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[SOR] Kit Reed’s “The Mothers of Shark Island”

March 22, 2016

This story reminded me very much of an Australian horror film named The Babadook.

First screened at the 2014 Sundance film festival, Jennifer Kent’s Babadook tells of a single mother named Amelia who is trying to put her life back together after the devastating and unexpected death of her husband. The chief source of the woman’s problems is her troubled six-year-old son Sam. Early in the film, Sam begins displaying some erratic behaviour that keeps both him and his mother awake at night. Obsessed with imaginary monsters, the child begins constructing lethal weapons that wind up getting him excluded from school. Now forced to spend all day with her son, Amelia begins to lose her patience and her growing resentment of the child seems to goad the child into increasingly bad behaviour including putting broken glass in her food and the construction of a disturbing pop-up book named for the child’s imaginary nemesis.

The film ultimately winds up abandoning the ambiguity of the opening scenes and replacing it with a metaphorical fantasia that is both more dramatically forgiving and less thematically interesting but there is a moment when The Babadook threatens to become something truly transgressive: A film about an innocent woman who is driven insane by her weigh-faced prick of a child. Society may be coming to terms with the idea that not everyone will have children and Feminism may continue disentangling to concepts of womanhood and motherhood but it is still not acceptable for a woman to openly express regret about the decision to have children.

Society pressures women into having children even when they cannot imagine themselves in the role. When a woman’s reluctance turns out to have been justified and motherhood turns them into a resentful husk with a fucked-up child, society’s disapproval blossoms into outright demonization. According to criminal psychologist Philip J. Resnick, 49% of maternal filicides are motivated by what is believed to be the best interest of the child.

While I can understand The Babadook exchanging an angry, resentful mother for a mother and son who need to come together to confront feelings of overwhelming grief, the film does raise an interesting question about how we are to understand and depict unsuitable mothers.

Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin fills the foreground of the film with evidence that the mass-murdering Kevin was always an awkward, unpleasant and unmanageable child. However, the background of the film is filled with little moments in which Kevin’s mother makes her anger and resentment quite obvious: She never wanted to be a mother living out in the suburbs… she wanted to be a travel writer and her sadistic prick of a child doesn’t even have the good grace to recognise the many sacrifices that she was forced to make in order to bring him into the world! Rather than apportioning blame in one direction of the other, Ramsay suggests that Kevin and his mother are two sides of the same coin and the film’s rare moments of filial bonding come when Kevin’s mother drops her dishonest façade and admits that she is just as awful as the child she raised.

My point is not to suggest that a thwarted travel-writer and a mass-murdering psychopath are somehow morally equivalent but rather to suggest that both Kevin and his mother are products of psychological processes that were never under their direct control to begin with. Born to an absent father and a visibly resentful mother, Kevin had no choice but to grow into a monster. At least… no more choice than his mother had when she allowed her husband to destroy her career and railroad her into a lifestyle that she never wanted to begin with.

Bad parents are made, not born and family life is nothing but a generational conduit for misery and trauma. This idea forms the thematic heart of Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, a documentary that examines a killing in terms of its psychological inputs and outputs. Herzog begins with a brutal murder and discovers that its perpetrators were themselves survivors of horrifically traumatic upbringings. This trauma originated in the traumatic experiences of a killer’s father but also passed out into the world through the conduit of survivors who inevitably wind up passing fear and misery onto their own children.

Kit Reed’s “The Women of Shark Island” is swimming in similar thematic waters to Herzog’s documentary. However, while Herzog suggests that human civilisation is nothing but a means of spreading misery from one generation to the next, Reed focuses upon the institution of motherhood and the way in which it seems to destroy the lives of generation after generation of women.

 

 

If

 

Originally published in Kit Reed’s short fiction collection Weird Women, Wired Women, “The Mothers of Shark Island” suffers from a form of technical over-reach that is absolutely endemic in genre spaces.

Consider, for example, the Leonora Carrington story “My Flannel Knickers”: Written independently of genre trends and markets, Carrington’s story uses surrealist imagery to create a fantastical world that literalises and instantiates a set of real-world feelings. Written without plot, character, or much concern for internal logic, the story explores what it feels like to be an artist and the changes that artists are forced to make in order to become famous and generate money. Though perhaps not all that easy to parse on the first read, Carrington’s story is both thematically precise and psychologically astute. You read Carrington’s story and you know precisely what message she was trying to get across because the images speak for themselves and every other element of the story gets the fuck out of the way.

Reed’s story is also an attempt to create a fantastical world that literalises and instantiates a set of real-world feelings. However, while Carrington draws on surrealist tradition and constructs her metaphorical imagery in precise, almost minimalistic language, Reed draws on contemporary literary fantasy and so buries her imagery in layers of conceit and infrastructure that serve only to distance us from the power of her imagery and the emotions that fuel them.

The story’s outermost conceit is the existence of an island prison that contains only mothers. The mothers do not know who placed them on the island but they know that there are guards and that the prison is called the Chateau D’If, because where else are you going to imprison the fictitiously vindictive?

 

By night the guards stalk the parapets, but from moment to moment the faces of our captors change. Are we them? Are they us? Sometimes it is we who march in yellow arm bands – slit-eyed trustys, collaborating in our own imprisonment; we patrol with leather billy clubs, grimly keeping the other women in line. Unless we are the prisoners here, watching the guards from the high windows of our cells.

 

This is an arresting piece of imagery: A prison where the boundary between prisoner and guard seems impossible to pin down. The most disturbing thing about it is not that today’s prisoners are tomorrow’s guards, but the fact that movement from role to role seems to happen without anyone noticing and without anyone feeling the kind of empathy that might result in the creation of a less violent and oppressive culture. Reed understands that existing in a social hierarchy means that some days you get oppressed by society’s arbitrary rules and, other days, you are the one cracking your billy club across the neck of someone who dared to step out of line.

This is a story about taking that vision of a prison without guards and applying it to the institution of motherhood because, in the words of the story:

 

Unlike pneumonia, motherhood is an irreversible condition.

 

Carrington’s story uses a single frame of reference and leaves us to decide whether the story is fantastical, mimetic, metaphorical, or a combination of all three.

Reed, on the other hand, introduces a frame of reference to provide an ‘objective’ description of the prison and then immediately shifts to the narrator’s impressions, which are written in the first person and printed in italics. Having introduced two different frames of reference within the first page of the story, Reed then introduces a third as the various prisoners begin telling their stories:

 

I am the Mother Goddess, dammit. What I say goes. I was a prisoner in my house, trampled flat by the three of them: Gerard, who made me a mother in the first place. Demanding little Gerry. Whiny June. All day on the road, you know the story, practice, lessons, car pool, late nights folding wash and then I finally crawled into bed big Gerard’s hands on me, yeah fine, but spring up at dawn to unload the dishwasher, drop kids at school on the way to work, where the men in my law firm – men with wives at home to do these things for them leapfrogged my spent body on their way to the top.

 

This is one of a few passages where the story’s anger is visible through the cracks of genre conceit:  A woman worked all day and night but while the work she did for her family should have made her a goddess, it actually made her little more than an unloved slave.

Reed’s reference to a mother goddess is not just ironic but also a neat way of undermining the idea that these stories might necessarily be true. The story ends with the prisoner’s children expressing anger at all the ways in which she had failed them but the middle-section reads more like a power fantasy as she snaps and takes control of her family by beating up her husband and getting him sent to jail:

 

They came down the next morning and I was wearing the cape.

 

And

 

When he balked I banished him to the dungeon. He tried to kite out a message to the Battered Men’s shelter. I called the cops. Who’d believe a little thing like me could do things like that to a big guy like Gerard? He got ten years.

 

The contents of the prisoner’s fantastical retelling of how she asserted control over her family by brutalising her husband and making her children quake in terror is the fourth frame of reference to feature in the story and while I appreciate the way in which the character slips between memory and fantasy, Carrington placed that ambiguity front and centre while Reed felt obliged first to conceal it under layers of crude ontological blurring and then to underline it in case we missed the idea that the prisoner might have been distorting her own tale.

This ambiguity is quite important to the story as while the prisoners are all quick to blame their husbands and families for whatever it was that landed them in prison, Reed is reluctant to legitimise any of their finger-pointing. The story’s admission that heroes, villains, blame, and innocence might not necessarily be useful concepts for analysing the problems of motherhood is also evident from the narrator’s retelling of her own story:

 

Nuclear families are built on privacy. If a nucleus can shatter, our mother’s has fragmented, leaving her lost in the stars. We form our own. We are the new family here.

Is it her fault these encounters are so difficult? Ours?

She keeps coming back. We think every time: This time we’ll make it different, and discover that in spite of all our best efforts, it never is. Mothers, daughters. What are these patterns that determine our mutual failure? When and how were they set? Is this loving estrangement really her fault? Mine? In spite of our best efforts, she and I bring all the old freight to these meetings.

 

This is the first articulation of the idea that fucking up, letting people down, and brutalising people, might just be an integral part of the mother-daughter relationship. The narrator was angry with her mother (all that freight) and her mother was angry with her, and despite their best efforts, they could not set that anger aside and construct a working relationship. They could not forgive, let alone forget.

As the story progresses and other prisoners recall the actions that landed them in prison, the narrator comes to realise that just as she was indescribably angry with her own mother, her maturing daughter is beginning to nurse similar feelings towards her.

The narrator also describes the birth of the prison, a result of complaining about her mother to other women:

 

Contemplating her mother, EBM said: — There ought to be an island somewhere, surrounded by sharks.

Before our eyes, the Chateau D’If sprang into existence. We looked at it and marvelled.

Remember she was still in the world with us; the Chateau D’If was designed with her in mind, not us.

As long as she lived, we could maintain our position.

Now she is gone.

Now we are the front ranks. And the Chateau D’If? Admit it. It was only ever a matter of time.

 

As the narrator listens to stories, she receives news that her own daughter’s children are growing old, the cycle is beginning again, another rank steps forward.

 

They are beautiful together – my daughter and this small, new woman, her daughter, who bears my name. I look at the children’s faces and I see hers. Tears come too fast to swallow. We look alike.

 

As the narrator crawls towards enlightenment, the story shifts between the accounts of different prisoners: Some of them blame their children, some of them blame their men, and some of them blame society’s attitudes to the elderly. While each of these stories taps into a well of righteous indignation and justified fury, the narrator’s comments serve to undermine and re-frame them. Sure… people out there did you wrong, but didn’t you play your part in locking other people away in the castle? You’re a prisoner today, but didn’t you used to be a guard? Ideally, these sub-plots should have fed back into the narrator’s unifying vision as while the prisoners are wrong to view men, children, and old age as the source of their problems, an intersectional understanding of gender would allow us to realise that each of these issues play their part in the construction of the prison and the debasement of women. These energies could have been connected to the section dealing with the construction of the prison but instead, Reed allows their energies to dissipate and so these vignettes wind up undermining rather than strengthening the core concept.

Those prisoners who are not yet ready to accept their place in the prison begin to plot an escape but the narrator realises that these rebellious gestures serve only to distract from a most uncomfortable truth.

Much like the films of Lynne Ramsay and Jennifer Kent, Reed’s story is brilliant at identifying injustice and acknowledging guilt but it really struggles to formulate a coherent response to the idea that we are trapped in a system called humanity.

As children, we are brutalised by the strong until we gain enough power and agency to begin brutalising the weak. Our treatment of the weak is both justified by virtue of the hardships we have suffered and horrendously self-destructive as it ensures that our misery on the way up will be echoed in misery on the way back down. Cruelty is gifted to us by our parents and we pass it on to our children. Prisoners enter, bodies leave, and still there is no lack of guards.

We Need to Talk About Kevin tried to articulate this position by suggesting equivalence between Kevin and his mother. The Babadook flinched from this realisation by turning a mother’s trauma and a child’s anger into a beast that could be conveniently vanquished and locked in a cellar.  “The Mothers of Shark Island” responds to the problem by distracting our attention. Rather than sticking with the prison and the narrator’s dawning realisation of the problem, Reed sends us chasing after the wild goose of imperfect comprehension and orienting ourselves in layer after layer of story. Red herrings and structural games are all very clever but the strength of the story lies not in its elegant architecture but in the furnace heating its baroque corridors.

“The Mothers of Shark Island” is about what it means to be a mother, a grand-mother, and a daughter. It is about a system that binds the generations together in cruelty and resentment. Such a system cannot be permanently escaped as it is rebuilt every morning by the very people who most arduously yearn for escape. It is a system known as motherhood and a system known as life. This is a message that is both powerful and necessary and anything that prevents us from connecting to this wellspring of anger must be viewed as harmful to our enjoyment of the story. Carrington’s story works because there is virtually no conceit between the reader and Carrington’s insight into the life of an artist. Reed’s story does not work anywhere near as well because every time the story connects with that wellspring of anger, Reed changes the frame of reference and breaks our attention. Worse than distracting, forcing readers to orient themselves in a needlessly complex fictional space compels them to approach the story in an intellectual rather than an instinctual fashion. This means that when the story does connect with the outrage at the heart of motherhood, readers are more likely to stroke their chins than clench their fists. There is truth here, there’s also a regrettable instinct to keep it hidden.

 

Sharks

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