort to please others or to avoid hurting them(in this case, Ginny sacrificing her life for Ellery's sake). Women feel that they must choose either to be "good" (that is, to choose self-denial not to hurt others) or to be selfish (that is, to hurt others by choosing to be selfish).

It is significant that Ginny's struggle to develop a sense of self-worth and accomplishment grows as she chooses her self in relationship with Ellery and as she chooses connection in relationship with Coralee. " Gilligan has found in her work with adolescents that girls tend to see `a world comprised of relationships rather than of people standing alone, a world that coheres through human connection' " ( Shea, p. 38 ). Indeed, what women do when they are suppressed, oppressed, and repressed is to form interesting networks of support among themselves. They turn to each other because men are unwilling to provide the support and encouragement they need. Creating a network of "connections" is Ginny's means of survival as she searches for both independence and friendship. It is the connection between Ginny and Coralee that helps each to succeed and helps each to define themselves as women. As women, they are the same: "the demons that devour women are all the same" (pp. 91-92).

The demons that devoured Coralee began when she lost her only connection, her mother. Eventually, Coralee went deep inside herself, regressing to a child's fear, "the worst kind of thing to be afraid of . . . something in your head"(p. 87). When she lost her mother, she lost the connection that had valued her."Mama needed me . . . Mama always respected the kind of help [I] was to her"(p. 104). Ginny replaces that lost connection. Ginny values Coralee as a friend. As she sits in her mother's chair and asks Coralee to help her, she represents the connection Coralee needs to conquer her phobia.

A central event in the novel is when Coralee overcomes her fear of open spaces and walks outside. This re-entry into the outside world marks a triumph not only for Coralee but also for Ginny. Both were "afraid to live"; both had to"stay safe" (Coralee inside the house and Ginny inside a marriage). Both had chosen security (a female-defined value) over self (a male-defined value) until they came to realize that no one can open the door to self-realization but them. With Ginny's support, Coralee goes "outside" literally and figuratively. In Carol Gilligan's terms, "she has found a way to develop her independent self yet sustain connections; she has exchanged dependence for interdependence"( Shea, p. 39 ). In a connection that eliminates loneliness and isolation, Ginny and Coralee support, encourage, and nourish each other. Aptly, their lives mirror the lives of all around them as "permanent connections" take place for protagonists and families alike as they discover "their connection to life" (p.249).

The novel Permanent Connections extends the young adult genre as it affirms the bonds of family and community connections and of shared human experience. Both adult and adolescent characters alike come to terms with change, an inevitable reality in their lives, and with alienation, an inescapable phenomenon in modern times. In spite of different definitions of alienation for adolescents and women in this novel, the substance is the same-- alienation as a result of cultural oppressions, of conflicts between themselves, and of confrontations with their selves.

As Coralee and Ginny confront themselves, they discover that their womanhood, with its morality of caring, has grown and expanded to include themselves as well as others. They come to realize that including their selves does not imply intolerance, immorality, or selfishness. It does not mean responsibility on one hand and irresponsibility on the other. What it does mean is that they can finally count themselves on the list of "others" whose needs should be considered. It means that they can accept responsibility for their own feelings and actions. It means that they can take back their lives from being controlled by others. And it means that they can come to claim ownership of their lives, disentangling their caring from the contextual constraints that confuse their ideas and stop their progress ( Gilligan, "Different Voice," p. 511 ).

In the end, Bridgers' novel declares women's dilemma as no longer a conflict between duty and self-fulfillment. The morality of care that had once upon a time been detrimental to Ginny's and Coralee's lives has now been expanded to include them. With this inclusion, Ginny and Coralee now see what is possible in their lives by choosing their own morality and creating their own reality.

Works Cited

Beattie, Melody. Codependent No More . Harper, 1987.

Bridgers, Sue Ellen. Permanent Connections . Harper, 1988.

Gilligan, Carol. "In a Different Voice: Women's Conceptions of Self and Morality," Harvard Educational Review , 47.4, 1977, pp. 481-517.

Gilligan, Carol, Nona P. Lyons, and Trudy J. Hanmer, eds. Making Connections . Willard, 1989.

Shea, Renee Hausmann. "Gilligan's `Crisis of Connections': Contemporary Caribbean Women Writers," English Journal , 81.4, 1992, pp. 36-41.

Karen Mitchell teaches English at Boardman High School (Ohio).