The first girl to dismiss the warnings, break the rules, and leave the path was, of course, Eve—primordial helpmeet, born of Adam’s rib. With him, she had been given free rein there in Paradise, invited to get comfortable, make herself at home and help herself to anything she wanted—the animals, the vegetables, and the fruit of all the trees in the garden… except that special one over there in the middle, the biggest and best of all. Adam, underestimating Eve, doubtful that she possessed the willpower to resist what had been expressly forbidden them, made up for it himself by overstating the danger and amending their Father’s command to make it seem even worse than it was. According to him, not only was she not supposed to eat the apple, she wasn’t to even touch the tree. If she did, he said, she would die.

Eve, too, was a good girl. Like Red she was polite and cooperative, and so she took her boyfriend at his word—she believed in him as he did not believe in her—until along came the serpent, to argue otherwise and undermine Adam’s credibility by exposing his dishonesty and distrust.

This snake still had his legs back then—he stood upright on two feet and, according to Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews,[1] was about the same height as a camel. Cartoon caricatures of the 20’s show him leaning up against the Tree, biding his time—cigar in one gloved hand, gambling dice in the other, spats, pin-stripes, green vest, red suspenders, black felt hat tipped roguishly over one eye—he’s a real scoundrel all right, and he talks out of the side of his mouth when he crooks a finger and hisses to Eve: “Step over here, Missy, I got somethin’ ta show ya.” When she shies away, he assures her. “Hey, I’m not gonna hurtcha, c’mere.”

But Eve has been told to stay away from this particular Tree. It’s dangerous. Adam said that just to touch it would kill you.

The snake can only scoff at this bit of misinformation. And then to show her she can trust him, to prove to her that he knows whereof he speaks, he slithers up against the tree, insinuates himself between its branches, wraps himself around its trunk. See, it’s not killing him, is it? And then comes the challenge, he dares her to go ahead, try it for herself, see what happens. At first she demurs—But my boyfriend told me not to. The snake is undaunted, he’s determined to win her over, and so he presses on, joking, teasing, flattering until finally she thinks she likes him enough to trust him and her hand is reaching out, the background music builds—dramatic, dark, foreboding, a crescendo of chords in a minor key—Eve’s little hand trembles and her heart pounds, and just when it looks as if her nerve will fail her altogether, his fist is there in the small of her back, giving her a push so that she stumbles forward awkwardly and falls toward the tree, embracing it fully as she works to get her balance back, and… nothing happens. No lightning strike, no thunder clap, no Angel of Death swooping down from Heaven to carry her away. Not yet.

“See,” he says. “I told you so.” Silly girl.

And just like that he’s won her over. She’s embarrassed by her own clumsiness and gullibility—what was she thinking, believing Adam and his stupid stories?—so when the serpent shakes the tree and the apples fall to the ground all around her, she acts like it’s nothing, no big deal. She watches as the snake helps himself to one, the best one, and then takes a bite to show her that it’s harmless—smacking his lips, licking his fingers, slurping up the juice. Mm-mm-mm, that’s good! He offers her one of her own.

“Go ahead,” he says. “Take a bite. You won’t regret it. In fact, you’re going to thank me for this later. I guarantee.”

She thinks he might be right. Adam lied to her, after all—touching the Tree didn’t kill her, so maybe eating of its fruit won’t be harmful either.

“You are not going to die,” the serpent insists, fingers crossed behind his back. “I promise. If anything, you’ll just be able to see everything a little bit more clearly.”

But Eve is no rebel, and she’s not totally defiant of her boyfriend and her Father. She knows they love her, after all. So, she’s cautious. She thinks she’ll test the waters first, before she plunges in. Maybe just one little bite won’t hurt. If anything happens, she thinks, then she’ll stop and throw the thing away and pretend this never happened. She just nibbles a bit at the skin first.[2] 

Again, nothing. Gaining confidence, Eve takes a full bite, and then another and she’s never tasted anything like this before, and so she goes ahead and eats the whole thing—and loves it.

What woman didn’t have something like this happen to her at some time when she was a girl? The stranger in the movie theater who kissed you in the dark, the man in the park who admired your pretty new necklace, the guy in the bookstore who invited you up to his apartment to admire his paintings, the man on the Greyhound bus who slipped into the seat beside you when you were asleep, then woke you up by pressing his hand between your legs. And wasn’t it our own fault that these men thought we were available to them, even though we were just girls? We must have been asking for it, because we’d made eye contact, because we’d smiled, we’d engaged in conversation, we’d laughed at a joke. We wanted to be polite, we didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, and maybe they could see the truth, that some of us were tempted to comply. To flirt with the danger in a way that at the moment seemed to be not just a simple act of disobedience but a necessary and inevitable rite of passage.

The stories all tell us that a girl is going to have to transgress in some way if she wants anything to happen to her in her life, if she’s ever going to grow up and come to know the world, to become a woman in it. A boy gets sent off into the forest to find himself—he’ll kill a bear, bag a deer, wrestle with an angel. But a girl, she goes into the wild to lose herself. Her coming of age seems bound to involve some kind of loss—of innocence, of purity, of virginity, of self—not growth or gain.

Naomi Wolf, in Promiscuities, notes the scarcity of girls’ erotic coming of age stories or narratives of female sexual awakening in our literature. There’s plenty of scrutiny and analysis of masculine development, of course, most of it celebratory and triumphant as his transgression involves not a leaving of the path but a coming onto it, crossing over the threshold of sexual initiation into manhood, while hers is a stepping away, out of bounds, into the wild wood. And she is as likely to be punished for it even as he is sure to be rewarded.

But this is an old story, and its message is old news to us girls. Even the sexual revolution, with its sudden access to what Ms. Wolf calls “the technologies of pleasure: legal abortion, contraception, and information about female sexual anatomy,” couldn’t change that, because ours is still not a culture that seems to value or respect female sexual desire. We girls understand that our own explosive ecstasy is dangerous to us, and maybe to everybody else, too. We know that this is why we’re not supposed to leave the path. And that turns out to be exactly why we do it.

[1] This is a massive collation of the Haggadah—the traditions which have grown up surrounding the Biblical narrative. These stories and bits of layered detail are scattered throughout the Talmud, the Midrash, and other sources, including oral storytelling. In the 19th Century Ginzberg undertook the task of arranging the Haggadah into chronological order, and his series of six volumes was the result.

[2]While in a world far far away from Eden, Alice sits at the bottom of a rabbit-hole, trying to get back into the garden, but the door’s too small and she’s too big, so she’s nibbling hopefully at a piece of Eat-Me cake.