Lizzie Borden’s Mirror

Have you ever axed someone? To death or just to grievous injury. (There is no real way to axe someone lightly. It is either final or a very bloody wound that would require a lot of physical recovery.)

I’m assuming not, if you are free and reading this. I’m not too certain about the rules of prison internet usage but I think it is pretty safe to say that even if you had been locked up for a cherry-red frenzy of sharp-bladed anger, you wouldn’t be spending your one hour of connection to the information superhighway reading this, not least because I feel like anything with axe in the first line might firstly be slightly traumatic and secondly might violate your parole.

I haven’t, either. 

I have thought about it, though. My dad has an axe-our garden is heavily wooded and this incarcerated summer he wanted to attack some fungus-eyed bark-and I’ve carried it back into the garage now and then (he would never let me actually use it, less out of worry that I might be tempted into maniacal homicide, but rather out of fear that I will fall over and maim myself).

Lizzie Borden did. Well, I know that we don’t ‘actually know’ but let’s be real with each other here, reader. She did it, right? Who waits to change their dress after ‘finding’ the axed-to-death bodies of their father and stepmother before alerting anyone else? There are no other convincing suspects. God, if it wasn’t for Victorian-I know it was in the US , but the epithet still stands-if it wasn’t for Victorian sensibilities about delicate (upper-class, of course, you think the maid would have gotten away with this if they had that amount of evidence on her? No way) women and their inherent inability to pick up an axe handle and split their stepmother’s head into five, equally-cleaved pieces, she would have been convicted then and there on the spot. 

Can you imagine how she felt, though? The grain of the handle in her hand. She was soft, and bigger. I’ve seen a drawing of her hands folded on her demure lap in the courtroom and they look fleshy. She had enough meat on the bottom of her palms that the handle wouldn’t hurt that much, wouldn’t press that hard through onto the bone. She would have to be strong, even if it was from just pure, unadulterated, uncut rage (the good stuff). An axe is heavy, and to swing it at least twenty nine times (assuming she hit Abby and Andrew perfectly each time) would be hard enough, let alone to drive it in and out of a rather resisting body made of bone and clinging, wet gore. She would have had to really mean it, wouldn’t she, to do that. To grind a blade twenty-nine times into two separate living, squirming, screaming bodies. Bodies that you’ve known for thirty-two years of your life. Bodies that had arms that held you when you were born. Bodies whose hands you knew as well as your own, which lines went where and how long and wide their fingers were when they curled around a pen. Bodies whose mouths you knew, set in a line across the table, mouths that had turned your stomach, mottled with spit, and flecked with blue-brown mutton crumbs. You would have to mean it to swing that axe into those bodies, twenty-nine times. Maybe you would just want to know their insides as well as their outsides. Maybe you would just like the taste of blood on your tongue, rusty and sea sharp. I would just like to see what a skull curvature looked like. 

I am a very angry person. 

I feel like that would be a surprise to a lot of people. Because I am quintessentially nice. I smile at strangers like I’m a pageant queen in a motorcade. I bake brownies because I miss people, and I hope my roommates will smile when they come into a house that smells like good vanilla and glace cherries. I swallow down objections and go to the place to dinner that you like even though I can’t look at any dish on the menu without panic rising in my throat (and you thought this article was about murder, not long-unresolved trauma and eating disorders. Fool me once and all that. I’ve published eight pieces for BRIZO and none of them have been free from my neurosis. If you keep clicking on them, that’s your own fault). I get excited to see trick-or-treaters. I give you a pen when yours stops working. I am pathologically afraid of confrontation so I will swallow every annoyance and I will never call you out for it. I am NICE. Nice doesn’t get angry. Nice smiles and says ‘Ooh, it’s okay! Don’t worry about it.’ Nice doesn’t hold grudges. Nice takes notes for you when you miss a lesson. Nice smiles and swallows everything and lets it dissolve in her stomach. 

We had a conversation around the dinner table about this in Summertime. We were joking because my mother, who feels everything so strongly, who loves with enough force to slice off the tip from Mount Everest and balance it on her nose with ease, no big deal, also could realistically rip your heart out and bite into it with the fury of a scorned god when you forget to feed the dogs. My father, predictably, was making fun of her for this (‘anger issues, Deborah’), and I decided it would be a bright idea to bear the short sharp anger-pearl I’ve been calcifying for the past twenty one years into the light. 

‘I’m angry a lot,’ I said, with a winning smile. ‘I have so much repressed anger that I would be brilliant in an apocalypse. I’d be the one blood-thirsty enough to rip a few throats out.’ This is true. I am almost afraid to do something textbook for anger relief, like throwing darts (? I’m not a frat boy I don’t know what you do to relieve your homoerotic angst), because I feel like once the lid pops off this particular bottle, even in a safe, sane, consensual situation, I am not sure how I would force it back on. Not being a sedimentary scientist, I am very unsure about the principles of drawing sodium chloride out from the earth once it’s in there, after you’ve burnt down all the crops and spat sea salt into the charred, smoking corn stumps. 

My parents looked at me for half a second after this admission before bursting into laughter. 

‘Caitlin,’ my mother said, smoothing my hand as if to make me feel better about my infallible sweetness, the smallness of my fury. She was still giggling. ‘I cannot imagine you angry ever.’ 

Here, reader, is where my mother (look away mum if you’re reading this) was wrong. I am always angry. I am angry every day, often most of the day. This might seem like a bit of a weight, but it isn’t the type of anger that explodes or consumes. I seethe. Even when I am happy there is a well of it, under my lungs, rubbery and stretched tight, a cling-film sheet spread thin and slick along my diaphragm. When I breathe in, it swells and reaches up towards my mouth, tenting in the middle and rising, and when I breathe out it settles down. Vibrating lightly. I am angry, all of the time, and I don’t even know why.  

There was a pear orchard across the street from Lizzie’s room. Autumn came early, creeping in through the air from early August. On the fourth, the wind had already changed. She woke up early, and watched the bruised, weak sunlight limp across the trees. She had been sick the week before-everyone in the house had-and her body still ached from the force of throwing up. The side of her face ached too, as it always did the day after a foul mood. She had pressed her reddened cheek to feel the lance of toothy, vibrating pain. She stared at the small, rotting pears and felt each dislodgement of pale, wet flesh against the floor in her own mouth and cheek. 

I cannot remember the first time I was angry-of course, no-one can. My mother takes delight and pride, as I do in some strange way, in the fact that I never had a tantrum as a child. I was never rude, or fussy; quiet and compliant and perhaps a bit daydream-y, but never violent. I did not throw my blocks out of the pram. I did not scream because I wanted sausages, not curry, for tea. I did not ever shriek and turn red and cause all the other diners in the restaurant to murmur and tut and turn their heads away in embarrassment. Even if I was tired, I would take myself to the sofa, drape my blanket over my legs and sleep. Of course, this is coming from my mum and her Caitlin’s-nearly-graduating-university-where-has-the-time-gone rosy glasses. I know she misses that Caitlin, what mother wouldn’t, and perhaps that has coloured my younger self a slightly softer pastel. It is true though, to some level, that I don’t remember being angry a lot when I was younger. 

I think about that Caitlin and she seems less a me than a half-forgotten friend from primary school, a me I can remember parts about and think fondly of. Pale and curly and cheeks ruddy from autumn wind, a fuzzy memory. She is always smiling when I think of her, or talking very seriously to the trees.

In the new Taylor Swift album (this is a valid academic citation) she has a song called ‘Seven’. There is a lyric in it that makes me press rewind and replay every time I hear it. Taylor asks the listener (that’s you! And me! Aren’t we lucky to be sharing this moment together?) to ‘Picture her amongst the weeds’ (and don’t we all, on some bubbling primordial level, want to return to the primeval soup of bog water and reedy, thin vegetation from whence we first pushed our weak, fledgling-muscled legs and thought, hey, living on land will be a good idea! And for a ringer, why not develop a neocortex? Whoever those first ones were, I would like a word outside, please. I miss the bog.) before she ‘learnt civility’. Little Taylor, the one we’re picturing, if you’re following, is standing amongst her kingdom of fluffy dandelions and poison-tipped foxgloves, white curls hardened with mud and sweat, face smeared with fingernail blood and grime and ash. She doesn’t know manners. She laughs in the face of bedtime. She ‘used to scream, ferociously, every time I wanted.’ 

Here’s the thing. I can never remember a time where I did not know civility. 

I can never remember a time without being pliant, and good. And I’m proud of that in a lot of ways; I’m proud that I was easy, and sweet, when I was younger, as my mum is (if you haven’t guessed from the love that drips out of this article’s pores) the most wonderful person in the world and deserved a child that was angelic. I’m proud that I’m in some ways flexible and easy to make arrangements with. I’m proud that I’m not bitchy or I don’t make you work for it, to be friends with me (I hope. How embarrassing would it be if all my friends read this and texted me that it was absolutely untrue and I am difficult all the way down). 

But I also, in a very small, dank, part of me, wish I had done all those screaming, angry things. I wish I had lashed out. I wish I had thrown myself to the floor and yelled and stood in a weedy tower with the ghost of young Taylor Swift rallying me like a general and spit blood and been difficult. Maybe my anger would have been honest, then. Constructive. My anger, bubbling away like a bitter consommé of rotten milk and salt whose top has sat, steam-cracked and unleavened in my bones, does not know how to be honest. My anger is mean. 

Lizzie had good teeth. It was one of the first things Mrs. Borden had told her. The exact first thing was when she asked Emma and Lizzie to call her Abby, or mother if they would like, and they did like until she cut up Emma’s skirt and slapped Maggie the maid and like some Cinderella-esque nightmare bought her sister a house with Father’s money. Then she was Mrs. Borden, and it felt good to spit it. She had been six, when they met. Their governess had set her hair up in curls, and smoothed down the sun-browned flyaways. She had curtsied, looking up under her eyelids to see if her Father was pleased with her conduct. Mrs. Borden had smiled, and grabbed her up under her jaw. She could remember the feeling of her fingertips on each of the bone-casques under her ears. She forced open her mouth with a finger and felt around her teeth, and nodded pleasantly at her father and said, ‘Good teeth, sharp, that’s good’ and Lizzie had enjoyed imagining for a second being a cow at market, imagining hands lifting her tongue and poking sharp nails in the dark centres of her molars and reaching long, dirt-fold fingers along her shoulders and tapping at the base of her neck, the bow-out and room of her belly, and signing off that yes, she was ready for sale. 

I do not know where to direct my anger, or how to siphon it off from me correctly. It comes out in cold, scaled ways that I despair of. 

Sly ways. Talking to every other person apart from the one I’m actually angry with, the one I can’t think of without the overwhelming urge to break their nose. Spreading secrets and one-sided narratives about their brutality and offense where I am fragile, and clean, and innocent. A princess locked in a tower and their dragon tail curling up around me, their teeth snapping in my face, while I cry into my silk sleeves. And I know I can get away with this behaviour because, as previously referenced, I am Nice. Paradoxically, being nice all the time causes my anger, and prevents me from venting it in a healthy, constructive way, but my rage needs the veneer of ‘sweet’ to function. My niceness and my anger are not so divorced as they would originally appear. They are Joramund, the serpent’s head and tail, swallowing one another. 

My niceness feeds my anger, as I allow my face to be trampled over in the sake of avoiding an argument, and feeling absolutely stifled by the kindness and placidity that I am terrified to forsake in fear that a cornerstone of my solid identity will crumble into nothingness if I let it slip in any manner, makes me simmer more and more with nothing available to turn down the heat. In turn, my anger at being nice all the time is only allowed to escape by building on this very ground of niceness. If I spoke to anyone about the disgrace and disgruntlement I feel based on the actions of another without this residual niceness that I pin up around my face like hair clips they would not be totally on my side. 

Do I sound awful to you? Yes! I know I do! I know I am! And until the other day when I watched the Buzzfeed Unsolved of Lizzie Borden (I love you, Shane and Ryan, but unsolved? Really? Refer back to the third paragraph) and then spent seven hours that I should have used to work on essays to leap full-force down the axe-studded rabbit hole learning everything that it is possible to learn about her, I didn’t even realise I did this. I thought all this time that I was keeping a lid on my fury and yet bit by bit, like some Ukrainian nuclear silo, the festering rot had turned vinegary and leaked out through a cracked seam. The town of my niceness, with its wide avenues, had been flooded with the radioactive waste of this smiling, nasty rage. 

She could hear them moving about, in and on the boards downstairs. They were always up earlier than her, despite her best efforts. It became a partial battleground, the getting-up. Mrs. Borden would always smile at her, with the tint of smugness at either corner of her lips, when Lizzie would make her way downstairs. Emma would just ignore it but the goosepimples hackled up Lizzie’s shoulders when she would see that smile. Even when she forced herself to pull her arms up from out of her warm and loving bed when the light hadn’t juiced through her curtains yet. Once she had risen before four o’clock, and still  when she went downstairs, there was Mrs. Borden. Dusting the surfaces. With her crooked hands, smoothing the grain up and down, up and down, with that leather grease and a ragged cloth because father refused to buy new. The table was slick and purple in the too-early morning. Mrs. Borden turned her face towards her, with that same, satisfied smile. Too big in her face. Lizzie had wondered for a brief, flitting moment if she slept outside Lizzie’s room, listening for the slightest change in breath that suggested she was half upon waking.

So why, Caitlin, you’re dying to ask, I know, did reading about a thirty-two year old American spinster who most likely axed her father and step-mother to death, make you reflect on your own insidious anger and how it manifests itself into the world? It’s not like you’re similar, or anything. Firstly, you’re twenty-one. Secondly, she lived in Massachusetts and, as everyone knows, you are aggressively Welsh. Thirdly, she lived over a hundred years ago. Fourthly (I promise I’ll stop with the numbers after this), and some would say, most importantly, she actively murdered her parents. Like, actively. Not with words or internal stewing or sly backhanding. Picked up an axe and really went to town. Your whole argument is based on the fact that you don’t actually do anything with your anger, certainly not confront it, and it has made you bitter and cruel in a lot of ways that you seldom like to admit. That relies on the suggestion you didn’t actually do anything with it. Borden most certainly did. You don’t get much more confrontational than axe murder.

And bear with me, because I may be projecting here, but all of the accounts I have read of Lizzie Borden as a young girl, a young woman, and as a woman after the crime that coloured her life are frighteningly recognisable. It is like reading a record of myself. Our anger may have been birthed from different wombs (after all, Lizzie did grow up in a house that sounds entirely devoid of love, and my childhood and my parents were vocally loving; I say I love you within three hours of meeting someone) but they do mirror each other. Lizzie was generally regarded as nice, if quite contained. That was part of the reason (aside from the obvious-a woman? Really now. They don’t have the strength to pick up an axe!) that it was so hard to believe, for so many people in Fall River, that Lizzie Borden could have stepped into her garage, picked up a bony, cold axe and looked at her sleeping father, at her stepmother’s surprised face, and still found the strength, and the fury, to murder them. Violently. 

I do not find it hard to believe. 

And look, before anyone (especially you, mum and dad, who I am 90% sure are probably locking up the hatchet as you read) says anything, I’m not saying that in eleven years time I am going to wake up one morning and go full Borden on anyone who is unlucky enough to be in the same house as me. I’m not. But I can see how someone swallowing down years of unbroken, unspoken anger can force its way out of you bit by bit, and not even noticing it until perhaps, it is too late. And you axe your parents to death.

I see Lizzie Borden, and she scares me.

There used to be sound, other than them. Lizzie had raised pigeons before, in the barn. The first one that had come into roost had pushed itself into the hay, there, and she had been the one who found it. The light had broken over the shelf it had found, and Lizzie had thought it looked like a gored-out hunk of silver nestled into a bed of spun gold. It had bright eyes, and wasn’t afraid of her. Her father had mentioned wanting pigeons, and that he’d let her build a roost there. The other pigeons came so quickly once she had. Lizzie would spend most of her day in the barn, which was probably too small to even be called a barn, and was more like a well-windowed cellar. She’d scattered bird-straw on the floor, and the room smelt sweet and clean. Emma spent a lot of time outside the house, especially as things with Mrs. Borden got worse, but Lizzie didn’t have as many friends. The ones she did have annoyed her more and more, and she couldn’t spend time with them without feeling as if someone had taken a scalpel to neatly cut out a crepe of skin from her back, and slipped a wire hanger across her shoulders. She just wanted to be alone with her birds. Then Father had seen some of the children from next-door bringing them crumbs, and Lizzie had come to see her birds in the morning, and she had just seen bloody and feathers and twisted, featherless necks. She used to be able to hear the chittering from her room. She didn’t anymore.

As much as she frightens me, I am also jealous of Lizzie. Jealous she did manage to let the anger out (however inappropriate that ‘letting out’ ended up being), but mostly of the stability of identity that her anger gave her. With a swing, she had set herself on a course for the next thirty-five years of her life. She became Lizzie Borden. The mythological bogeywoman of Americana. There’s even a rhyme, for God’s sake. Imagine that every time you felt adrift in the meaningless clouds of your soul and the relentless Lovecraftian fear of your own unknowability, you could just walk past a school and hear children singing concrete proof of your existence. A girl can dream. 

So much of my anger comes from and escapes into my niceness. Letting down that facade, unclipping that cloak, would solve much of it. I wouldn’t have to feel frustration with my accommodating-ness, which often makes me feel silly, small and distinctly unfeminist, which I think would distinctly lower the scoville unit of my rage. And whatever anger was residual, my fear of causing problems wouldn’t stop me from telling someone that unless they stopped interrupting me/fussing me/etc, I will be forced to leave. Vocalising that anger is probably a healthy way to defuse it. Win win!

But here’s the thing: I am twenty one years old, living in a time I think everyone can agree, has less stability than the thin, ash-grass earth over an active volcano. I am terrified, every day, and spend an inordinate amount of time questioning whether I even exist. Take this combination of hellscape external, roiling young-adult internal (am I still young-adult? God, am I adult-adult now?) and place it on the edge of a cliff called I’m-graduating-in-six-months. The universal truths of who I am have suddenly ceased to be entirely true. 

These are the things I have always held as indisputably real, indisputably me about myself: I am maniacally sensible, the family bore (when the petrol dropped under half in my parents’ car I would bring it up every ten minutes until we got to a petrol station. My dad regularly calls me the changeling against the bombastic joviality that marks him, my mother, my sister and arguably my brother). I am a worrier. I am smart-smart. I am kind. 

Most of these things disappeared when I went to university. I still wouldn’t class myself as a wild one but I have justifiably earned the moniker of batshit amongst friends. I am still anxious an inordinate amount of the time, but I also – after four years – have reached an apathy that sometimes appears and shocks me. Any illusions I had about my intelligence and it being exceptional in any way was quickly dispelled when I came to St. Andrews and I found I was, if anything, below average. I think mean things more than anyone who could be considered kind. The Caitlin who my parents knew was gone, and the Caitlin that I knew was disappearing, and I was afraid. I am still afraid. I reached out and held on to every sense of stability that I could find; I stopped drinking, so I could be Caitlin-who-doesn’t drink. I stopped eating, so I could be Caitlin-who-eats-less-than-anyone-else. Nice, and being Caitlin-the-nice-one, was easy, so I held onto it with both hands. Healthy, I know. 

In school I wasn’t this sickly, or scared to say my own mind. I wasn’t a belligerent, by any means, but I would stand up for myself, albeit quietly. It is impossible to retain not-eating as an identity without, you know, dying. It is hard to pretend I never want a drink, or never want to go to a party. I am trying to relinquish both of those things, relax a bit, but I feel like I’ve betrayed my friends who have built friendships upon the unstable ground of my university identity. One friend will look at me strangely, and with no half-measure of disappointment in their eyes, when I say I want to stay an extra hour on a zoom group call, or back last semester at a party (remember those? Good times) and I feel like I have lied to him. When someone celebrates when I have a glass of champagne, or ask for a bit of dessert with everyone else, I feel, despite their good intentions, that I’m on a splitting seam. It’s a recognition that this is different for Caitlin, and I am back grasping at the wisps of who I was, like a dress I have, in my recovery, outgrown. 

The only bit that I know now is being nice and I hate that too. This is my last solid demonstration of myself. My Dad, who is strong and vocal on so many levels, does not understand this. He gets so frustrated when I am crying over some or other slight (probably not that important or particularly upsetting, I’m just sensitive) and he cannot grasp why I can’t say stick it, why I can’t let down my fear of offending or upsetting anyone to open up my anger and get it out, then move past it. And I don’t know how to say, this is all I am sure is me anymore (even though I literally did just say it there, it’s harder in the moment). If I admit and open up the anger in me, how can I claim to be that perfect niceness anymore? And if I let the quiet seethe that has been my constant companion since I was twelve out, and it disappears, and I feel better and heal, what am I then? The two tenants, the last stabilities of who I am, will be gone. Both my internal anger and my niceness are who I am. I can’t imagine myself if they are not there. 

At least, Lizzie Borden, whenever she doubted who she was, had a whole town, a whole country, to tell her. 

She found herself in the barn and she didn’t even know how she had walked downstairs. There was gold everywhere, in her teeth, its aurous eyes floating under her skirts, staring at the backs of her knees. It felt strangely flat, without the silver of her birds. She saw it, for a moment, and stepped over, slow and honeyed like she was in a dream. It was not her birds. It was cold, and sharp, in her hands.

I don’t know how to relinquish them, I don’t, and I am both sure and not sure whether I want to. When I started this article I was jealous of Lizzie Borden, and her stability, and I was also afraid of what I saw in her and in myself. Now I just feel sorry for her. 

Writing this article and forcing myself to think about what I do, the nastiness of my actions that manipulate niceness to its advantage, has curdled my stomach. I am ashamed of it. I am ashamed because I thought I had a control over that anger inside and I didn’t. It leaked out into everything. And like Chernobyl, it will go to a point of no return, and then to so many people who are around me, whatever I do or say in my immense explosion (again, can I just reiterate, I WILL NOT AXE MURDER ANYONE.) will define me for a long, long time. I thought I’d crave that stability, and honestly, that intimidation. I know I command little respect, and a lot of people think I’m silly. Somewhere deep down there is a part of me that would like to be feared, or strange-ified (I’m so glad I did not live in the 50’s because I really would have been seduced by the mafia lifestyle). But I’m not sure I want that anymore.

Fluidity and no stability is frightening, but perhaps it is comforting too, to relinquish the weight of expectation. 

I will never be a confrontational person, and I don’t think I will ever be able to vent my anger in a big shouting match. This might not be resonant with many, if any of you, but this anger, this fear, is my unspoken, and perhaps this article is the equally-cleaved stepmother’s head of my life. 

It was so quick, and hurt so little, that she wouldn’t have believed she’d even done it at all if it wasn’t for the ache in her arms.

I don’t know what it will mean, but it feels good to say it.   

Art by Jennifer van der Merwe

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