Claire Messud opened a Wednesday night reading from her latest novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” by quoting actress Kristin Scott Thomas, who said in a recent interview that she felt invisible and ignored as a woman who had reached a certain age.“And she’s a movie star!” said Messud.Scott Thomas’ frustration — the realization of having crossed an imperceptible boundary in one’s life and having little recourse — is alive and well in Nora, the fiery protagonist in “The Woman Upstairs,” even at age 37.A respected schoolteacher, Nora is stuck inside the life she never wanted after caring for an ailing parent for four years, and watching those crucial years sail by like balloons that slipped out of her hands. Nora wanted — wants — excitement, to be an artist, to live with vigor and passion in locales that are not, sorry to say, Cambridge.“Midlife hits people at different times,” said Messud, a former Radcliffe Fellow who spoke at the Barker Center as part of Harvard’s Writers at Work series. “That moment you realize life is finite, it has a horizon.”While she appears placid, Nora is fuming on the inside — and Messud’s prose is a first-person maelstrom of Nora’s “rants,” as she calls them — until the captivating Shahid family moves to town and reawakens something inside her. (Interestingly, the husband character, Skandar, is a visiting fellow at Harvard.)“I wanted to write a book about the interior life,” Messud told the crowd. “If you know anything about the book, you know Nora is a little angry. People have said, ‘Did you have trouble accessing that emotion?’ And I said, ‘No, I did not.’ ”Addressing that anger as well as aging and personal expectations, both through Nora and in her own life, Messud threw open the door on the sometimes secret but very present desires of women whose lives are put on hold for years because of family or money or because women are acculturated from an early age “to accommodate,” said Messud.“Yes, things are inevitably better [for women], as anyone in this room can attest. But it feels like there are fundamental situations in our society and our culture that … are somewhat different for men and for women,” she said. “Nora’s experience is where she is at 37 and having taken care of her mom, now looking after her dad who’s on his own now, being a great friend, being a great teacher, and all the kids love her. … That’s a fairly female place to be.”Nora claims she knows she could have been destined for greatness. She had been a keen, socially aware, and artistic youth. And now, well: “Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end even the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.”Messud, whose husband James Wood is also a novelist, writer for The New Yorker, and professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard, borrowed from singer Marianne Faithfull and writer Anton Chekhov for help in rounding out Nora’s occasional hard edges.“Marianne Faithfull has this song ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’ that goes, ‘At the age of 37, she realized she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair,’” said Messud.As for Chekhov, Messud referenced his classic short story “The Lady With the Dog,” in which the protagonist, Dmitri Gurov, says he has two lives: “one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret.”“I’m always aware of that,” she said. “Each of us will leave this room and have a very different impression of what went on here. So much of what’s important in our lives never breaks the surface.”
To augment the work of student government’s Gender Issues Committee and the new Prism ND, the Gender Relations Center (GRC) is initiating new programming this year to drum up conversation about sexuality, identity and relationships at Notre Dame. Dr. Christine Caron-Gebhardt, director of the GRC, said expanded offerings include roundtable discussions, presentations from experts and dorm workshops. The first notable event is a three-part series of speeches from Terry Nelson Johnson, a professional speaker and mentor at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago, on sexuality and Catholicism, men and masculinity and LGBTQ and Catholicism and it will take place Sept. 16 and 17. “We’re continuing our conversations on sexuality and relationships, but really broadening the conversation to include things around men and masculinity, LGBTQ, understanding of gender and identities [and] the intersectionality of identities,” Caron-Gebhardt said. Amanda Downey, assistant director for educational initiatives at the GRC, said Johnson first spoke at Notre Dame last year, at the request of a group of students from Keough Hall. “Terry Nelson Johnson came to us as a result of a student interest. A group of men from Keough came over one day and said they wanted to talk about intimacy,” Downey said. “They wanted to bring him, and they wanted him to talk about intimacy.” To better connect with the needs of the student body, Caron-Gebhardt said the GRC is starting a dorm commissioner program. “We are piloting dorm commissioners as a resource for students within their residence halls as well as a conduit for students to let us know what kinds of conversations, what kinds of questions they want to talk about here on campus about gender, sexuality and relationships,” she said. For those who want to continue these conversations, Caron-Gebhardt said the GRC is sponsoring the Sr. Jean Round Table, where students can discuss gender issues together. Each meeting will have a different theme ranging from “sports and gender,” to “gender and Catholicism,” with the first taking placed Oct. 2. The GRC will also sponsor “Man Talk” and “Women’s Wisdom” sessions, Caron-Gebhardt said. “Those conversation talks are student-generated,” she said. “We provide the venue, we provide the structure, but students provide the things that are important and they want to discuss.” To begin the discussion freshman year, Caron-Gebhardt said the GRC has amended its Contemporary Topics curriculum so one day covers healthy relationships and the other addresses prevention of sexual violence on campus through bystander intervention. “We took up that charge from [the Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention] saying, ‘How can we understand that sexual violence on our campus is not just about two people involved but actually impacts our community?’” Caron-Gebhardt said. In another effort to raise awareness of sexual violence in the spring, Downey said the GRC will sponsor an exhibition of “Unheard Voices,” a show by artist Jason Dilley that tells the stories of individual survivors of sexual assault. “[Dilley] has bronzed face casts – imagine a plaster cast of a face and then it’s dipped into a bronze and on a black background,” she said. “Students can walk around and there are little headphones attached to each face, and you can actually hear this person tell their story, which is a really powerful program.” Caron-Gebhardt said the GRC also plans to supplement Prism ND’s LGBTQ-focused programs, including special events for National Coming Out Day in October and Transgender Awareness Month and Stand Against Hate in November. “We see collaborating on events and co-sponsoring events together [with Prism ND],” Caron-Gebhardt said. “We also see that there are things that they may offer that we would then complement and offer individually. I see us doing things collaboratively and individually.” Caron-Gebhardt said the GRC encourages students to get involved with their programing and express what they want the GRC function. “[We want to] respond to student needs as we continue the dialogue around certain issues,” she said.