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Whatever Happened to Nora? Women’s Fears Left Huddling on A Grate

appeared in On The Issues magazine, Fall 2008

©Joan Roth

Recently, while walking on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I live, I saw a woman who made me think of Nora from Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, more than a hundred years later, of course, and considerably older.

The woman was inching a number of upright shopping carts along the pavement. She would move one, then stop and move another, herding them, as it were, down the sidewalk. Each cart was crammed with her personal items and each was covered with an industrial-size, black plastic bag. She could have been in her late fifties or early sixties, and she looked healthy and well-groomed. She had just been evicted from her apartment, she told me, after losing her job and not being able to pay her rent. She was heading toward a shelter.

Ibsen’s Nora famously slams the door and leaves her husband in a defiant exit. But what happens to her then? A friend of the Norwegian playwright, walking in the park with him one day, asked the same question. Ibsen reportedly pointed to a crumpled homeless woman sitting on a bench. “There’s Nora,” he said.

But Ibsen, considered the father of modern realism, never wrote a play about the subject. It’s been left to 20th and 21st-century playwrights, practitioners of a more nitty-gritty dramaturgy than their theatrical ancestors, to portray the ugliness of surviving on the street.

Homelessness Is Real

In the 1970s and ‘80s, when homelessness became epidemic in New York City, one rarely imagined that the woman huddling in a doorway or sleeping over a grate could have been your well-heeled neighbor just yesterday.

One never imagined that she could be you.

Now we know differently.

With the rise in mortgage foreclosures and the slow but visible increase in unemployment, evidence suggests that middle-class women are vulnerable. Not only battered women or single women with two and three children take to the streets and shelters. Female veterans account for four percent of the homeless population, according to a report in the July 2003 American Journal of Public Health. Women who were once earning steady incomes and living in comfortable and supposedly secure circumstances are losing their homes.

Exact statistics indicating the number of middle-class women driven to homelessness are hard to come by. Information about the homeless generally does not capture figures on prior income. The March 2008 report on homelessness from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development only indicates that female adults make up 31.7 percent of the homeless who enter shelters, although 83 percent of the families that enter shelters are headed by women.

Anecdotal evidence provides powerful examples. In May 2008, CNN carried a story about 67-year-old Barbara Harvey, the mother of three grown children, who was living in a car in a Santa Barbara parking lot after being laid off from her job as a loan processor. At the time of the story, she was working a part-time job, earning $8 an hour, and receiving Social Security payments, but she could not afford an apartment.

Stage Stories Few and Far

Harvey was not alone, according to the CNN piece. That parking lot, run by the New Beginnings Counseling Center in Santa Barbara, was accommodating many women in similar straits.

Theater, the subject about which I most often write, historically has prided itself, as Hamlet says, on holding “the mirror up to nature.” So, how has dramatic literature dealt with the homelessness of women?

It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that playwrights, whether classical or contemporary, have not really met the challenge of this subject.

To be sure, there is Euripides’ Medea, tossed aside by her husband and taking horrible revenge. Euripides’ Trojan women, after watching the Greeks kill their men and burn their city to the ground, become their conquerors’ slaves and whores. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind, exiled from the local royal court, meanders around the Forest of Arden.

But classical dramatists usually conceived of homelessness as exile from one’s country -- being forced to wander until regaining one’s rightful place. Only in the most extreme cases (Oedipus, Lear) is that experience a fearsome one. As You Like It is a comedy, so at the end, Rosalind marries and retrieves her position at court. A god whisks Medea away in a flying chariot.

In contemporary plays, the genre is small, and the number of plays about middle-class homeless women, smaller still. Jaye Austin Williams’s brief subURBS, in which one of three homeless characters is an educated woman whose children have died in a fire, is one of the few.

The Scarlet H

One of the fiercest plays about a homeless woman is Suzan-Lori Parks’s In the Blood, which was first produced in 1999 at The Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival.

The setting, as Parks describes it with unsparing irony, is “Home under the bridge.” Here Hester, La Negrita, lives with her five children, existing as best they can on the meager soup Hester manages to concoct, and which she goes without.

Parks was inspired by Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, who is punished by her Puritanical community for adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her chest.

At the outset of Parks’s play, a similarly punitive urban chorus ridicules Hester for being

SHIFTLESS

HOPELESS

BAD NEWS

BURDEN TO SOCIETY

HUSSY

SLUT

Her badness, these onlookers say, is “in her blood.”

Like Hawthorne’s hero, who dotes on her daughter Pearl, Parks’s Hester tries to raise her children with as much dignity and love as possible under the circumstances.

But Hester is an innocent in a self-serving world. Every time she believes she has found a way to make a few bucks, someone tricks her out of the cash. Former lovers do not want to support the children they fathered. The Welfare Lady once invited Hester to her house for a sexual threesome.

The real inspiration for In the Blood, in fact, seems to be Georg Büchner’s 19th-century expressionist masterpiece, Woyzeck, in which the innocent hero is victimized and abused by those in power. Eventually a deranged Woyzeck murders the only person he loves. Hester beats one of her children to death and ends in prison.

In the Blood may not directly address the middle-class woman’s fear of winding up on the street (if anything, it stokes that anxiety). But it does point an accusing finger at the women and men who turn away from Hester.

Women, rather than offering help, berate Hester and use her. Men see her as a sexual object. All ultimately blame Hester for Hester’s condition. They hate her for being homeless, and that contempt both absolves them of their guilt and protects their own, non-homeless status.

About half the on-line responses to CNN’s report on Barbara Harvey were sympathetic, but half were contemptuous: she brought it on herself; she had lived beyond her means; why was she living in expensive California anyway?

Both situations are frightening: the homelessness and the negative reactions.

I find that I am terrified of being homeless, even if there is no logical reason to fear it will occur.

And that people who are not on the street, not living off scraps or the kindness of strangers, respond with contempt and anger feels like a disquieting outcome of the malformed social and economic policies of the last eight years. Perhaps human beings have always crossed the street to avoid the less fortunate But increasingly the U.S. is a country of haves and have-nots, where, like the homelessness of women, deriding another’s financial misfortune is par for the course.