Hayden Silas Anhedonia, known by the stage name, Ethel Cain, was born in 1998 in Taylor County, Florida. She grew up in a deeply Southern Baptist family but also participated in Musical Theater, which initiated her interest in music. She left the Church at the age of 16 after coming out to her father, a deacon, as gay. After this, on her 20th birthday, she publically announced she was a transgender woman. I first came across Ethel Cain in 2021 with her EP, "Inbred", immediately catching my attention. From here, I became engrossed in her other work: 2019 EPs "Golden Age" and "Carpet Bed", and then most significantly, her 2022 debut album, "Preacher's Daughter".
Each body of work holds a close relation to her own experiences, especially those of religious upbringing - a common visual and lyrical element in her production. Whether conveying the desolation of gender dysphoria in "Golden Age" or the weight of generational trauma in "Inbred", her experiences with religion, familial trauma, and exclusion largely color her writing. Most overtly and creatively holding this reflective quality is her critically acclaimed album "Preacher's Daughter". This album is a sort of love letter to the Southern Gothic style of art and literature. Generally, these disclose narratives of the socially marginalized with respect to the deep American South, oftentimes concerning race, disability, gender, and sexuality alongside Southern traditionalism or, like in this case, religion. Cain's treatment of this form is riveting. Here, the stage name, "Ethel Cain" is embodied as the focal character in a tragedy of love, loss, horror, and death amidst Southern motifs.
Immediately, the album opens with eerie bass and ominous religious language in "Family Tree", eventually catching the eyes of listeners with the foreshadowing phrase, "The fates already f-ked me sideways." The album continues to journey through the life and death of Ethel, mingling with elements of Anhedonia's experience. Ethel experiences heartbreak in "House in Nebraska", the liberty of escaping home with a lover in "Thoroughfare", and the ambiguous passion and danger of this man in "Gibson Girl". The album climaxes with the gut-wrenching agony of "Ptolemaea" (this song is quite triggering, so listen with caution). While a difficult experience, it's a profoundly artistic rendering of abuse, terror, and religion amidst these. The album concludes with the murder of Ethel by her abuser, and he eventually cannibalizes her. Emerging from this horrifying narrative, Cain lulls "Sun Bleached Flies" from a purgatorial state, concluding that "God loves you, but not enough to save you" - a cathartic and angelic release from her religious and domestic abuse.
Obviously not entirely analogous to this character, Anhedonia's creative inspiration for this project draws first from the fictitious character of "Ethel Cain". She recalls finding herself "possessed by a woman named Ethel Cain" - a historically fictional but exaggerated personification of this extreme religious, familial, and romantic plight. Anhedonia explains that her "creative process is very much about self-indulgence" - a space for her own "little adventures" in self-reflection. So, in these respects, her creative process withholds introspection, recall of her Baptist upbringing, and the epitomizing of her own trauma. By assuming this character of "Ethel", she intermingles personal anecdotes with Southern Gothic intensity and criticism. She embodies this character as they are one and the same, taking elements of her own story to excruciating extremes: the pain of intergenerational trauma, especially with regard to gender identity and religion.
This mechanism of storytelling heavily coincides with Faith Ringgold's method of introspection. For Ringgold, the power of her art relies on a similar horror - the violence of US racism. She deduces in her memoir, "I was trying to find my voice, talking to myself through my art, and hoping that, if I could communicate with myself, I could also communicate with others" (pp. 147). In many ways, Ringgold and Anhedonia undertake a similar creative method: they channel their experiences into their art to better understand themselves. Examining their identities and respective traumas, they figure their selves alongside systemic marginalization in hauntingly vivid ways - being Black amidst racist America and transgender amidst Southern traditionalism. By graphically conveying their respective characters, the resonance of their narratives encapsulates systemic violence in a deeply nuanced way - put on full display in never-before-seen, deeply intimate storytelling structures. While these depictions are not of their personal self, the personified embodiment of violence, tragedy, and trauma are immensely powerful before an audience. These extreme renderings are deeply haunting and provocative about general social issues while also evoking a sense of empathy with respect to the artist's actualized experience.