Harpies, Bitches, Witches and Whores: Women Write About Anger in New Anthology

By Dorri Olds 10/09/19

“People can see an angry man [who is] fighting for a cause and see him as strong. It’s not the same for women—especially not for women of color and trans women.”

Headshot of Lilly Dancyger next to book cover for Burn It Down.
There is an energizing quality to women’s rage and it builds a united front.

Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger is a fiery collection of 22 essays. Editor Lilly Dancyger (Catapult, Narratively, Barrel House Books), an accomplished essayist (Longreads, The Rumpus) and journalist (Rolling Stone, Washington Post), brought together a diverse group of writers. Currently Dancyger is working on a memoir about her artist father and his heroin addiction.

With empathy in short supply these days, Burn It Down is an invigorating read. The collection is filled with compelling creative nonfiction in the form of first-person narratives from women of different races, ethnic groups, and religions. No matter how you identify—cis female, cis male, trans, or nonbinary—there is a lot to learn here. Dark humor and gorgeous prose take you through the lessons learned in other people’s lives.

The first sentence in Dancyger’s introduction demanded my attention: “Throughout history, angry women have been called harpies, bitches, witches and whores.” With a shorter-than-ever attention span, I was surprised to devour this book in one sitting. Dancyger guided the writers to go deep and spill raw feelings. 

Dancyger told The Fix about her troubled teen years. She said, “I had good reason to be angry.” Not only was she raised by two people with drug addictions, but her father died at age 43 when she was a preteen. Her beloved cousin Sabina was only 20 when she was randomly murdered.

“Anger overwhelmed me,” Dancyger said. “It came out in excessive drinking and doing a lot of drugs.” Her life was thrown out of whack, which sent her on a rocky journey where she learned that you need to “make space for anger in your life or it pushes you into self-destruction.”

“Those were wild, reckless years. Then I dropped out of ninth grade,” she said. She made it to college, still drinking heavily. “There’s a big difference between drinking with your friends and being determined to get drunk every day. Finally, I ran out of steam and decided I was just done.”

Writing has been healing, Dancyger told me.

Burn It Down is meant for readers to give themselves permission to access their own anger. “To feel it, recognize it and accept it. There are so many things to be angry about,” Dancyger said. “It can be fortifying to enforce boundaries, pursue passions, and let anger out.” The book acknowledges that men are angry too, but this is a book about women. “People can see an angry man [who is] fighting for a cause and see him as strong. It’s not the same for women—especially not for women of color and trans women.”

The first piece, “Lungs Full of Burning,” is by Leslie Jamison, who never thought of herself as ill-tempered. She spent years telling people, “I don’t get angry. I get sad.” Jamison writes about her long-held belief that sadness was more refined than rage. Out of a fear of burdening others, she squelched her feelings in order to spare people the “blunt force trauma” of her wrath. She writes, “I started to suspect I was a lot angrier than I thought.” Her essay talks about women in literature and film, pointing to the Jean Rhys novel, Good Morning, Midnight, in which the heroine resolves to drink herself to death, and describing Miss Havisham as “Dickens’s ranting spinster—spurned and embittered in her crumbling wedding dress.”

I Started to Suspect I Was Angrier Than I Thought

Jamison writes, “I’d missed the rage that fueled Plath’s poetry like a ferocious gasoline.” She talks about I, Tonya and how it handled what became known as the “whack heard around the world,” where one woman’s anger leaves another woman traumatized. Harding was portrayed as a “raging bitch,” said Jamison. Kerrigan was a pitiable victim. Yet, things are usually not as black and white in real life. Jamison points out how little coverage there was of Harding’s abusive mother and husband.

“Women’s anger is a necessary conversation to be having,” said Dancyger. On Hillary Clinton, she explained, “Here was a woman who bent over backwards to avoid coming off as shrill. Look at the words used to describe angry women—hysterical, crazy, hormonal, irrational. And women of color experience an extra dimension of misogyny.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is “under tremendous pressure. We hear the racism in words like ‘fiery Latina.’ Kamala Harris is an ‘angry black woman.’”

Erin Khar, editor-essayist-columnist and author of the much-anticipated memoir, Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me (Park Row Books, Feb. 25, 2020) writes in her essay “Guilty” about panic attacks and anxiety she felt as a child, who then began keeping secrets. She grew into a troubled 13-year-old who turned to heroin. Later she was a chronic relapser: “As a junkie I was a walking apology.” Finally, thanks to a wise therapist, she learned that it wasn’t the guilt that was killing her; it was unexpressed anger. It’s a powerful story that illustrates the madness of addiction.

There are tough scenes of self-loathing in Khar’s piece: digging fingernails into her arms till she bled, using a box cutter to carve into her leg. Recovering memories of being raped at age four. But the ending is satisfying, with a description of what her life is like today and the steps she took and tools she used to get there.

Khar was generous with her time and very open in our interview. We covered a wide range of topics and segued into how many women experienced PTSD from watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. 

“Lilly [Dancyger] was editing the essays during the Kavanaugh hearings and I was writing my essay for the book at that same time,” Khar said. We talked about Kavanaugh’s weeping, and blubbering about beer during his job interview for SCOTUS. We teared up as we shared our similar experience of shaking while listening to Christine Blasey Ford. 

An Angry Black Woman, No Matter the Reason, Is Thought to Have an Attitude

Burn It Down isn’t about what makes you angry, it’s about anger itself. In the essay, “The One Emotion Black Women Are Free to Explore,” Monet Patrice Thomas writes, “[A]nger spread through me like red wine across a marble floor, but I did not show it.” She describes her conditioning: “An angry Black woman, no matter the reason, is thought to have an attitude.” Her rage was inside her “like a shaken can of soda.”

In “Rebel Girl,” Melissa Febos writes, “I knew that I was queer and that it wasn’t safe to admit that at school.” She burned with self-hatred that was “slowly blackening my insides.” Then she met Nadia, who was “six feet tall in combat boots … with a shaved head and arms emblazoned with tattoos. She stomped rather than walked.” 

Lisa Marie Basile describes living with chronic pain and all of the stupid, condescending advice that dismissed her very real symptoms in “My Body Is a Sickness Called Anger.” One doc tells her she probably stuck her finger in her eye too hard. She writes, “I gently remind the doctor…that feeling like absolute shit with two enlarged assholes for eyes just cannot be normal.” Friends say she looks fine, then offer useless unsolicited advice like yoga, green juices, and giving up gluten. Basile’s snarky inner dialogue is hilarious. 

There is an energizing quality to women’s rage and it builds a united front. Dancyger has succeeded with her goal to “create a place where anger could live” and her vision to display rage on pages that “sizzle and smoke.” As the last sentence of her intro reads, “Our collective silence-breaking will make us larger, expansive, like fire, ready to burn it all down.” 

Burn It Down is now available on Amazon and elsewhere.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.