by Michael Woods
A woman called Susan tells lies, the most influential of which is that she is really a man. She is finally committed to a mental hospital having been found dangerous and mentally unstable when she abducted a child.
The woman in the poem is forced to face the so-called truth about herself by representatives of a society that is fundamentally dishonest. Duffy presents us with a woman whose personality disorders are dealt with in an insensitive and judgmental fashion by men who are deemed to know best. The 'top psychiatrist / who studied her in gaol' (lines 22-23) has sexual fantasies about a member of the Royal Family.
Duffy is asking us to consider what normality really is and who is qualified to decide this. Susan seems to have caused no harm by dressing as a man at home but her worst crime seems to be that she does not keep her fantasies to herself. The psychiatrist keeps his own fantasies quiet and gets away with it.
The change of clothing from the daytime 'floral frock' to the 'Oxfam herringbone' jacket at home signifies the woman's divesting herself of one persona and donning another. The outward signification of physical clothing point towards an inner psychological confusion or tension.
Susan has a normal life as far as the outside world is concerned. She has a job and 'a humdrum city flat'. She has had lovers and friends just as so many people do. Her eyes looking back at her present her with her real self but 'she could stare them out'.
Despite the apparent oddities in her personality, Duffy is at pains in stanza two to point out that there is nothing particularly surprising about the existence of people like Susan. She is a human being with hopes, fears and needs just like everyone else. The image of the mirror perhaps links with he idea of truth, as we are familiar with being told that a mirror never lies. This depends, of course, upon what sort of mirror it is. We may go one stage further and say that the mirror of Susan's mind is distorted and she is unable to accept the truth of what she really is. This leads to a sense of her vulnerability, something that is highlighted later in the poem as she is committed to a mental hospital.
The poet prevents the reader from becoming too detached from somebody they may feel is somehow alien in, 'She lived like you do...' This is developed in the image of 'slack rope-ends', suggesting that nothing is neatly tied up in life. The references to 'memory' and 'hope' introduce pathos as we recognise that all human being are caught in time, tending not to be able to live for the moment but function only in terms of what they remember and what they hope to be able to do. In this way we are able to empathise by virtue of sharing a common human predicament.
The third stanza presents someone who craves influence or attention. The lies Susan tells are not intended to be destructive, she simply wants to cause 'ripples' in life. She embarrassed people by speaking thoughts that most people keep as 'secret films'. Duffy's use of imagery here is very effective as it reminds us that thoughts are continuous, their imagery is not a sequence of still pictures. The fact that Susan provides 'subtitles' for her innermost thought is discomfiting for many within her social sphere.
Tragically, this woman abducts a young child because she feels lonely. A judge sentences her to a term in a psychiatric prison. She is deemed to be 'confused'. Duffy interrogates the basis upon which Susan is judged and exposes the hypocrisy of the men who commit her. Ironically, it is members of the very gender of which she desired to become a part who condemn her.