“Many Restless Concerns” by Gayle Brandeis

Reviewed by Jesi Buell

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160 pp Black Lawrence Press

Gayle Brandeis’ latest book, Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Báthory Speak in Chorus, opens with a short statement:

Countess Erzsébet Báthory of Hungary was found guilty of killing as many as 650 girls and women between the years 1585 and 1609.

People might have seen Báthory’s name before as she is often compared to Vlad the Impaler or Dracula.  As reputedly the most prolific female serial killer in history, she has also inspired many stories and films, even serving as an inspiration for the Evil Queen in Snow White.  Brandeis takes the enormous mythology around this woman who bathed in the blood of virgins to preserve her beauty and skews the narrative so that her victims can tell their own story/stories through Báthory.  

In many ways, this book is about the corporeal.  Brandeis uses this history to explore what it is to have a body, especially as a woman.  Intrinsic in the idea of a body is the idea of ownership and, in turn, class. In the opening sections, Brandeis establishes the parameters within which these young women lived:

The lords passed laws to prevent more revolt, laws to chain our families to the land forever, braiding our bodies to wheat and grapes and sunflowers.  From our first breath, we belonged to them, another product of their soil.

Besides their worth to Báthory, these women are valued for their sex insofar as they contribute to their master’s profits, insofar as they give birth to more workers. On the other end of the spectrum, in the aftermath of their encounters with the Countess, the girls become ghosts without bodies. They refuse, however, to disseminate into incorporeality.  Instead, their spirits cling together as a porous, absorbent mist. Osmosis-like, they take in the violence still being perpetrated by their murderer, as if their horror is what binds them together still on Earth.  

Báthory values them, at first, for their youth and their virginity, the purity of their blood.  Eventually, though, in her desperation, Báthory begins to take any female body. Is there some special alchemy in a woman’s blood? Brandeis moves us away from that magical element in Báthory’s mythology by focusing on how the Countess uses these girls not simply as a fountain of youth to preserve her beauty; rather, she uses their bodies to feed some sadistic need within herself. To me, that is the most shocking element of this story: that a woman is inflicting violence on other women. In a scene where Báthory’s daughter is preparing for her wedding, we see a transference between mother and daughter of this sadism. The shock, for me, is less about the violence, the complacency with death and torture, and much more about seeing it committed by female hands.  

Indeed, part of the reason Báthory was able to kill for as long as she did was because authorities of the time did not believe that women were capable of such horror.  Throughout history, we have been mesmerized by killers; we marvel at the lack of empathy and we question what elements of these murderers we can see within ourselves. Women, though, statistically make up a small percentage of serial killers and, even then, they are often working in tandem with a man and have somewhat a Stockholm Syndrome rationality.  Brandeis isn’t constrained by gender archetypes, though. Her Báthory doesn’t justify her proclivities and she barely tries to cover her trail(s). She brazenly torments and kills hundreds of young women, seemingly distanced from consequence by her privilege.  

Brandeis does not concern herself with pity for Báthory or look for reasons why she might have turned into the monster she became. The ghosts show their killer one act of mercy but, overall, the author only highlights the torture the Countess inflicted, focusing, instead, on the victims, the ghost-body of a singular “we” perspective. By leaving Báthory one-dimensional, Brandeis reinforces the idea that these ghosts are the real protagonist of this story. The reader learns some of their stories and begins to understand how, even in the face of a known danger, the chance to escape their lives was welcomed by many of the victims. In short vignettes, we learn about their circumstances and see how many horrible ways there are to die. 

In one particularly horrifying scene, the Countess kill the girls by drowning them in ice:

We looked down, watched her lackeys pour water over girls’ naked bodies, ruddy in the snow.

We couldn’t stop them, couldn’t stop her, but we could be there for the girls as the ice closed around their faces, tightened around their arms; we could be there as their spirits cracked their way through the ice and darted about, frightened and confused, zigging and zagging like lightning bugs.

All writers know how difficult it is to write about painto really capture its essence. It is very easy to fall into the maudlin or cliché. In the moments this book starts to veer towards those spaces, Brandeis pulls back and leaves the interpretation up to the reader:

The pain was __________________________

The pain was __________________________

The pain was __________________________

We could keep trying, but the words don’t exist.

Brandeis’ writing does spark with beautiful metaphor throughout this book.  The reader sees “fingertips freckled with needle pokes” and “wounds [that] wept beneath…sleeves.”  She paints beauty into the violence through her soft but affecting use of language. The spirit voice is represented alternatively in prose and a freer verse; the latter allowing Brandeis to pack heavy significance into her white space. The form continues to become more and more disembodied as the ghost-cloud begins to wilt away, giving the reader a physical sense of dissipation.  

This book gives agency to the victims and does not glorify or mythologize the transgressor. In many tragedies, we only remember the body inflicting horror and not those whose bodies are inflicted upon. Without documentation, these bodies get lost to history. Brandeis uses this absence to remind us of the importance of a name, the power within it.  

“A few of us were identified… but most of us were called nothing more than “servant girl”, “seamstress”, “chambermaid”, “girl”.

Outside of writing down all 650 of their names and committing their lives to history, this book serves as the next best memorial. For a book that is in many ways a ghost story, Brandeis removes the magical, fabled elements and makes the reader focus on the real-life consequences of violence committed against girls’ bodies. This focus removes the power we see in the Countess as her purpose becomes to show the reader that violence can come from anywhere and anyone. Even from someone who presumably shared some similar violences because of her own body.     

Our bodies, we later learned, of course, were not our own…But in the end, they were not hers, either. The land took them back.

Jesi BuellJesi Buell is an artist living in upstate New York. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Split Lip, and Lunch Ticket, among others. She is the author of The Book of The Last Word (Whisk(e)y Tit, 2019) and runs KERNPUNKT Press, a home for experimental writing.