How I Came to Write Douglass’ Women

\My novel, Douglass’ Women, is an imaginative rendering of two women in Frederick Douglass life—his wife, Anna Douglass, and his mistress of twenty-eight years, Ottilie Assing. While Douglass has justifiably been famous for over a hundred and fifty years, Anna and Ottilie have languished, been obscured by a history which diminished their significance.

What would it have felt like to have been the black wife or white mistress of Frederick Douglass?
“Who was Anna? Who was Ottilie?”

As a novelist, “was” became “is”— as I had to dramatically “re-imagine” two very different women. Like a sculptor shaping clay, my imagination stirred the raw materials of history to create (I hoped) a story which illuminated characters and encouraged reader’s empathy.

According to my research, Anna was a free Maryland woman, of color, unafraid of hard work, who took pleasure in domestic life, particularly gardening. It seems clear that without Anna’s help Frederick Douglass might not have made a successful escape North. It was Anna Douglass who helped finance Douglass’ escape from slavery, sewed him a seaman uniform as “camouflage,” and was most likely pregnant before marriage. (Can you imagine the anxiety of her days? Her waiting to see if Douglass would send for her?)

It is also true that Anna was seven years older than Frederick and many shades darker. While these physical details might seem irrelevant today, the nineteenth century with its color prejudice and bias against mature women, might have made her less secure. Unquestionably, Anna married an extremely charismatic and handsome man. She also married a man who was soon to become an icon.

Frederick Douglass often said that “reading freed him.” Reading and literacy have always been important to African Americans, especially given that reading and writing was forbidden in slavery. Therefore, to read and write was a significant political act of liberation.

Yet Anna Douglass remained illiterate. Why?

For me, Anna’s illiteracy signified a passive-aggressive reaction to her husband’s frequent absences, his infidelities, and his growing sense that she was, as he often suggested, “an old black log.” Anna’s illiteracy becomes an attempt to remind Douglass that her “woman’s work”—caring for sick children, gardening was significant. It was Anna who rebuilt their home when Klansmen burnt it, Anna who nursed and buried her second daughter when Frederick was in Europe. Anna, who kept the family fed.

Would the course of Anna’s and Douglass’ marriage have been different if she’d shared Douglass’ love of rhetoric and books? Possibly. But, in my imaginative realm, Anna is stubborn: “If I was good enough before I was married, why wasn’t I good enough after?

Who was Ottilie?

Ottilie Assing was Douglass’ mistress for twenty-eight years and every summer for a period of over a dozen years, Douglass brought his mistress to his and Anna’s Rochester home. Anna would work in the kitchen while Ottilie and Douglass communed in the garden.

Because of her illiteracy, Anna tells her life story in the oral tradition. Like a slave narrative, she begins the substance of her speech with “I was born” and works her way forward. Ottilie, as a white woman of letters, a German, half-Jewish, half-Christian draws upon the nineteenth century women’s tradition of using letters, journals, and diaries to tell her tale.

Ottilie Assing was a surprise to me. She came bursting, vibrantly into the story. I had expected to write about Helen Pitts, Douglass’ much younger, second white wife. For, it was Douglass’ own words: “My first wife was the color of my mother (who was a slave) and my second wife was the color of my father (who was his Master)” which compelled me to write the story. It was astonishing to me that in the nineteenth century, they let Douglass live at a time when black men were regularly beaten and lynched for even looking at a white woman. It spoke to the power and influence that this former slave had garnered; nonetheless, the neat categorization of his wives by color disturbed me. Where were the names? Anna? Helen? The classification undermined, for me, the power of love and rendered both women invisible. Helen, considerably younger than Douglass, spent many years as his companion and nurse and seemed less vital than Ottilie, who considered herself to be “Douglass’ wife of his mind,” his intellectual equal.

Time and again, I wanted Ottilie to leave Douglass and forge her own path. She was a brilliant, educated woman. She translated My Bondage and My Freedom, helped find a German publisher for the manuscript and through her newspaper essays, informed German and other Europeans of the anti-slavery struggle and the Civil War. She gave tirelessly of her energy and intelligence to the abolitionist and suffragette cause.

But Otillie couldn’t leave Douglass. Her tragic flaw was her romanticism. Her parents- -a Jew and a Christian–had crossed ethnic and religious boundaries and taught her that love was worth any risk and without it, she was nothing. The best example was the death of her own mother, at 57 with a tumor, which she remained convinced was a child in her womb.

My novel is about two free women who, ironically, become enslaved by love in a romantic triangle.

I won’t tell you about the ending; but Ottilie and Anna do meet and have two showdowns: 1) Anna demanding, “You leave my house;” and 2) Ottilie replying, “He has to tell me’ (which is quite right given the male privilege of the time; but, their second showdown takes an unexpected twist over tea. (Read the novel to find out!).

Douglass, as far as I know, never said publicly or wrote, “Thank you, Anna, thank you, Ottilie.”

Ottilie died, alone, in a Paris hotel. She left her estate to Douglass. And unlike, my character’s desire to be buried in water, Douglass buried Anna Murray Douglass in a casket, in dirt, following an enormous, public ceremony.

Everyone depends upon someone, upon a community to survive and thrive. The absence of Anna and Ottilie from Douglass’ voluminous writings, was cause enough for me as an artist to want to set the record straight. I wanted to lift the veil which shrouded these two women in history. I wanted to celebrate these women and render them alive again in the human imagination and the human heart.

Have I written the “real” truth? What is real? As Ursula LeGuin states: “Truth is a matter of the imagination.” So, I’ve written an imaginative truth, an “emotional truth,” which tells another story which history books have left out–that tells of two women who helped Frederick Douglass free a nation from the curse of slavery.

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