Author on Burning of the Marriage Hat

Guest blog by Margaret Benshoof-Holler
Author of Burning of the Marriage Hat
Watch her interview on The Woman's Connection YouTube Vlog

Some might think of the title of Burning of the Marriage Hat as an act of rebellion against the sanctity of matrimony. That's not what I had in mind in the writing of the book. When marriage works, it's very beautiful. But one need only look at the divorce rate to see that perhaps marriage, or the way that we marry or the reasons why we marry in this culture, have not brought the best results. Something must be wrong. I have seen too many women who have married and given up half of whom they are to follow someone else's dreams and not their own. I see them die a slow death and not even know it. I have seen other women marry men who give them plenty of space and who are not threatened when a woman needs to follow her own path. Those marriages seem to work. 

On the issue of being single in the U.S. culture, all types of articles and research studies have been done which analyze the single life, take it apart and come to conclusions and set the terms for how many people think. If anything, I would like to dispel that type of myth about single people which comes out of mass produced newspaper reporting and I would hope that some might gain a larger view by what I have to share. 

I think of the title Burning of the Marriage Hat as something like the road less traveled, choosing one route over another. In the case of Katherine, the narrator in the book Burning of the Marriage Hat, it means leaving one route behind or rejecting a role that was set up for her and following something different as a single woman. She, though, is not the typical spinster, the term often used to label such a woman, but an adventurous, courageous, and experienced and sensual woman who has a strong yet cautious attraction to men.

The symbol of the Burning of the Marriage Hat relates to the cleaning up of unresolved issues and denial within a family.

In a more profound sense, Burning of the Marriage Hat has to do with cleansing or being tried by fire like metal when it is shaped and molded. A jewelry maker begins with a raw piece of metal, puts it to the flame and ends up with something entirely different, something very beautiful. In a way, that's what my life has been about. 

A marriage hat is a term that came out while I was writing the book before I had even given it a title. Literally, it's the hat that the narrator Katherine's grandmother Naomi is forced to burn when her marriage to her husband Sam falls apart. It's the wedding veil that narrator Katherine burns when she finds out that her first love Joe is not going to marry her. It also has a more symbolic meaning. 

In life we find ourselves wearing different hats for different occasions. American women have worn many hats during the last 100 years -- the "married woman hat," "housewife hat," the "wife and mother hat," the "working woman" hat, "the liberated woman hat," "the single woman hat," "the marriage hat" and so on. The marriage hat has a more significant meaning when applied to a certain group such as the unwed pregnant women. 

I began writing this book on a journey back to Wyoming to dig into family roots and to uncover some past mysteries. On one trip back, I also wrote a journalism piece about Matthew Shepherd, the gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten and tied to a fence post and left to die in sub-zero temperatures in 1998 near Laramie, Wyoming (entitled "Love and Hate in the Equality State" and published in the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner). Not being gay myself, but a woman who grew up in Wyoming during an era when conditions for women were not the best in any location in the U.S. (this was before the 1964 Civil Rights Act had a chance to settle in to prevent discrimination against anyone on the basis of sex, race or religion and before the 1972 passage of Roe v. Wade), I had a feel for the Matthew Shepherd story. And wrote it. But, in the process of writing that piece and developing the narrator Katherine in my book, I knew there was something more that I should be writing about Wyoming. This was a story that had been buried. 

In the process of fleshing out the narrator Katherine, I began fleshing out myself as a birthmother and coming to terms with many things that I hadn't faced exactly. This is the story of the narrator Katherine. It is also the story of approximately 2.5 million women who gave their children up for adoption in the U.S. in the 1960s --"the unwed pregnant women." I drew from my own experience. I am a birthmother. And I came of age in Wyoming in the 1960s. So I drew from that experience and also what I observed around me. 

So, there we have the narrator Katherine. It was only later that I realized that it wasn't only my experience. It was the experience of approximately 250,000 unwed pregnant women a year who gave their children up for adoption in the U.S. in the 1960s. 

This is not a typical birthmother finds daughter kind of book, the kind of story that tends to get printed in the media. Those sensational types of stories get old and I quit reading them many years ago. This story goes deeper and turns the characters into real people. I was able to do that because I wrote it as fiction. Similar to how an actress projects her voice on stage, these characters are actually able to use their voices. 

In many ways, I see fiction as being truer than journalism because journalism limits one to writing about facts and figures and dates and getting things exactly right and doesn't always gets down to the deeper layers of the psyche and emotions. Journalism can do that depending on the writer. For Burning of the Marriage Hat, I had to write it in a different way. So I drew from my poetics experience and my inner core to write this book along with my journalism experience as far as structure. They all fit together and work quite well. One has to draw from real life experiences to get to deeper levels though -- one has to be very honest. And in a sense, because of the objectivity of journalism, there's a tendency for the writer to hide. A writer has to remove his or her mind from many things that might hold him or her back --i.e., the safe bureaucracies or other well-meaning people or friends who can push a writer or an artist towards self-censorship. If a writer listens too closely to the everyday voices, he or she might end up writing interoffice memos instead of a story or book that brings to light issues that have never been dealt with and still affect women today.

Burning of the Marriage Hat is the story of a woman who returns to her roots to free the ghosts of her past and come to terms with a culture that has oppressed women. Set in Wyoming, known as the "Equality State" because that's where women first gained the right to vote in the U.S. and also where I came of age on the cusp of the 1960s sexual revolution, the book is also about a place. It's also a story about a middle-class family in a small prairie town in Wyoming and the coming of age of a young woman during the post-McCarthy era of the 1960s. 

A good part of the book was written on the road. I made several road trips back and forth across Wyoming with miles and miles of open space around me. The ideas came to me on the road. The fleshing out of characters came when I returned home to San Francisco and my computer.

Another part of the book was written from my dreams. In the early 1980s while I was studying poetics with Allen Ginsberg at Narapa Institute in Boulder, he told me one night as feedback to a description of a dream that I had written that "You should write down all of your dreams." So, I've been doing that off and on since. And sometimes I happen to have very profound dreams. So part of this book came from dreams I have had at different times. It was a dream, in fact, that gave me direction when I first started writing the book. And other dreams came to me along the way as if to guide me. The dreams came at unexpected moments when I was needing a voice. The dreams and the voices I heard in them helped me get the book written. I had help from the voices of my dreams. 

Ginsberg's words and actions and feedback still speak to me. He, too, has appeared in some of my dreams. 

Back to the unwed pregnant women. In the year 2002 in the U.S., we have teen pregnancy and single welfare mothers along with six million birthmothers, many of whom gave their children up for adoption in the 60s and early 70s. This is a large group of women with strong voices and we almost never hear them. They are a group of women who have been kept out of sight. And for what reason? This must say something about whether the stigmas of the 60s are still with us. 

Also, marriage was one of two ultimatums (not choices but ultimatums) for the 60s unwed mothers. And some today would like to make it an ultimatum again for single welfare mothers. So here we have history repeating itself. 

What happened to women in the 1960s helped shape the title of Burning of the Marriage Hat. It is a fiction book that explores real social issues in the United States. I drew from my own experience. The narrator Katherine is a birthmother and I'm a birthmother. I'm also a writer and a creative women who has written about many issues. This is the first time that I have written about unwed pregnant women. This because the medium of fiction helped free the pen and the voice of this writer. 

With that, I'd like to say that a woman doesn't have to get married. She can make it alone. Not all women can do that, though. Many women can't. I have found the single life to be full of adventure along with the gamut of emotions that one deals with in any environment--married or single. A woman needs to find herself first before she takes the step towards marriage, I feel. She needs to find her creative core, her inner voice, begin the journey of following her own dreams before she even thinks of getting married." Otherwise, she will end up following someone else's and get lost in the process. Marriage can be a very beautiful union between two people and one should be open to all possibilities. 

"It is much more difficult, though, for a woman to be a strong writer within the institution of marriage. I have seen the tendency for women to hold back their voices when they are married. The stronger women writers, I feel, are those who haven't been married to a man, woman, organization, conglomerate, bureaucracy, corporation or any other system that tends to control the voice of a writer. If a woman can find freedom and space within that institution to be totally free with the pen, then we may see something very different."