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John Wesley Carhart: Norma Trist (excerpts)

Title page: Norma Trist

Title page: Norma Trist

As Norma Trist begins readers learn that the title character, daughter of a wealthy widow of La Grange, Texas, has a passionate fondness for books, learning, and "young ladies," but none for "young gentlemen." Her father, before he died, requested that she receive an education to suit her tastes, and to fit her for "usefulness in the world."[6-7]

Mrs. Marie LaMoreaux, Norma's music teacher, a young, beautiful, talented, educated, cultured widow, is the "one person" who Norma says "I truly, dearly, passionately love," and in whom she has confided "one strange feature of her life."[11,22]

Symptoms of Norma's strange condition are that she enjoys dancing with her young lady friends and Mrs. LaMoreaux, but opposes male-female dancing. She does not like those perfumes associated with males.[20, 21]

Just before leaving to become a student at Maplewood Young Ladies Seminary in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Norma, alone in her room with Mrs. LaMoreaux, throws her arms about her, and embraces her "most fondly and passionately"--jealous of Mrs. LaMoreaux's verbal interchange with a Spanish captain. Mrs. L. reassures Norma, "I love you better than anyone else in this world," and Norma goes off to Massachusetts promising to write "love letters" to her friend.[36, 37]

At Maplewood, in the Berkshires, Norma, an outstanding student, writes to Mrs. LaMoreaux "as though to a lover, to whom she was devoted with all the powers of her mind, body and soul."[51]

Miss Elwell, a teacher of "uncertain age," accidentally intercepts one of Norma's love letters to Mrs. L. and, shocked, takes it to President Spencer of Maplewood. He calls a faculty meeting at which Norma's letter is read.

"My Dear Mrs. LaMoreaux," Norma's letter quite formally begins,

I love you with all the powers and faculties of my nature. I am happy only when I think of you and fancy that I have you in my arms, hugging you to my bosom. You are ... the inspiration of my thought, the only stimulus of my amorous feelings. How happy the hours in the past, when, unsuspected, I could yield myself in your embraces to the full sway of passion's convulsive joys....  I know that my absorbing passion for you is strange, and often troubles me; and I know not what the world would say could the half be known. But the laws and customs of human society are one thing. My love for you, in its peculiar form is my nature, which God gave me, and how can I help it? I do not want to help it.  ...Think of me as your "sweetheart." ... Your dear presence was a magnetic stream; it was a peculiar power your being exercised over me .... In the night of sorrow I had but one star, the star of your love![52-54]

Although President Spencer teaches "mental science," he and the faculty of Maplewood are mystified by Norma Trist's letter to a "lady friend." They cannot believe that such expressions of Norma's "mental and affectional nature" could have been "awakened by a woman, no matter how intense her friendship," or how deep her love. The existence of a "pathological psychical vita sexualis" never for a moment enters their minds.[55-56]

They have not heard of such a thing, says Carhart, because American literature, whether philosophy, science, or fiction, is "entirely barren" of comment on the subject. And although religious literature (biographies and revival histories) contain relevant facts, "the ministry regarded every departure from a given standard, and every variation from their notions of normal affectional manifestations, as vice"--not fit for pulpit discourse.[56] French and German fiction on "sexual abnormalities" is so "gross" it is said not to have been translated for American readers.

The Maplewood faculty thus decides that Norma's letter must really be to a male--a form of prohibited correspondence. Her letter is returned to her without comment (as if it had not been read), and a second letter of Norma's is intercepted.

Fearing that her first letter has been read, Norma writes to Mrs. LaMoreaux:

What if my feeling for you should become known? I feel no condemnation for aught I have done or for aught that I feel. But, oh! I dread the criticisms and scoffs of society who <<can not>> understand, and refuse to appreciate.

Norma has only lately realized "that I am not as other people. I have no love or desire for the opposite sex--indeed the thought of intimacy with them is abhorrent to all the finer, better feelings of my nature."

Norma can conceive, she says, a state of society in which "platonic love might exist between two of the opposite sex"--after Christ has reigned for a thousand years! Imagining such social conditions, Norma says: "I have given no special thought to the propagation of the species"; she thinks some "more pure method," involving "no suffering" might be instituted by the "Divine Father."

She writes of her "horror" at the thought that she is "not as others":

From my earliest years my inclination has been for the female sex. In my thirteenth year, I first felt a trace of sexual feeling. At that time, and ever since, feminine forms have exclusively appeared in my dream pictures.[60-62]

President Spencer, still not knowing what to make of Norma, contacts a Pittsfield pastor and five "alienists," none of whom provides any useful interpretations of the case. A third letter of Norma's is intercepted in which she describes her "erotic delight" in touching the furs given to her by Mrs. LaMoreaux, furs which she refers to as her "fetich." (The source of such details is Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis.)

Norma also tells Mrs. LaMoreaux that their love inspires her to "great things." In this "exalted" state, says Norma, she "should be perfectly happy but for the fear of publicity, and the harrowing thought that at some time you may fail to reciprocate my love.... These thoughts at times, drive me almost to madness."[66-68]

The author comments: "The beautiful blending of the sensuous," the "sensual," and "the truly, sublimely religious and poetic in Norma's nature" remains an enigma to President Spencer, even after a discreet inquiry to Mrs. Trist in Texas brings the information that Norma is indeed corresponding with a Mrs. LaMoreaux.

Despite the suspicions and surveillance by the school authorities, Norma is allowed to continue on at Maplewood, where, before graduating, she is elected valedictorian by her fellow students.

Norma’s election occurs against the wishes of several female teachers who favor another young woman. At the instigation of these teachers the subject of Norma's strange love letters is again revived. These teachers cannot excuse

one girl falling in love with another girl as though she were a man. They thought that if it did not betray an unmentionable depravity, it was altogether too mannish--a thing they utterly "hated, abominated" and were "utterly disgusted with.... A girl should be a girl until she becomes a woman, and then she should be a true woman." They did not hesitate to say that they were "utterly down on 'short-haired women and long-haired men,' and it was their opinion that "there should be a law passed to prevent all such abnormal conduct...." In their opinion, it had "become exceedingly difficult to control young ladies, anyway...."[155-56]

President Spencer calls another faculty meeting to try to placate those female teachers who characterize Norma's "love affair with a woman" as "unnatural, inexplicable, disgraceful and abominable," warning that it is "impossible to tell to what it might all lead.... "

Another of Norma's intercepted letters to Mrs. LaMoreaux is read:

My Dearest Loved One:--How I long ... to press you to my heart of hearts once more.... When I look at my white arms which feel so empty without your dear, sweet self in their embrace, I feel that half their mission is unfulfilled.... If I could stroke your silken hair, watch the heavings of your breasts and feel their fond pulsations it would be to me an Eden of love and delight.  ...how sweet it will be when we are united for life, as I hope to be, ...not by the formalities that society imposes, but by the spiritual and fleshly bond that I feel must forever unite us.

Professor Gerster, the German teacher of calisthenics, with President Spencer the only other male at Maplewood, thinks little of the fuss made about Norma's "psychical and affectional abnormality," as "such things were not unusual in the older civilization of Europe."[1631

President Spencer allows Norma to graduate as valedictorian, and she returns to Texas--to find that Mrs. LaMoreaux is engaged to be married to the Spanish captain introduced earlier. Norma's passionate love immediately turns to bitter gall; she attempts to murder Mrs. LaMoreaux by stabbing her in the breast.

Every daily newspaper in the nation headlines the case, some with the words:

                        A Girl Murders Her Female Lover

                                     Sexual Perversion

                        A Girl in Love With a Woman, Kills Her in the Public Street[l82]

Mrs. LaMoreaux does not die. She recovers rather quickly, marries her Spanish captain, and goes to live in Mexico.

Norma is tried, declared "insane," and sent to the Austin asylum. The publicity about her causes a "few investigators and original thinkers" to turn to the subject of "psychopathic conditions, mental abnormalities and affectional aberrations," and to discover reports of other such cases in the courts and "casebooks" of physicians.[l86]

After observing Norma for some time the head of the Austin asylum decides that she is not insane, and remands her to the legal authorities. A second trial is held.

Norma's lawyer defends her by proposing to show

that there was in certain cases, what was known as a psycho-sexual condition manifest in one falling In love with another of the same sex, wherein affectional, social and sexual excitement, and so far as possible, relations exist as between those of the opposite sexes.

            Such a state of psychopathia sexualis might exist, and frequently does exist between one man and another, and between one woman and another woman. It might be congenital or it might be induced or acquired.

The lawyer also proposes to show that between either "the opposite sexes," or between those of the "same sex," love may "be sadistic in character." Instead of "admiration" and "a desire to possess the one loved," it takes the form of "a desire to mutilate or destroy the one loved...." He proposes to show that Norma is a subject of both these "abnormalities" (love for the same sex, and sadistic love) and that "such a condition did not imply an insane mind."[205-06]

Although not compelled to testify against herself, Norma is voluntarily the first witness in her own defense, her manner, reportedly "frank, without equivocation, and apparently unembarrassed." She makes no "attempt to conceal facts, no matter how delicate they might seem...."

Asked if the lady for whom she entertained such an "erotic passion" knew the character of her love, Norma answers that "no objections were ever made to her advances, or to the character of her passion.... "[208-09] (Mrs. LaMoreaux, we have been told, in passing, is a Roman Catholic, of French extraction.)

When her love is termed an "infatuation" Norma denies the negative implications of the term. Her feeling for her friend, she says,

is as pure as the deepest, purest, most God-given passion between two of the opposite sexes can possibly be, and I may modestly say, as intelligent....The stronger the passion the happier I was; it was and is a stimulus to my ambition, prompting me to highest intellectual effort, inspiring me with delightful, unflinching courage .... "[209]

Describing what motivated her to try to kill her beloved, Norma, with tears streaming down her face, speaks of a "jealous frenzy" and "bewilderment" caused by love.

Asked whether she realizes that the love for the same sex is "not according to nature," Norma answers:"It is according to the profoundest and most irresistible instincts of my nature." She adds:

"I am painfully aware that I am not as the majority of people are; and also that I may be regarded as not in harmony with the common sentiments or wishes of society."

Asked if her conscience has ever bothered her, Norma says no.

The prosecuting attorney's last question, he says, is "a somewhat delicate one." At this we are told the spectators present in court display an "intense eagerness" to hear the question and the answer--especially the many "ladies."

The prosecutor asks Norma "if, in your relations with Marie, your love experienced perfect satisfaction?"

Norma, apprehending the exact purport of the question, and wishing to relieve him from all embarrassment, said:

"I understand you to mean satisfaction of the erotic desire?"

"That is what I mean."

Norma then responds:

“I have no hesitancy in answering frankly and freely, that my love for and relations with Marie afforded the highest and profoundest satisfaction of which the entire human being is capable in the realm of human love."[207-11l]

The head of the Austin insane asylum testifies that "sexual and affectional abnormalities," while "freaks of nature," are not forms of insanity. Asked if "the light reading of the present time" might cause such abnormalities, he thinks it might, but not in Norma's case. Asked if Norma was "responsible" for her acts, he answers that she is just as responsible as one would be who, in "a transport of jealousy for the opposite sex, should commit overt acts."[215-17]

A Dr. Jasper, expert in "sexual abnormalities," makes the "startling statement" that "the numbers of those suffering from such abnormalities would reach into the thousands, possibly tens of thousands."[217] He also denies that such a condition represents insanity, adding that acquired, non-congenital cases can be cured by hypnotism.[218]

After arguing for forty-eight hours, the jury, eleven to one for conviction, can't agree. Norma's bail is paid by Frank Artman, who from their youth has loved her, despite his passion being unreturned.

Frank Artman is assured by Dr. Jasper that he can "cure" Norma; Artman approaches her with the suggestion that she might "be placed under treatment for the abnormal condition of your mind and heart." She responds:

"Oh, Frank! you surprise me. You shock me! I must correct you and inform you that my love for Marie is as natural to me as your love for me is natural to you."

"I know, I know!" said Frank with evident embarrassment, "I meant abnormal, as people generally view such things."

"Yes," said Norma, "it is abnormal in the eyes of the community."

As to treatment, Norma says: " I have no wish at present to cease to love [Marie], except to avoid bringing trouble to others." But then, apparently to avoid bringing trouble to others, Norma does decide to try hypnosis, for which Artman has offered to pay.

Interviewing Norma's mother, Dr. Jasper comments on the grief her daughter's abnormality has caused:

one of the saddest features of her case, as well as of thousands more suffering from similar sexual and psychical perversion, is the fact that there is little sympathy for her and for those of her class.

Mrs. Trist agrees:

"Norma is as innocent as a child of any wrong purpose, as her strange love, and ever her jealousy is, to her as natural as love or jealousy between those of the opposite sexes."[239-40]

Attempting to understand how Norma's condition might have been encouraged by her upbringing, Dr. Jasper asks about her "early occupations and sports."[242]  Mrs. Trist answers that Norma, an only child, had been "capable of almost unlimited physical exercise." Her father was "passionately fond of her. She was his idol" and "He wanted her with him everywhere." Norma always "rode man fashion" on her pony, wearing a male riding outfit, and often enjoyed riding with her father:

She became brown as a nut, athletic and courageous; and at times impressed me as having more the characteristics and disposition of a great, healthy, well developed, vigorous and fun-loving boy, than those of a girl. This just suited her father, as he often said, she was all the boy he had.

Dr. Jasper finds these facts of "utmost importance," indications that

at the dawn of puberty, there was developed more of the masculine than of the feminine instincts, and it required but little so to impress the masculine feeling upon her that it soon became a habit of thought and feeling.[244]

Norma's treatment by Dr. Jasper consists of the hypnotic suggestion:

I abhor the love of my own sex, and shall never again think women handsome. I shall and will become well again, fall in love with Frank Artman, be happy and make him happy.

This treatment succeeding, Norma marries Frank Artman, has two "healthy" children, and leads a "delightful life" of "bliss." The years testify, Carhart tells us, to the genuineness of her love.