In the Shadow of Bluebeard’s Castle

“Those who make revolution half way only dig their own graves.”
—Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, 1793

“No great idea in its beginning can ever be within the law. How can it be within the law? The law is stationary. The law is fixed. The law is a chariot wheel which binds us all regardless of conditions or place or time.”
—Emma Goldman, 1910

content note: non-graphic description of misogynist violence

There’s this fairy tale, maybe you’ve heard it before. Bluebeard’s Castle. It’s sort of a feminist parable, in the old school way where a lot of traditional folklore is basically “hey women, don’t trust men. They will murder you.”

There are ways in which accountability processes and other attempts at restorative justice in radical communities just empower abusers and assaulters. Whenever I think about that, I think about Bluebeard’s Castle.

Here’s the short version:

There’s this rich dude named Bluebeard. He lives in a castle. He marries this young village woman and brings her to the castle. She’s the protagonist, inasmuch as fairy tales have protagonists. Hurray! Dream come true! She gets to live in a castle and not worry about her material conditions!

He’s like “hey babe you can go anywhere you want in the castle, it’s your home now. Except don’t go into my man cave. Man cave is strictly off limits. Anyway, here’re the keys to every single room, including the one you’re not allowed to go into. I’m gonna go on a work trip or some shit. Have fun. Don’t go into my man cave.”

You’ll be shocked to know that curiosity gets the better of our young heroine and she goes into his forbidden room of forbiddenness. Inside, she finds the mutilated, murdered bodies of all his ex-wives.

He comes home and is gonna kill her as punishment for having betrayed his trust by going into his man cave. Her brothers show up in the nick of time and kill Bluebeard instead.

The end.

* * *

There are some feminist retellings of Bluebeard’s Castle floating around, involving her rescuing herself or her mom showing up and saving her or whatever instead of her brothers. I’m going to propose a more cynical one, a half-feminist one. The modern man’s Bluebeard’s Castle, if you will.

In this retelling, Bluebeard has agreed to be upfront about his past. He’s being accountable. As our young newlywed bride approaches his castle, she sees corpses on display. Imagine something gruesome so I don’t have to type it out.

“So… before you move in,” he says, even though they’ve already had the marriage ceremony in town and it’s kinda too late to back out now, “there’s something you should know about me. See all these dead bodies? Those are my ex-wives. I killed all of them.” Then he turns to her, an earnest look in his beautiful eyes. “I’ve learned a lot since then. I’m being accountable.”

“Don’t worry,” the newlywed bride says. Maybe she’s still in the throes of infatuation, or maybe she’s taking a calculated risk based on the living standards and life expectancy available to her if she doesn’t marry a rich man. “I know you’d never murder me.”

“I’m so glad I can trust you to know this about me,” Bluebeard says.

Then they move into the castle and either live happily ever after or he murders her.

* * *

Most attempts to hold sexual assaulters and abusers accountable are not revolutionary. I don’t mean “revolution” here in the grand class struggle sense, I mean it in the “overthrow of an existing norm” sense. Most attempts at accountability stop as soon as the status quo is restored and everyone (often except the survivor) is comfortable enough. As we’ve learned from history, half revolutions will get you killed.

Half-revolutions leave the ruling class as the ruling class. Worse, they give the ruling class new tools with which to suppress dissent. The same as capitalist democracy makes us feel culpable in our own oppression by pretending to give us access to state power, half-feminism leaves abusers in our midst, still controlling us, while making the survivors look more culpable for their own mistreatment.

In the half-feminist Bluebeard, it’s easier to blame the new bride for her own murder — or her life lived in fear of it. After all, she knew what she was getting into. He was honest with her.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t hold ourselves and others accountable for our actions. Instead, it’s to say we don’t go far enough in the process. We don’t trust ourselves and one another enough to take meaningful action against people or to demand real change from them. We stop halfway.

Those of us who desire a society without prisons and courts and all the apparatus of state-led “justice” have a particularly interesting path to navigate as we consider solutions to these problems. But our choice is not between a soft-handed restorative justice or a heavy-handed justice system based on mass incarceration.

We’re so heavily indoctrinated into believing in legal systems that we bring legalistic language and solutions to our practices of restorative justice. A legal system has laws — that is, it has exact and codified rules. Once put into place, those laws are hard or impossible to change. That’s the entire basis of a legal system. A legal system has no place in healthy restorative practice.

When you make laws, you make lawyers. When you write down rules, you challenge people to find loopholes in those rules instead of solutions to the problems those rules were written to address. Worse, when you insist upon a specific, legalistic accountability practice, you force survivors to write down the steps of it. You refuse to acknowledge that their desires and needs, let alone their understanding of the situation, might change over time. It took me months to accept that I’d be raped, and years to internalize how I felt about that. There’s no way I could have constructed a meaningful restorative practice on any kind of quick timeline.

Legalistic feminism is half-feminism. The creation of laws will never be more than a half-revolution.

A revolutionary feminist retelling of Bluebeard’s Castle involves all the villagers who live in that castle’s shadow, not just the brothers, and it involves pitchforks and torches, and its last line might be “dashed upon the rocks, left to be eaten by birds and by the sea.”

I use the serial murder of women by a misogynist as a hyperbolic example. While as much as it is pleasant to dwell on the idea of throwing abusers off of freeway overpasses into traffic, that might not always be the solution we’re looking for. In fact, there is no single solution, and the search for one is a distraction.

I do know, however, that asking an assaulter to disclose their past, in private, to new partners will never be enough. Without community support, most of us would walk past any number of corpses for the chance to live safe in a castle.

We should be talking about picket lines in front of the gate house. We should be talking about how to dismantle the castle walls stone by stone or how to open its doors to collective living. We should be talking active community support of the woman who survived Bluebeard’s castle.

We don’t want honest oppressors; we want no one in a position of power from which to oppress us. We want to never live in the shadow of the castle again.

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