Julia Pistell: An Account of a Voyage on the Charles W. Morgan

This is an original essay written and recorded for the Mystic Seaport archives. Throughout the piece, you’ll hear sounds recorded aboard the ship and passages from Moby-Dick. The essay is included in Episode 62 of Julia’s Literary Disco podcast.

For most of my childhood, I wore my hair in one long braid. Straight and thick, it sat on my back like an anchor, something other than the girls who left their hair down and messy and play-muddled; something other than the girls whose pep was enforced by ponytails; something other than the gymnasts whose buns seemingly kept their whole bodies rigidly in control; something even other than French braids and fishtails, created by moms with acrobatic fingers and time on their hands. My braid was simple, long, heavy. It gave off the correct signal that I was terribly shy. It gave off the correct signal that I read piles and piles of books. And after a certain time I started to think about cutting it off.

Jo March had sold her hair for her family, and Mary Martin had cut off her hair to be Peter Pan. But truly, the person I wanted to be most like was not a household name. I wanted to be the heroine in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, a children’s book by Avi about a girl who sails on a merchant ship and gets involved in a mutiny. At the height of the novel, she climbs the into the rigging with her hands gripping the rigging (her hands soft “like bloody cream,” says one of the sailors, in a line I never forgot), and not too long after that climb and a knife-handling lesson, she finds herself hacking her hair off when it gets in the way of her task of cutting down the foreyard sail in a hurricane. That is what I wanted to do, when I was nine years old and sitting in an armchair in my TV room in New Jersey. I didn’t want to be one of those characters on TV who cut off her hair while locked in a bathroom staring in a mirror. I wanted to find a hurricane, join a mutiny, climb into the sky, wrestle a sail, and become a woman by sawing off the symbol of my constraining femininity and throwing it into the wind.

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