There is simply no way to overstate how enraptured I am by Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. I have read the book six times. I have seen the Jonathan Demme movie more times than I can count, and have bought it on every available format, including laser disc*. I saw the musical twice. I own the soundtrack. I have a t-shirt with Precious on it (she’s pictured in her basket). I never, ever miss the opportunity to make a “It rubs the lotion on its skin” joke, and I once described a co-worker I dislike as being “courteous and receptive to courtesy,” at which my husband, Jonathan, asked if I was quoting Hannibal Lecter on purpose. In fact, I was not, I was just talking and Hannibal Lecter came out. And while there is an argument to be made that Michael Mann’s Manhunter is a far better film and Brian Cox the superior Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs will never lose its allure and power for me, because of Clarice Starling.
I was 21 when The Silence of the Lambs opened on Valentine’s Day in 1991, a college senior in a tiny town in upstate New York. My plans at the time included surviving my last snowbelt winter, graduating in May, and then moving to New York City to work in the theatre and live with my boyfriend. All of this terrified me. I loved the theatre but had no real idea how to launch a career with no contacts, no professional experience, and a BA from a SUNY college that, while excellent, wasn’t the famous School of the Arts one. I was sad and anxious all the time, which turned out to be an undiagnosed depression that got much worse before it got better. And though I couldn’t admit it to anyone, especially myself, my boyfriend wasn’t very good to me.
I felt powerless in those days. Unable to define what I wanted, and even if I could figure it out, incapable of creating it for myself. I worked hard to please my professors, smiled enthusiastically for my parents, agreed to whatever my boyfriend proposed. But I felt like I was choking all the time. Not metaphorically. It felt like I had a golf ball in my throat, always. Like I couldn’t breathe.
And then Clarice ran into my life, in her FBI Academy sweats.
She was damaged. She was tormented. She had so much to prove. And yet, she was so incredibly courageous. Not fearless, not by a long shot, but courageous. She knew what was at stake, she knew the dangers, and she ran towards them, gun drawn.
Clarice Starling was a revelation, with her skill and intelligence, her vulnerability, her flaws, her perfect bob haircut. She seemed nearly divine, like Theseus, braving the labyrinth, killing the monster, rescuing the innocent. Like Artemis, protector of young girls. Like Demeter, fighting to save her daughter from the Underworld.
She didn’t save me — I moved to New York, married the boyfriend who wasn’t kind to me, continued to spiral out, and had a rather spectacular emotional breakdown when the marriage disintegrated — but she became a touchstone, a reference point for determination, for resiliency, for sheer guts, for holding my own in the company of people where I feel terribly out of place. It isn’t uncommon for me to invoke her, still, when my backbone needs stiffening, telling myself that if Clarice Starling can walk down that scary-ass hallway in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to talk to Lecter and then get covered in Miggs jizz, if she can shrug off her adorable coat, pull her weapon, and descend into Buffalo Bill’s horror basement to rescue Catherine Martin, then I can ask for a raise, stand up to an arrogant colleague, and figure out how to get my daughter into a good New York City middle school.
And I always remember to check my corner.
If you’re familiar with how Clarice’s story unfolds after The Silence of the Lambs, you know that she and Lecter end up together , as a romantic couple, at the conclusion of the novel Hannibal. Many fans, critics, and Jodie Foster herself, were deeply disturbed by this, thinking it was a betrayal of Clarice’s goodness, her fundamental decency. But I always thought it rang true, that the darkness in Lecter reached for her light, that he was a broken creature she could try to save, the ultimate lamb in the night. The marriage of the Divine Mother and the Dark Lord. It’s twisted, but the older I get the more I wonder, what great love isn’t, somehow? And in the end, it is worth noting that Harris makes sure to tell us it is possible that Clarice Starling could frighten Hannibal Lecter. As well she should.
Which brings us to the question, what should you eat while you watch The Silence of the Lambs? I suggest liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone, which is what Hannibal dines upon in the book (Chianti, even a nice one, being too pedestrian for his refined tastes, I imagine). Or you could follow the example of Clarice’s flirty bug expert, Dr. Pilcher, and have a cheeseburger and beer, or the amusing house wine.
*I have never met the creator of this video, but I suspect she is the sort of person I would have bonded with immediately at sleep-away camp.
Want to know what to eat with that movie? Leave a comment here or tweet me at @stefgunning and I’ll suggest a pairing for you!