THIS IS THE FIRST OF THREE ARTICLES, in which we discuss Sue Monk Kidd’s memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine.
Originally published in 1992, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, in which Sue Monk Kidd writes about her awakening from a traditional, patriarchal and fundamentalist spiritual life to the celebration of the divine feminine, has become a feminist classic.
Though I have read and enjoyed several of Kidd’s novels over the years, I had not yet read Dance of the Dissident Daughter, so when a number of readers suggested including her memoir in our list of books to examine this year, I readily agreed.
First Impressions — Opening
I like to look at first sentences and paragraphs because openings should set the tone of the prose to follow, as well as foreshadow the main message. Kidd’s first line is, “It was autumn, and everything was turning loose.” It’s a perfect first line, complete and, in a way, an encapsulation of the message of the book. Reading it — the idea of “everything turning loose” made my arms and back relax as I sat it my chair. As I look back on this line after reading further, I interpret it as a metaphor for a woman’s life. How, as we grow older (interpreting “autumn” liberally) beliefs and assumptions and ways of thinking turn loose, allowing for reflection, for new ideas and new growth. And though Kidd was only in her late thirties and not in any way old when she first wrote this memoir, she was, in a sense, in an autumn season of her life; this loosening is exactly what was happening for her. (But perhaps I am giving the first line too much significance.)
Kidd then moves on to set the scene for what would be a turning point in her life. She walks into her daughter’s workplace to find two men leering at her daughter, making lewd comments, laughing, and objectifying her. Kidd had been wrestling for some time with her concept of self, of what it meant to be a woman and what it meant to be spiritual as a woman in a patriarchal culture.
Who knows, I may have stalled interminably if I had not seen my daughter on her knees before those laughing men. I cannot to this day explain why the sight of it hit me so forcibly. But to borrow Kafka’s image, it came like an ice ax upon a frozen sea, and suddenly all my hesitancy was shattered. Just like that. (p. 8)
Kidd speaks up for her daughter and for all women that day, surprising herself in the process. From that point on, she feels that something new has been born. The ongoing questioning of her past way of understanding the world comes to the forcefully to the front: “…everything in me began to shift. I sat in the car feeling like a newborn, dangled upside down and slapped.” (p. 9)
Metaphors and Themes
Throughout the memoir, the metaphors of pregnancy and birth are used to describe this process of awakening, which makes sense. Pregnancy, labor, and birth are the unique purview of female experience. The metaphor of pregnancy is often used to describe the gestation of ideas. And nothing encapsulates the concept of awakening more than birth itself, that first breath of life in which one awakens to the world.
As the author states clearly,
“Conception, labor, and birthing—metaphors thick with the image and experiences of women—offer a body parable of the process of awakening.” (p. 11)
A few additional examples in which she uses these metaphors :
“…it had been extraordinary and surprising to find myself—a conventionally religious woman in my late thirties—suddenly struck pregnant with a new consciousness…” (p. 8)
“This woman will become pregnant with herself, with the symbolic female-child who will, if given the chance, grow up to reinvent the woman’s life.” (p. 12)
“I needed to birth a new life, one that had something to do with loving my female self and finding my way back to the deep authenticity of it.” (p. 37).
“The fact is, we all come from the same womb and are related in ways we haven’t yet allowed ourselves to experience. Through the body parable of pregnancy we learn how our lives indwell one another. As one spiritual feminist wrote, ‘Certainly the distinction between me and not me becomes a little blurry, to say the least, when one is inhabited as a mother.’ We-consciousness means carrying that pregnant sense of being spiritually inhabited. (p. 156)”
For me, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter is more like a book-length personal essay than, strictly speaking, a memoir. What I mean is that a memoir is typically about one person’s experience and, in that experience, readers see something of themselves, or at least something that enlightens and enriches their own lives. A personal essay more directly addresses broader and universal principles and experiences — in this case, of awakening to feminine spirituality — and includes references to other resources and research, while also being illustrated by the author’s personal experience.
Sue Monk Kidd’s prose is clear, direct, and intensely personal as she documents the process of a particular kind of spiritual awakening that so many women do and have experienced — and the reason her book resonated with so many women and continues to resonate to this day.
To close, I’d like to include a few quotes from the Introduction, which resonated with me personally (all from the first few pages):
In a way my whole life has been about waking up and then waking up some more.
The hardest thing about writing is telling the truth. Maybe it’s the hardest thing about being a woman, too.
We want to tell the truth about our lives, to see the truth through other women’s lives.
And that, for me, about sums it up.
Please add to the conversation: What are your first impressions about The Dance of the Dissident Daughter?
In the next Read Like a Writer article, I will take a closer look at how Sue Monk Kidd controlled pace and tone through choices made in syntax and choices of words.
If you haven’t started reading The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, it’s not too late. Pick up your copy now and join the discussion.
My gift to you . . .
To help you start a book journal of your own, I’ve created a Book Journal template I’d like to share with you. If you prefer to journal by hand, download the PDF version, print, and place in a binder. If you like to journal using your computer and you use Microsoft Word, download the Word version so you can make your entry directly onto the page.