“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” ~ Gertrude Stein
“I rise is I rise is I rise is I rise.” ~ Alice Isak
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My name is Alice Isak, and I feel like a woman reborn.
Risen like a—no, wait.
First you’re gonna need some backstory.
Like many others, I started blog-writing under an assumed name. For all the usual reasons: privacy, discretion, a desire to say whatever I felt without provoking uncomfortable impasses with family or angry outbursts from a recently-ex’ed ex-spouse. And one other thing:
I hated the person I’d become so much, it hurt to see her name in writing.
Call it my midlife crisis, if that helps.
The stereotype of the “midlife crisis” centers on the experiences of our culture’s classic Everyman: a white man climbing the corporate ladder, solidly middle-class, able-bodied and able-minded, definitely straight. Midlife-Everyman is wealthy enough to trade in his car for something fancier, more prestigious—a red convertible, perhaps, straight from the production line. He may trade in his wife for a newer model as well, equally shiny and topless.
According to the cliché, when our Everyman realizes his life is half-over, he says to himself: “I am not the person I thought I would be.” And he despairs.
For many women I know, midlife is the time when we say to ourselves: “I am still the person I thought I had to deny.” And though we may break for a time—suddenly feeling the weight of burdens long denied and longer carried—in the end, we do not despair.
We get angry.
We get loud.
We start to holler—often for the first time—our own damn truths, in our own damn voices.
“So what name’re you gonna use?” B asked me, when I told her about my blogging plans.
“Last name, dunno yet. First name? Gotta be Alice.”
Her bark of laughter came through so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear.
“Of course it’s ‘Alice’! I should have known. How could you pick anything else?!”
Alice, the name of my imaginary friend in childhood. Of the stray cat who adopted me in Texas. Of the girl who fell down a rabbit hole and discovered her world turned askew.
Alice, one half of my favorite literary love match. The seeming-silent half, whose voice became the poet’s own.
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By all accounts, Alice B. Toklas was not much of a looker. Yet Alice had a speaking voice that could beguile stone.
“Like a viola at dusk,” James Merrill once described its sound.
When Gertrude Stein first met the woman who would become her lover and constant companion for the next 39 years, the avant-garde poet was immediately drawn to the magical voice that came from this whispy drudge of a woman, writing:
“[Alice] wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice—deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.”
When Gertrude died in 1946, I suspect she took both of Alice’s voices with her.
Love, when lost, does that to us sometimes.
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I was vaguely familiar with the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas back in 1987, when my same friend B and I went to the local arthouse theater to see a movie about these two women, set one summer during the 1930s. Since “Waiting for the Moon” was a less-than-captivating film, I left the theater as vaguely informed as when I had arrived.
But no matter. I was at an age where even boringly pretentious stories about a lesbian poet and her lover seemed luscious and worldly.
I felt luscious and worldly just by proximity.
Hanging around the parking lot afterward, for whichever of our mothers was running late to pick us up, I challenged B to join me in memorizing lines from Gertrude Stein’s poetry while we waited. (You must understand: I already knew I would be a Real Writer when I grew up, the kind whose stories were immortalized in arthouse theater cinema. Of course I had come with a volume of Stein’s poems stashed in my handbag.) Acting in that distinctly-teenage style that mixes adult interests with childhood joys, she and I skipped and splashed through the parking lot’s puddles, chanting verses I did not understand—and have never forgotten:
Powder in wails, powder in sails, [splash splash] powder is all next to it is does
wait [splash] sack rate [splash] all goals like chain in clear.
Around this same time, I also saw a production of the musical revue “A… My Name is Alice,” a searingly funny play that had premiered in NYC a few years earlier. Consisting of 20 or so songs and monologues, performed by five actresses each taking on a kaleidoscope of roles, the whole thing felt reminiscent of the prior decade’s “Free to Be… You and Me”—or like what “Free” would have been, had it been written in the trenches of second-wave feminism. I did not catch all the insider joking, but I caught enough to be delighted.
My favorite shtick was the Poetess, a harried-looking character who wandered onto the stage at various points to recite odes of despair and abandonment from a giant book, which read “FOR WOMEN ONLY POEMS” in large block-lettering across its cover.
“I am Woman, a wounded bird. F-flap, F-flap, F-flap!” concluded one poem. Another: “I am Woman, a neglected flower. D-droop, D-droop, D-droop!”
I made B listen to me perform these cartoonish lines again and again, complete with arms flapping and my head sinking in melodramatic victimhood:
“I am Woman, a dying swan. Aah-AWK! Aah-AWK! Aah-AWK!”
I dissolved into pealing laughter every time, so infectious she could not help but laugh along. (You must understand: I was in love with B back then—and also with myself. In love with the world’s possibilities and the taste of its words in my mouth.)
Love brings out our best selves.
Phrased another way, feeling loved makes it safe for our deepest selves to emerge. For our truest voices to speak.
Phrased another way still, if you feel unseen and unvalued by the people closest to you, your true self may hide, collapse, go silent. Even if the unloving person tells you that what they are offering is love.
Even if that person is your husband.
Even if that person is family.
I misunderstood this fact. I thought my joyous, wordy, mouthy self was a gift B lent me that belonged to her alone—not an aspect of myself that she brought out. Over time, I stopped cultivating my heart outside of B’s presence.
Over time, I stopped speaking with my own voice ever.
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New York City, 1934
When Gertrude Stein disembarked onto US soil for the first time in 30 years, she was greeted not by her usual anonymity but by countless reporters. The book she had published the year before had rendered her famous and wealthy.
That best-selling novel, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was an act of literary ventriloquism. Possibly of literary and autobiographical thievery. Or, it was a feat only of commitment, its author presumed to have full and free permission from the woman whose voice she wore.
The entire text is written as Alice spoke, gossipy and distinctive. It far outsold any book Gertrude ever published in her own voice, whether prose or poems. It far outsold Alice’s actual autobiography, written many years later in the same voice. (Which is to say: in Alice’s voice.) I once read a literary critic’s whimsical speculation that Alice herself may have been the true author of The Autobiography after all: writing as Alice writing as Gertrude writing as Alice.
Did they know, I wonder. Did they know, these two women, where Alice ended and Gertrude began? Where Gertrude fell silent, and where Alice emerged?
Or did they simply prefer to speak their two voices as if from one throat?
Love, when found, does that to us sometimes.
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Silencing, when forced upon us, is an excruciating process.
Whomever you swear allegiance to, in the hopes of surviving such silence—a wounding spouse, a wounded parent, some foreshortened image of yourself long since out-grown—the moment always comes when you must choose yourself, if you would live.
If you wish then to remember the sound of your own voice, open your throat and listen to the howl that emerges.
It’s the only way to be sure.
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Père Lachaise Cemetery, 1967
All metaphors break down eventually.
All people, too.
When Alice B. Toklas finally died (over two decades after the woman who had loved Alice to the point of becoming Alice’s voice), she was destitute. Although some romanticize her poverty—pointing out that she never sold a single piece from the priceless collection of artwork left to her in Gertrude’s will, and claiming love as the reason—the harsh reality is: the Stein family, despising the unconventional (and not legally recognized nor recognizable) marriage of its scion, broke into her lover’s home and spirited away the paintings, locking them in a bank vault for the next 20 years, until Alice’s death at last freed them to be sold.
Alice published her own autobiography in 1963, titling it (Autobiography of already being taken): What Is Remembered. The book ends abruptly with Gertrude’s death, as if Alice’s memories stopped forming when her lover stopped being.
Perhaps Alice felt she had stopped then, too.
This is always the risk when loving someone as yourself, who is not yourself.
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In the middle of my life, I started writing under not only an assumed name but also an assumed persona. As “Alice Isak,” I have been loud, opinionated, angry. Sometimes tender. Often almost fearless.
Do I know (I wonder) where Alice stops and I begin? Can I tell when my voice falls silent, or when Alice’s voice emerges?
Once I would have said yes.
Today I would say: the love we lose and find can be for ourselves too, sometimes.
Over the past month, a blog post I accented with naked bathroom selfies has been viewed thousands of times. Last week, I learned that an editor has decided to publish an essay I wrote mapping my life’s trajectory through experiences with masturbation. Which suggests it may be time to stop thinking of myself as a writer still choked on shame and silence.
Incidentally, friends have started calling me by the name “Alice” not just online but in the brick-and-mortar world as well.
Of greater significance?
I have started answering.
My name is Alice.
I am a woman reborn.
Like a phoenix, I have risen from the ashes of that silent self I once was.
Listen carefully—you might hear me singing.
“The Autobiography of E. Alice Isak” is part of an ongoing memory project.
The entire series can be found here.
[Images of Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein via]