Book Review: Reinventing Eve

My copy of the book.

Seeking as sin, or subversion? Precipitating the Fall, or propagating all of humanity? Turning away from the Goddess to the patriarchy of the father-world, or reunifying with the Goddess, the one, inevitable Creator? These are the questions Kim Chernin grapples with in her part-memoir, part-psychoanalytic, part-feminist theory book, 1987’s Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself. I didn’t realize until I read the foreword that Chernin’s book is actually the third in her trilogy on women and eating disorders, starting with Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, and The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity. Without having read those two prior books (and I normally wouldn’t read the third book in a series first!), it does seem fitting to conclude with the ultimate mythologized act of “feminine hunger” in Eve’s lurch for the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden in Christianity.

Chernin traces back this mythology to other mythological tales from the Far East to the Greeks, and how they had their own serpents, their own fruits, their own fruit trees, and their own Creators, but with varying symbolism, while also weaving in psychoanalysis, largely responding to and expanding upon Freud’s work with his Oedipus complex, or to put it in Chernin’s words, his penis theory, about children and why they subconsciously denounce their mothers. With the latter, Chernin proposes an alternative perspective she calls the breast-theory. She was grappling with why it is the “girl-child” would turn away from the Goddess (the mother) of the underworld (the subconscious), of warm, protective skin and food (through the breasts) to the father, to the patriarchy, and through her breast-theory, she argues that the girl-child sees the mother depleted by … herself — that is, the child — and paradoxically, in guilt, the child then reconstitutes the depleted Goddess as a vengeful, rivalrous monster, and turns to the distant, non-nurturing, non-breastfeeding father for protection.

Instead of a depleted Goddess, though, Chernin asks us to reimagine, “reinvent,” Eve to recapture the Goddess and the power of femininity — indeed, the power within all women. Rather than Eve being what causes the Fall, Chernin, who is leaning on the non-canon Gnostic Gospels (of which, she speculates were written by a woman), argues that an arrogant male God claimed all of creation as his, foregoing and forsaking his own mother, and so, when Eve seeks the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, her act of disobedience is in defiance to a wrongheaded God, but also, in accordance with the Goddess, as the Goddess is symbolized by the tree itself. God cast Eve and Adam out of Eden, out of paradise, but was it really a punishment when, ultimately, God still needed Eve to propagate the human species? In that recasting and retelling, Chernin sees Eve as a potent and necessary force, a source of feminine pride rather than cause for cowering over having done something supposedly sinful. Referring to the basic knowledge that birth is a female act, Chernin states, “They might curse it, pretend to despise it, make it seem the painful outcome of a sinful deed, but fundamentally they could not do without it.” So, God, if he was all-knowing, necessarily needed to make a disobedient woman in Eve, and as I said, even after her disobedience, we arrive back at the same point: woman as creator.

The throughline to Chernin’s other books in the trilogy about women and hunger, I’m surmising, is that far from it being a bad thing to seek food as a women, it was the right thing to do, and we should embrace the Goddess who fed us (the tree of knowledge, the symbol for her).

And it’s worth underscoring why Chernin talks about the Goddess being within the underworld, as it were. Other myths from the Pacific to the Greeks again to Hawaiian myth-making see the underworld as a place of renewal and rebirth, not banishment, not a “hell” in the Christian sense. In fact, Chernin argues that Shamans of the far north believed they could put on a “Hel-met,” go the underworld without dying, and come back transformed. That is what Chernin seeks to do, and when she comes back to the earth, she does so with “New Eve,” reborn through the non-canon Gnostic Gospels.

It is speculative, to be sure, but it is interesting to consider how Western culture, largely dominated by the Christian Creation myth, and specifically, the story of Eve as antagonist, would have been like had Western culture developed through a Creation myth where Eve is cast as a Goddess, as a creator, as someone rightly seeking knowledge, and what that would have meant for scores of women over the last 2,000 years. Alas.

Chernin’s book was a challenging (it gets a bit esoteric at times), but interesting re-imagining of Eve in a feminist and psychoanalytic (itself reimagined) context. I’m always drawn to the idea of someone being radical and disobedient, and if you believe in the Christian Creation myth, the first “someone” was Eve, for better, not worse.

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