In art, a dress is never just a dress; nor in life either.
Red dress. One adjective and a noun—a simple enough combination, but one that yields a multitude of mixed meanings. On the one hand there are the superficial symbols made popular in Western media: the red dress of the celluloid siren, whispers of seduction, hazard and promiscuity. Then there’s the feminist’s usurpation and recrafting of the stereotype: the red dress of self-empowerment, bravery, defiance. Somewhere in the middle is the red dress worn by countless flesh-and-blood women at countless social gatherings this holiday season, a decoration inviting admiration, maybe a bit too clingy round the back, though quite clearly festive. It’s a motif well chosen, then, by Anna Camilleri in her collection of personal essays, I Am a Red Dress, a candid look at the abuse she suffered as a child and its lasting implications on her adult life. Her abuser, her grandfather, is of course an integral character, having forced on her small body the psychological clothing of a whore; but Camilleri isn’t telling his story, and her passages celebrate the woman whom the young victim has become:
The real story is everything between the seams; the flow of fabric taut across the belly… of women painting themselves red; of me painting myself red—what this does, and might mean.
The violent facts forming the basis of Camilleri’s self-journey gradually unfold in the first two, emotionally effective, sections of the book, “Grandmother” and “Mother.” For seven years, once or twice a week from the time she was five years old, Camilleri’s grandfather rapes her in the basement amongst shelves of preserves while the rest of the family, seemingly ignorant of the violence under their feet, dines upstairs. Only when she is an adult do others admit to having known this darkest side of her grandfather, her grandmother confessing to actually having witnessed one of the attacks and retreating without intervening, and her mother revealing her own childhood victimization at the hands of the same man. Rape may have destroyed Camilleri’s innocence, but wounding her still deeper are the betrayals by her beloved Nonna and her outwardly strong mother: “Family members,” she says, “their mercurial natures, scared me. The most basic things I needed were provided, but love was not constant.”
These facts are hard, and Camilleri does not soften their details—the young author glimpsed by readers, insecure, furtive, “constantly on high alert,” is painful to witness—but she does make the trip more bearable through her sweetly mournful prose and an elegiac haze of uncertainty. Camilleri often refers to the mystery that is her grandmother with great regret: “The one story she wouldn’t tell me was her own,” she observes, stating the only clues her Nonna offers about her sad past are “her hands, her eyes, her touch.” But even more elusive are the motivations, unprobed here by the author, of the man who initiates the violence—a man so despised by his family members, yet so admired by others in their tight-knit neighbourhood of Toronto’s Little Italy. However, it’s made clear from the outset that Camilleri’s purpose in assembling these reflections is not to understand her grandfather, nor is this relating of her story naively intended to exorcise her personal demons. The demons, after all, have helped form her present character, just as the plastic surgeons who “corrected” her childhood facial deformities contributed to shaping the woman whom the world sees today.
The author’s voyage toward self-appreciation begins with small acts of independence made during her adolescence—volunteering time toward feminist causes, moving out of her family home to escape her mother’s critical eye, taking her first steps into a lesbian bar—but does not truly begin until she severs her ties from Toronto and moves to Vancouver. True to the adage, Camilleri finds that perspective comes through distance, and only in her new position does she gather the courage to press charges against her abuser: “I broke the only rule that bound my family together: started with don’t, ended with can’t. I did speak.” Perhaps the weakest parts of this otherwise lasting testimony of personal endurance occur in this third part of the book, titled “Daughter.” It’s here that Camilleri often abandons the narrative style that is so impressive in earlier sections—that blend of melancholic flashback and ugly truth—for somewhat tedious play-by-plays of her tumultuous relationships with other women. Only when she returns to Toronto and begins to discuss her drive to write does the book get back on course, with such cutting observations as,
I wrote, and I have always written, because I saw a future for myself in my stories—and it was there that I created a place for myself in the world, where I made sense of my experience.
I am a Red Dress, more than a story of incest and its aftermath, is a study of one woman’s search for identity in an environment in which all the traditional building blocks of the self have been broken apart. Her grandfather’s open disdain for his wife and her Nonna’s ill-concealed sorrow, for instance, are poor spokespeople for the institution of the heterosexual marriage. And her neighbours from the Old World, while ostensibly offering support to their fellow immigrants, have little tolerance for young women who break from custom. Finally, as a lesbian with a Maltese father and an Italian mother, Camilleri finds that her writing is not easily categorized. More than an abuse survivor, more than an ethnic or feminist writer, Camilleri is a proud, fully rounded figure in a red dress that has just as many incarnations as she does.
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