Elizabeth Hand’s Cleopatra Brimstone

Cleopatra Brimstone, written by Elizabeth Hand, is suspenseful but leaves the reader questioning the main character’s motivation for her actions. While looking for coincidences in the story, I came up empty-handed. One event leads to another gracefully never sounding forced or coincidental. “Cleopatra” is a regular college student who is raped. She deals with this event the best she could by continuing with her every-day life, but she finds the need to free herself from the damaging environment she is a part of, so she moves away to another country where she is free to do as she desires. She is damaged and tries to find solace anyway she can, eventually this leads to her demise.

The questions that are left open do not hinder the enjoyment of the story. When I first realized how the plot was developing, I questioned why and how a young woman became part butterfly. I did not understand why she then turned unsuspecting, nice young men into butterflies. I have not read a lot of science fiction, so I felt this was something that I just had to let go and allow my mind to follow the storyline. When I let go of my disbelief that something like this could happen, I enjoyed the story quite a bit.

In the beginning, the reader is introduced to a young girl who is rummaging through her childhood memorabilia. When she picks up her old butterfly mobile, she feels a tingling sensation in her eyebrows, which lengthen and twist at the ends. The reader does not suspect this occurrence to be significant because prior to this scene, there is no reason to suspect that anything is amiss. As the story develops, the reader understands the physical sensation and transformation is the underpinning for progressing the story. It appears when “Cleopatra” faces any sort of stress in her life, she transforms into a crossbreed of human and butterfly. She seemed to accept this after she is raped when in college. She surrendered her body (I believe unwillingly.) to her rapist and eventually surrenders to her internal desire to transform men into butterflies whom she immediately kill then mounts in cases for her own viewing pleasure.

I question why she does not target men that are revealed to be criminals or just men she finds creepy of repulsive. This may be the point. It may be that some victims of rape find all people of that sex to be repulsive and potential predators.

Knowing that Elizabeth Hand was raped and often includes rape in her writing reveals part of her real inner being. I have always heard and continue to believe that authors write about what they know, about what they have experienced firsthand. It takes a strong author and person to reveal, share, and elaborate on such a traumatic life experience. I have to wonder if it was cathartic for Elizabeth Hand to write about rape. Even though the actual rape scene was short and nondescript, the entire story is about rape. In a sense “Cleopatra” rapes the men that she lures back to her house before killing them, raping them of their life. The fact that she sexually lures them home is disturbing because abuse victims often repeat the cycle. It is interesting that adult rape victims do not often rape others, but children who are raped or molested, often grow up to do the same to others. Why is this? What happens in a person’s brain that causes them to either repeat or not repeat the abuse?

I have thought about the conclusion of the story for quite a while. When I first read it, I did not like how it ended. I did not want the victim to be re-victimized, but that is precisely what happens. The reader enters into the mind of a serial killer, and the readers feel badly for her and even root for her. Does this happen because the main character was raped? Does the incident set it up justification? Or is it because I knew ahead of time about the author’s own rape? I wonder if someone read the same story, would they feel the same way as I do.

After taking more time to think about the ending, I find that “Cleopatra” became a perpetrator because of her traumatic past; the cycle did not end with her. And because she moved on to harm others, even though she transformed them into beautiful specimens, she became her own final victim through fault of her own. Sad.


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