Glass Menagerie: A Modern Story of Feminine Vampirism

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Looking for something to watch during my far infrared sauna session, I stumbled upon The Glass Menagerie, based on Tennessee Williams’s play. I suddenly remembered that this play was referenced in Barbara Hort’s book, Unholy Hungers, in the context of the feminine vampire archetype. Although the label “vampire” may sound too drastic, it is actually very appropriate because the book is basically about psychic feeding dynamics. After watching the movie, I felt compelled to review what was said in the book about the female vampire archetype. The book is probably one of the best psychology books I’ve ever came across with, so I’ll include the relevant quote here related to the movie as food for thought:

The vampire in Williams’s autobiographical work is Amanda Wingfield, a fading Southern belle whose husband has left her alone to raise their two children-the discontented dreamer, Tom, and Laura, his crippled, reclusive sister. Although Amanda devotes most of her energy to feeding on the resistant Tom, she achieves her greatest vampiric success with Laura. Bled to the point of transparency by her mother, Laura drifts through each day by playing with her glass menagerie, the little crystal animals that are as fragile and as translucent as Laura become in the grip of Amanda’s vampiric “love.”

Amanda clearly operates under her vampiric veil of vulnerability when she confronts Laura with her truancy from the secretarial school in which Amanda has forcibly enrolled her: [Amanda leans against the shut door and stares at Laura with a martyred look.]

AMANDA: Deception? Deception? [She slowly removes her hat and gloves, continuing the sweet suffering stare. She lets the hat and gloves fall on the floor-a bit of acting.]

LAURA: [shakily] How was the D.A.R. meeting? [Amanda slowly opens her purse and removes a dainty white handkerchief which she shakes out delicately and touches to her lips.] Didn’t you go to the D.A.R. meeting, Mother?

AMANDA: [faintly, almost inaudibly] No. No. I did not have the strength to go to the D.A.R. In fact, I did not have the courage! I wanted to find a hole in the ground and hide myself in it forever! [She crosses slowly to the wall and removes the diagram of the typewriter keyboard. She holds it in front of her for a second, staring at it sweetly
and sorrowfully-then bites her lips and tears it in two pieces.] . . . What are we going to do, what is going to become of us, what is the future?

LAURA: Has something happened, Mother? [Amanda draws a long breath, takes out the handkerchief again, goes through the dabbing process.] (29-3 I)

Amanda describes how she has gone to the secretarial college, only to find that Laura has dropped out after the first test, during which she threw up on the floor and had to be carried out of the room. Laura confesses that since then, she has spent every day walking in the park, in order to avoid telling Amanda about her disgrace at the school. Then, noticing Amanda’s martyred expression, she blurts out:

LAURA: Mother, when you’re disappointed, you get that awful suffering look on your face, like the picture of Jesus’ mother in the museum!

AMANDA: Hush!… [hopelessly fingering the huge pocketbook] So what are we going to do the rest of our lives? . . . Amuse ourselves with the glass menagerie, darling? . . . We won’t have a business career-we’ve given that up because it gave us nervous indigestion! . . . What is there left but dependency all our lives? (33 -34)

The martyred looks, the despairing words, the air of tragic suffering- these are all powerful weapons in the hands of feminine vampires such as Amanda. When Laura holds up the mirror to Amanda’s tactics, comparing her expression to “that awful suffering look. . . like the picture of Jesus’ mother,” Amanda silences her. Then she further alarms Laura by demolishing the boundaries between them, using “we” and “our” in her final flood of pathos. Against these weapons, Laura has no defense, and she crumbles before her mother in a spasm of culpability and remorse-both of which are ambrosia to the power-seeking Amanda vampire. From the depths of her shame and guilt, Laura acquiesces to another of Amanda’s schemes-the invitation of a “gentleman caller” to dine with the Wingfield family. Laura is soon appalled to find that the caller, Tom’s friend Jim, is someone on whom she had a crush in high school. It initially seems that Laura will not be able to interact with Jim at all, but they eventually have an innocently romantic conversation while Amanda and Tom wash the dinner dishes. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that although Jim appreciates Laura’s delicate charm, he is already engaged to be married. After Jim has departed, Amanda explodes in fury at Tom for not having alerted her to Jim’s engagement. Her abuse finally drives Tom to leave, even though it means abandoning Laura to their mother’s predation. As the play ends, Tom speaks retrospectively of his departure, while the vampiric duet between Laura and her mother continues in silence along its tragic path:

[We see, as though through a soundproof glass, that Amanda appears to be making a comforting speech to Laura, who is huddled upon the sofa. . . . Laura’s hair hides her face until, at the end of the speech, she lifts her head to smile at her mother. Amanda’s gestures are slow and graceful, almost dancelike, as she comforts her daughter. . . . At the close of Tom’s speech, Laura blows out the candles, ending the play.]

So it is that the feminine vampire shepherds her enfeebled prey, driving her with spurs of guilt, soothing her with sugary appeasements, penetrating her psyche with fangs of shame, and draining as much life force as she can without destroying the precious resource. Laura, for her part, drifts along in the customary torpor of a vampire’s victim, yearning and despairing in the smothering fog of her mother’s embrace. And although we can sense the frustration that simmers in the depths of Laura’s psyche, it is clear that she will bleed out her life into her mother’s psychic maw. Indeed, Laura seems to curl up voluntarily in that bloody cavern, possibly because its truth is obscured by Amanda’s pathos and by Laura’s desperate need to believe in her projection of the Great Feminine. But there is something else, too. Laura accommodates the feminine vampire because she knows that the penalty for refusing will be the paralyzing force of Amanda’s righteous rejection and the guilt that she will be forced to bear for having “abused” by her martyred mother.

[…]

Feminine vampirism, for all its fragile appearance, is as tenacious as it is virulent. The feminine vampire can be separated from her victims by years, continents, even death, and still the victims bleed for her. One woman I know swears that she can hear her mother’s eyelids narrow at a distance of three thousand miles. Indeed, many of us have been astonished to find that we still cower before the internal images of our pathetic, martyred vampires long after we thought we had freed ourselves from their jaws And this is just how it was for Tom Wingfield as well:

I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further-for time is the longest distance between two places. . . . I descended the steps this fire escape for the last time and followed, from then on, my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. . . . The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. (Williams I945, II4-II5)

Although we may cringe at the thought of Amanda’s continuing predation beyond the end of the play, it is not surprising that her children remain powerless to stop her. For Tom and Laura, and for most of us as well, the work entailed in deactivating a pathetic feminine vampire makes us feel as if we were strangling a bunny, and the distastefulness of the task often dissuades us from pursuing it. Even if we manage to stick to our guns (or stakes), we should understand the factors that lead us to be her victims in the first place which is also what encourages us to remain in her thrall. In addition to capitalizing on their victims’ compassion with the induction of guilt, how exactly do such feminine vampires as Amanda Wingfield exploit their feminine victims?

Laura Wingfield [had] been distanced, through no fault of their own, from the positive energies of the Great Feminine. This separation occurs in the stories because of fateful accidents (Laura’s physical incapacitation). Most of us have also been separated from our positive feminine energy by four thousand years of patriarchal socialization and, in some cases, the wiles of a feminine vampire. Feminine vampires like to convince us that we must fight alone to survive in a ruthless world where our sacredness will never be honored. Of course, life and love usually entail risk and hardship. But many of us have been trained to feel a profound distrust for life and love, period, much as Amanda trains Laura to withhold her trust from the outside world and to give it instead to Amanda, the very vampire who threatens her safety. Laura is like many women who have been convinced by a vampiric mother that there is no protective, positive feminine force in the world and that they are safe and loved only when they are huddled under the vampire’s wing.

Once Laura has been cowed by her mother’s fallacious worldview, Amanda lulls her into a dreamy semiconsciousness that makes her even easier prey. Amanda spoons down Laura’s throat her antebellum confections of fantasy and nostalgia, creating a lovely dream world that Laura can retrieve for herself only by repetitiously contemplating the melodies of her old records and the luminescence of her fragile glass animals. In this sense, Laura is like many feminine victims who spin out their dreams in a lethargic limbo that prevents them from bringing those dreams to life. Using food, fantasies, and a variety of other drugs, these feminine victims numb their pain and frustration as they drift off to elaborate endlessly the fantasyland that a feminine vampire has designed for them. Laura dawdling among her little crystal animals call to mind the millions of people (most of them women) who dawdle their days away in the glass coffins of romance novels and soap opera sagas. These drugs, though not lethal (particularly when compared to alcohol, nicotine, and Valium), become psychically dangerous, when they are a substitute for life.

Amanda also uses their vampiric mastery of shape shifting to prey upon Laura. In one instant, the feminine vampire may appear to us as a concerned woman who dispenses valuable advice. In another instant, she may don the seductive garb of a feminine soulmate who pretends to help us realize our romantic or professional aspirations. In yet another instant, the feminine vampire may adopt the appearance of a helpless, adoring child who wants only our love and attention. Or she may appear in the disguise of a maternal protector who stands between us and a host of ostensible predators, all whom are vividly described to us by the vampire. With each mask, the feminine psychic vampire appeals to a different aspect our psyche, switching disguises frequently so we do not become wise to the game. The most effective of the feminine vampire’s disguises, however is the mask she dons for those outside the vampire-victim dyad. Like Amanda, the feminine vampire frequently appears to the outside world as a model of solicitude and goodwill. This may be the most devastating of the vampire’s disguises, because it leads us to doubt our own sense of reality when we are confronted with the disbelief of the duped onlookers. “What do you mean, your mother is a guilt-inducing bloodsucker? She’s so nice and innoccent!” “How can you say that your mate is a wheedling manipulator? She’s so accommodating and good natured!” “Aren’t you being ungrateful to refer to your boss as a vampire? She’s so sweet tempered and vulnerable!” In the face of public response like this, it is no wonder that we may decide to slump back into the sweet, suffocating fog. It takes a fierce conviction regarding our endangerment for us to deactivate a sugar- coated vampire.

The final ploy of the feminine vampire in this story is to separate her intended victim from the powerful forces of masculine energy and her own instincts, particularly her potent sexuality. In The Glass Menagerie, Amanda subtly tries to sabotage Laura’s connection with Jim by flirting with him and denigrating Laura. The maternal vampire compounds her daughter’s sense of powerlessness by attempting to either seduce or suppress any male energy (including the daughter’s own masculinity) that might free her daughter from her clutches. As long as the mother can control the masculine energies in and around her daughter (energies that Jung would call the animus), the daughter is gravely endangered. Her mother will never permit her to attract external masculine energies by embodying her own feminine sexuality, nor is the daughter allowed to reclaim her own masculine energies, and she certainly cannot attack the maternal vampire who holds her animus hostage. Instead, the daughter is obliged to serve as a masculine champion to her vampiric mother, while simultaneously remaining in a subordinate feminine position. Sadly, this story is lived out in the life of every woman who serves her mother’s masculine aspirations by excelling professionally, but who abandons her personal assertiveness and her feminine sexuality in the face of her mother’s envy and resentment.

Given the feminine vampire’s insidious power, it is essential that we find a model for her deactivation. But first, we must remember not to become too dogmatic in our interpretations of these stories. Not all relationships are permeated with vampiric energy. The difference between normal loving and vampiric exploitation has to do with the nature of the energy that underlies the behavior. The vampiric person does not simply feel that “I don’t know what to do when my beloved is gone.” Rather, she feels that “I cease to exist when my beloved is gone.” The feminine vampire attempts to neutralize this feeling by manipulating her victim with the guilt-inducing tactics of martyrdom and conditional gratitude. This may be why feminine vampirism is so insidious: in order to extricate ourselves from its embrace, we must deactivate the vampiric energy in an apparently vulnerable person who seems to profoundly, indeed desperately, appreciate us. That s a very difficult strategy to resist. If we don’t refuse these pathetic vampires, however, we are likely to follow in Laura Wingfield’s tragic footsteps. [Unholy Hungers: Encountering the Psychic Vampire in Ourselves and Others, Barbara E. Hort]

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