Cassandra Speaks was something my mom had been hounding me to read since the beginning of 2021. When I finally picked up Elizabeth Lesser’s 2020 work, I could see why. This book analyzes our connection with ancient stories, addressing how the morals of these legends enter our psyche without our consent or knowledge. Lesser’s writing forces people who have grown up surrounded by Western culture to sit down and analyze the very language we use to connect with ourselves and those around us. She argues that if we want to achieve real societal change, we must uncover those stories within us. Becoming familiar with and facing these uncomfortable stories about women is essential if we embark on the crucial task to rewrite and create new stories. Without an analysis of where our biases originate, progress towards these new endings that our world desperately needs will not happen.
The premise focuses on our so-called “Origin Stories,” which are the lessons that stick with us through generations. Lesser discusses Eve, Pandora, Cassandra, and numerous other stories men wrote, which paint women as lesser and not to be trusted, listened to, or believed. Punishing female protagonists for curiosity and a need for individuality, Lesser points out, is simply a hero’s journey as told by a man. If these fictional women had been allowed to tell their own stories, Lesser believes they would have been the classic tale of a hero’s journey.
Unfortunately, these stories live in us despite us having read them or not. Lesser synthesizes an analysis of old bible stories with these five main takeaways:
1) Men are better than women. Even wicked men are better than women.
2) Shame is deserved, especially for out-of-control emotions or overt sexuality.
3) A woman should be silent with a “bound up mouth.”
4) Men dominate women to protect them from other men.
5) Alliances between women are dangerous.
The Bible is something I have never read. However, I realized many of the takeaways in these stories are stories I have internalized throughout my life.
The book then transitions into a discussion of power. Lesser explains that many women reject power but acknowledge the danger of powerlessness. This phenomenon is likely due to power’s traditional meaning of “power over” others. Historical accounts of power make the word synonymous with domination, war, and destruction. But power is simply the ability to change our own lives or even the world. Lesser hypothesizes that most women deny the old definition of power because they want peace, communication, connection, and love (ideas often dismissed as unimportant by those who have “power over”). To promote these values we must rethink the concept of power into something new: including instead of excluding, connecting instead of competing, listening and processing instead of interrupting and overriding. Redefining the terms of power and “doing power differently” really resonated with me. Power is a concept I have wrestled with for the exact reasons Lesser mentions. But powerlessness is dangerous, so the only way to create real change will be to redefine what power means to us as a society, overturning “power over.”
I also really enjoyed a discussion Lesser fostered surrounding activism and innervism. Innervism (for those like myself who had never heard the word) is the social change and reflection occurring within yourself. Activism and innervism are not mutually exclusive; each keeps the other in check. We focus so much on fighting the wrongs in the world that sometimes we miss out on the work that needs to happen within ourselves. Sometimes we need to look inward and check our hypocrisy so we can build bridges with others. Sometimes, the undesirable behavior we see in others lives in ourselves. It is difficult to “look at your own bullshit” and take responsibility for a behavior you dislike in others. I become frustrated when friends or relatives do not seem to hear my opinions. Yet, I realize that when I disagree with their views, I become just as closed off. Once we recognize these flaws, it becomes easier to forgive others for their imperfections and find common ground. Rather than only look outward to blame and shame others (because blaming and shaming breeds more conflict and no solutions), reflect within and forgive.
The final section lays out some tools for women (and everybody!) to “Do no harm and take no shit.” This section allowed the reader to practice vulnerable communication (the opposite of gaslighting), which entails welcoming those you may disagree with while finding the openness within yourself to try and understand their story. However, you must also maintain a “strong backbone” and not “take shit” from those who are not open or try to demean your own human experience. This part of the book included meditations, breathing exercises, reflections, etc., which I thought were surprisingly fun to attempt.
Lesser mentioned she was conflicted with publishing a book that discussed gendered concepts despite gender fluidity. Ultimately, she decided to escape these gendered stereotypes, we must unearth and discuss why they exist. I also want to mention that this book centers on many Western values and stories for the data collection. When I had finished reading, I was slightly disappointed at the lack of narratives from worldwide cultures alongside the traditionally Western fables of Pandora, Eva, and Cassandra. I kept wondering if those origin stories were similar to the Greek or Christian histories. However, Lesser’s critique focused on the domineering ideals of Western culture, so I suppose it makes sense that Western stories specifically were targeted.
Cassandra Speaks uncovered many layers of patriarchal thought that pervade Western society. To me, the book emphasized how influenced we can become simply by language, art, and stories. Overall, I enjoyed how this book made me reflect, not only on my own life, but also on larger structures that influence my actions. These connections to our past directly relate to the present reality we have created for ourselves. As Lesser emphasizes, “It’s time to tell stories where no one is to blame for the human predicament, and all of us are responsible for forging a hopeful path forward.”