The Love Song of Ardelia Mapp: Or, Anthea Rereads Silence of the Lambs

Ardelia Mapp was in her usual position, propped up in bed with a book. She was listening to all-news radio. She turned it off when Clarice Starling trudged in. Looking into Starling’s drawn face, blessedly she didn’t ask anything except, “Want some tea?”

When she was studying, Mapp drank a beverage she brewed of mixed loose leaves her grandmother sent her, which she called “Smart People’s Tea.”

Of the two brightest people Starling knew, one was also the steadiest person she knew and the other was the most frightening. Starling hoped that gave her some balance in her acquaintance.

Let’s talk about Ardelia Mapp for a little while, because I’m in love with her and the way her relationship with Clarice is portrayed.

First the facts, because if you haven’t read Silence it’s entirely possible you don’t remember or don’t know who Mapp is, as she is sinfully underused in the movie.

Starling and Mapp examining research in the laundry room; Silence of the Lambs, 1991.

Mapp is Starling’s roommate and best friend at the FBI Academy. She’s first introduced after Starling gets back from her first interview with Lecter.

“What did you do today, girl?” Mapp always asked questions as if the answers could make no possible difference.

“Wheedled a crazy man with come all over me.”

“I wish I had the time for a social life–I don’t know how you manage it, and school too.”

Isn’t that magnificent? Her primary role throughout Silence is keeping Starling grounded by cracking jokes (“I never use the colorful patois of my housing project anymore. You come talking that mushmouth, people say you eat up with the dumb-ass, girl.”) and making sure that Starling doesn’t let herself get used up by Jack Crawford and the search for Buffalo Bill (“Gratitude’s got a short half-life, Clarice.”). Her moments are mostly throwaway moments, but what moments they are: she spends a dinner with Starling “comparing slant-rhymes in the works of Stevie Wonder and Emily Dickinson,” she’s there to give Starling a half-pint of Jack Daniels after Starling dispatches Jame Gumb, she’s got something going on with Hot Bobby Lowrance, and she determinedly works herself from number two in her class’ academic standings up to number one. It’s mentioned that she was on the Law Review at U of Marland while working nights.

Ardelia Mapp is, in short, a badass. Kind of the Hermione Granger to Clarice Starling’s Harry Potter, only more likely to set Starling up on dates.*

And here’s the thing about Ardelia Mapp, and about my other favorite character, Barney, the orderly at the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane where Lecter is incarcerated. The main characters of the Hannibal Lecter series as a whole are, of course, Lecter himself and Clarice Starling (in the arc of the series as a whole, Will Graham is a secondary character, really). They’re yin and yang, Lecter’s cold to Starling’s heat, doctor versus officer, European versus West Virginian. They’re both brilliant, and, like so many great protagonists, they seem a little removed from the world around them: a little more, somehow. They flout rules and defy expectations.

But they still live in the world, even if they are slightly less of the world, and they must deal with the world — or the world must deal with them. And Mapp is the one person in the books who understands how to deal with Starling, and Barney is the one person who understands how to deal with Lecter. Oh, sure, Lecter and Starling have a certain understanding for each other, but it’s the way you understand a Rubik’s cube, an engineer’s understanding, or a watchmaker’s, or maybe a duelist’s. They know what makes the other tick, how to play on each other’s flaws and weaknesses; they want to solve the puzzles of each other. But they’re both invested in winning the duel.

In a series filled with characters manipulating other characters — Crawford, Chilton, Lecter, Krendler, Starling — Mapp and Barney are the ones who recognize the true potential of Starling and Lecter, respectively, and realize that the best way to deal with them is with respect and straightforwardness. Mapp doesn’t have any part of her ego invested in Starling (although she does have a lot invested in her own academic abilities); she doesn’t help Clarice because it’ll get her something, like a collar or an intellectual thrill or a one-night-stand, but simply because she respects and likes Clarice. (Similarly, Barney doesn’t see Lecter as a resource or a puzzle. He sees Lecter for what he is, which is an incredibly goddamn dangerous genius, and as such he treats Lecter with caution and respect.)

It feels very rare to see a relationship like Ardelia and Clarice’s portrayed in fiction, and yet that kind of relationship has been so much a part of my life — part of most women’s lives, I would think. (I hope the women who have been that to me recognize themselves.) Ardelia’s the friend, the roommate, who knows when you’re beating yourself up and tells you to stop it, who knows what your goals are and wants to help you achieve them, who knows when to cut you slack and when to smack you upside the head.

Or maybe it’s not so much that it’s rare to see that relationship portrayed, exactly, but it’s rare to see it in this kind of genre — the gun-toting, hard-working, suspense-filled crime thriller doesn’t give women much space to be friends with each other. Even among my favorite TV crime procedurals that feature amazing women prominently — Law & Order: SVUNCIS, Elementary — women are more likely to be shown having friendships with men. If I want ladies being friends, I usually have to go watch Parks and Recreation. (Not a hardship.)

In 1988 — the years I was born — Thomas Harris was writing more interesting women and better female friendships than a lot of TV writers today. And while I wish I could have more of this — I am really, really glad it exists in this book and this franchise at all.

So I guess, to conclude, if Hannibal makes it to the Silence storyline/era, Ardelia Mapp had better get an episode dedicated solely to her. Girlfriend has more than earned some real screentime.

*A tangent. The fact that Ardelia is the most academically gifted and hard-working student at Quantico reminds me of something my dad has always said about women in the medical profession. He told me once that given the choice between two doctors of equal qualifications, one male and one female, he’d always choose the woman, because in order for her to reach the same level of qualifications as her male colleagues, she would have had to work twice as hard and be twice as smart. Ardelia Mapp seems like the perfect example of this: she’s a black woman from the projects who went to law school and is going into law enforcement. She has to work twice as hard as everyone else, and by God she does.


2 thoughts on “The Love Song of Ardelia Mapp: Or, Anthea Rereads Silence of the Lambs

  1. Well said. I would, in all seriousness, love it if Thomas Harris wrote a follow-up novel with Ardelia as the protagonist. I can’t imagine it will happen, but I can dream.

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