“I wanted to build women a special place in language where they could be free, but instead I just wrote draft after draft of this loopy book,” Caroline Hagood explains. And that is exactly what she did. Ways of Looking at a Woman is a stunning representation of the strange, unknown, yet familiar tendencies of motherhood, womanhood, and writer-hood. Using hybridization, Hagood writes with elements of essay, memoir, poetry, and research, illustrating her own hybridized self—a mother, a writer, a woman, an academic. Ways of Looking at a Woman is, in many ways, an illeism—it speaks about itself in the third person, asking itself and the audience questions we never even thought to speak out loud. Posed as a dissertation—a familiar form to Hagood—the book uses research and named sections to tell Hagood’s profound story in a way that is more clinical, balancing out the words themselves.
Hagood essays through it all—trauma, Me Too, motherhood, children, introspection and more. Hagood somehow captures perfectly what it is to be a woman writer, and become a mother. In this way, parts of the book feel like a coming-of-age story, but for a mother. She explains her loneliness, or lack thereof, stating that her pregnancy made her grow up—I guess this answers the question of when I grew up: when I startled awake, realizing I wasn’t alone anymore.” A story of coming into motherhood, and how one learns or doesn’t learn, how. Hagood asks, “why don’t we talk about these things when they mean so much to us? Why hide them away?” and this question, along with many others she poses, is an invitation to listen, or read, harder—there are vital things within her passages that must be caught.
Hagood is witty, smart, and honest—giving us “not the apple” but “the core.” This book straddles genres, mixing memoir, research, essay, and a sort of self-help in a strange and elegant way. Hagood’s writing takes on a confessional tone, laying everything bare, and in doing this, she makes readers, specifically female readers, feel a little less alone. “All I really want to do with my typing is make another woman feel less alone, and maybe also hold her like a baby when she cries, tell her everything will be okay, oh and make her want to breastfeed with me while watching TV. This most of all.” It seems, perhaps, this beautiful piece aims to make the reader feel like someone is out there, in the world, rooting for her safety and warmth.
Hagood’s Ways of Looking at a Woman is strikingly honest, comforting, and it’s a thousand things at once—but that is exactly it— so are women, so are writers, and so are mothers. If there is any perfect way to capture an experience with a single unique perspective, this may be it. Ways of Looking at a Woman is a vital read for everyone—it teaches, it explains, and it can make you feel at home.—Dakotah Jennifer