BOOK REVIEW: ‘Burn It Down’ Diagnoses, Analyzes The State Of American Women’s Anger
BY KATHARINE COLDIRON
There is so much to say about women’s anger. More than a single person could ever say, more than a single voice could ever explain.
So it’s appropriate that Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger gathers 22 diverse writers to speak 22 different truths about the same topic. It’s an extraordinary collection of talent; each essay is distinct from the next (although some themes overlap), and each takes a slightly different approach to the art of creative nonfiction — whether the essays are braided, factual, or lyric. It’s also an extremely well-timed book. The social movements and events of the past five years have abraded the tarp millions of women have tied over their rage and, as this anthology demonstrates, that rage is starting to push through.
Burn It Down‘s editor, Lilly Dancyger, is an editor at Catapult and Barrelhouse and a former editor at Narratively, and she spearheads the Memoir Monday project. She is deeply involved in contemporary memoir, especially memoir shaped by women, and her experience and sharp eye make this anthology a thorough exploration of its topic. “I wanted these pages to sizzle and smoke with women’s awesome rage,” she states in her introduction. “But this anthology is not about the things that make us angry; it’s about us, and all the many ways we feel and live with our anger.”
Every writer in the book completes that assignment in her own way. Some writers lean more heavily on analysis (Leslie Jamison), while others lean on memoir (Minda Honey). Some write poetically (Rios de la Luz) while others write practically (Lisa Factora-Borchers). Every writer explains the particular pressure point for her own anger, be it misgendering, food, religious intolerance, chronic pain, or toxic family members. Some essays, some experiences, overlap: angry fathers; Audre Lorde; the bright hot fury of adolescence; and how the body is tangled up with anger. Often, these women’s bodies have been violated, and the bodies struggle with containing or letting go of anger just as the people inside them do.
Nearly all of these women have been instructed — consciously or not — to hide their anger. “I intuitively embraced and supported other women’s anger but struggled to claim my own,” Jamison writes, in an essay previously published in The New York Times Magazine. “Anger in a woman is akin to madness; it felt like madness inside of me, it looked like madness to others,” Erin Khar adds, in an incandescent, tightly written piece. “Anger should’ve been an acceptable emotion to such a violation of the self, and yet I’d had a lifetime of experience that said otherwise,” Monet Patrice Thomas explains, with enormous control over words that depict unacceptable treatment.
Many of the essays in Burn It Down imply — or just say — that women’s anger in greater society is not merely hidden or underexpressed, but treated as if it should never exist. As if it’s a wing of the house of human emotion that women cannot enter. Of course this stricture is complicated by other aspects of a woman’s identity (well-represented in the book), whether the woman is openly trans, fat, Black, Chicana, Muslim, or disabled.
“My anger has always been dismissed or overlooked, because it was superseded by the fear of what I’d lose by expressing it, whether it be my dignity, my safety, or my livelihood,” Thomas writes.
“When you inhabit a body as large as mine, there’s a harmful assumption that aggression is inherent, and no matter what has happened, the larger person provoked the disagreement and should be the person to deescalate it,” Evette Dionne states.
“I didn’t become a woman to simply absorb all of society’s assumptions about gender,” Meredith Talusan huffs.
In a well-balanced, memoiristic essay about going to camp as a teenager, Melissa Febos learns “that the roiling energy inside a woman’s body could be used to express her rage instead of poisoning her…It was like carrying a hammer for my whole life and finally realizing what it was good for.” That’s one of the crucial throughlines of Burn It Down: figuring out what anger is good for and channeling it there. Factora-Borchers expresses this struggle most clearly, in a methodical essay about the visible politics of Ohio:
“I bought into the idea that anger was, in and of itself, an unnatural state…When anger is known only as an obstruction, the automatic reaction is repellant and removal.”
But over time, she notes, has learned “how to embrace anger, how to use it as a natural resource.” Keah Brown echoes this lesson:
“To truly be happy, I thought, I had to banish anger from my life completely…[but] I realized quickly that this was not sustainable. So, instead of trying to eradicate anger from my life, I began directing it at things I believed needed to be improved.”
For some women, this sounds impossible. Transforming anger is challenging when so many barriers exist for women even to understand it. In her childhood, Marissa Korbel writes, she taught herself to cry so effectively that she can do nothing else when she feels rage. Shaheen Pasha points out that “anger as a Muslim American is a precarious emotion, layered and complex,” not so simply redirected. And when Talusan is mansplained for the first time after she transitions, she is so disappointed in, and confused by, her reaction that it powers an entire essay: “I valued [my] intelligence over wanting everyone to get along, which was what women are supposed to value above all else.” But she has no solution to the problem of her anger, no way to push it into a new, less monstrous shape. Only a handful of the writers in this anthology do. Most of the rest, for all their powers of expression, can write about their anger but can’t resolve it.
The closing essay, by Anna Fitzpatrick, is the only piece purely about a sexual assault (although hers is far from the only sexual assault in the book). It’s a thoughtful read, containing the kind of nuance that few discussions about sexual assault have borne. She writes:
“I think often of the limited avenues provided for victims of sexual assault…We are supposed to be bloodthirsty, to want revenge…The punishment of the assailant is prioritized over the healing of the survivor. I understand why some women want these things…But my rage manifested differently; I was angry less at a person and more at a series of ambiguities, unsure of what to do beyond sitting around and stewing in my own helplessness.”
Fitzpatrick writes about having to tend to the anger of men, who have greater permission to be publicly aggressive — an emotional pretzel that Minda Honey and Marisa Siegel twist into, as well. Whether these men are allies or not (and for Honey and Siegel they are not), their anger has more legitimacy, more leeway, than women’s anger.
If nothing else, this anthology instructs the reader that American women are just now at the starting line of exploring and understanding their anger. It’s a force that has barely been tapped. Burn It Down both diagnoses and analyzes the state of anger among American women, even if the book demonstrates that we have a long way to go to understand it fully. But there’s hope. As Samantha Riedel puts it, “When our anger has both power and temperance, what barriers may we yet demolish?”
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Guardian, The Washington Post, LARB and the Rumpus, among other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming from Kernpunkt Press in 2020. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.