White House Assaulters & Goblin Market

John Bolton, “Goblin Maret”


Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1859) felt particularly urgent when I taught it this past week given the spousal abuse stories emerging from the White House. Rossetti’s poem vividly captures the dynamics of male entitlement and how authoritarian personalities are infuriated when women stand up to them.

Misogyny and authoritarianism go hand and hand, which helps explain the high number of instances. Chief of Staff John Kelly, who “has a history of believing men over women,” was prepared to defend staffer Rob Portman to the hilt until a photograph of a black eye emerged. (Never mind the credible complaints of two ex-wives.) Vox lists others in the Trump orbit who have been accused of abuse or violence:

  • Steve Bannon, CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign and White House chief strategist until August 2017, was charged in 1996 with domestic violence, battery, and dissuading a witness. According to a 1996 police report quoted in Politico, Bannon’s then-wife said he grabbed her neck, then threw the phone across the room when she tried to call 911. The charges were eventually dismissed when Bannon’s wife was “unable to be located,” according to court records — she filed for divorce a few months later.
  • Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s campaign manager, was charged with battery in March 2016 after a Breitbart reporter, Michelle Fields, reported that he had forcibly grabbed her. The incident was captured on video, but a prosecutor declined to proceed with the case.
  • Andrew Puzder, Trump’s initial nominee for Secretary of Labor, was accused of assault and battery by his ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein. In documents that were part of their 1988 divorce proceedings, Fierstein said that Puzder had struck her “violently about the face, chest, back, shoulders, and neck, without provocation or cause.” And in 1990, Fierstein spoke of her experience on The Oprah Winfrey Show, saying Puzder had told her, “I will see you in the gutter. This will never be over. You will pay for this.” Fierstein retracted the abuse claims in a letter to Puzder after his nomination for labor secretary; he ultimately withdrew from consideration.
  • President Trump, meanwhile, has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 17 women. One of them is his ex-wife, Ivana, who reportedly stated in a 1990 divorce deposition that Trump had pulled out a fistful of her hair and raped her. In 2015, after Trump announced his candidacy for president, she issued a statement saying that a Daily Beast story about the alleged rape was “without merit.”

To Vox’s list we can now add speechwriter David Sorensen:

[Sorensen’s former wife Jessica] Corbett first contacted The Post a week before Porter’s case became public. She said that during her marriage to Sorensen, he ran a car over her foot, put out a cigarette on her hand, threw her into a wall and grasped her menacingly by her hair while they were alone on their boat in remote waters off Maine’s coast, an incident she said left her fearing for her life. During part of their marriage, he was a top policy adviser to Republican Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

She said she did not report her abuse allegations to police because of Sorensen’s connections to law enforcement officials.

The goblins in Rossetti’s poem appear to offer women what they want. Seen in terms of our drama, Laura is enticed by the promise of fulfilling her heart’s desire. What woman would not want to marry the successful and charming Portman, who according to ex-wife Jennie Willoughby outwardly appears a perfect gentleman. (“Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out.”) Think of him as selling women goblin fruit:

Come buy, come buy: 
Our grapes fresh from the vine, 
Pomegranates full and fine, 
Dates and sharp bullaces, 
Rare pears and greengages, 
Damsons and bilberries, 
Taste them and try: 
Currants and gooseberries, 
Bright-fire-like barberries, 
Figs to fill your mouth, 
Citrons from the South, 
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye; 
Come buy, come buy.

Unfortunately, the fragile egos of authoritarian types such as Trump, Porter, etc. rely on the submission of women. Without that, they feel they are nothing. For a woman to resist, therefore, represents an existential crisis that can trigger blows. The women who give in (Laura) function as momentary reassurance whereas those who refuse to play the game (Lizzie) elicit just such violence as Trump and Trump staffers meted out to their wives:

They began to scratch their pates, 
No longer wagging, purring, 
But visibly demurring, 
Grunting and snarling. 
One call’d her proud, 
Cross-grain’d, uncivil; 
Their tones wax’d loud, 
Their looks were evil. 
Lashing their tails 
They trod and hustled her, 
Elbow’d and jostled her, 
Claw’d with their nails, 
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking, 
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking, 
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots, 
Stamp’d upon her tender feet, 
Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits 
Against her mouth to make her eat. 

To a degree, Rossetti bought into the Victorian angel-in-the-house ideal. In Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem by that name, women are especially to be commended for their submission if the man does not deserve it. Therefore, the goblins’ assault becomes an occasion for Lizzie to exhibit Christian fortitude and endurance:

Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her, 
Coax’d and fought her, 
Bullied and besought her, 
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink, 
Kick’d and knock’d her, 
Maul’d and mock’d her, 
Lizzie utter’d not a word… 

Heroic martyrdom is problematic because it strips women of other responses, but we can still look to Lizzie as a model because she holds fast to her sense of self worth. This allows her to maintain her dignity against men who are “mad to tug her standard down”:

White and golden Lizzie stood, 
Like a lily in a flood,— 
Like a rock of blue-vein’d stone 
Lash’d by tides obstreperously,— 
Like a beacon left alone 
In a hoary roaring sea, 
Sending up a golden fire,— 
Like a fruit-crown’d orange-tree 
White with blossoms honey-sweet 
Sore beset by wasp and bee,— 
Like a royal virgin town 
Topp’d with gilded dome and spire 
Close beleaguer’d by a fleet 
Mad to tug her standard down. 

Lizzie’s strength saves the abused Laura, a wonderful instance of female solidarity. (Perhaps Laura is who we too often are, Lizzie who we aspire to be.) The sisterhood lauded by the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement is captured in the closing lines of the poem, where Laura recalls Lizzie’s aid:

For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.

Men can develop such friendships with women but they must surrender their sense of entitlement to do so. At the moment, it is very difficult to find useful models amongst Trump Republicans.

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