A crop of malev­o­lent moth­ers in new nov­els makes the Joan Craw­ford of Mom­mie Dear­est seem be­nign, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover - Rose­mary Neill

AMOTLEY col­lec­tion of chil­dren’s bikes and body boards are stacked on the veranda of Camilla Noli’s house, roost­ing high among the eu­ca­lypts on NSW’s cen­tral coast. In a steep back yard made for moun­tain goats, a cubby house perches wrapped in blue- and- white crime scene tape, an il­licit tro­phy dragged home by neigh­bour­hood young­sters; inside, the mez­za­nine hall­way has a safety rail­ing as high as a cot, cus­tom de­signed with child safety in mind.

In this un­pre­ten­tious fam­ily home, con­sci­en­tiously adapted for chil­dren, Noli com­pleted her first novel, an un­set­tling por­trait of a baby killer, while her own chil­dren slept and played. In the novel, ti­tled Still Wa­ters ( Ha­chette), Noli lays bare the psy­chol­ogy of a homi­ci­dal mother, who ini­tially presents as an over­stretched, un­der­slept mum from the sub­urbs strug­gling to keep it to­gether. She du­ti­fully breast­feeds, be­longs to a moth­ers group, has sex with her hus­band even when she is too tired to en­joy it.

Only grad­u­ally do her feel­ings of re­sent­ment — and her dis­turb­ing ca­pac­ity for vi­o­lence — to­wards her chil­dren emerge.

Know­ing she was ex­ca­vat­ing deep into ter­ri­tory many con­sider off lim­its, Noli ini­tially told few friends about Still Wa­ters . She is mak­ing her lit­er­ary de­but un­der her birth name rather than her mar­ried name to pro­tect her chil­dren, now aged 10 and eight, from those who may wrongly con­clude the novel could be some­how au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal.

‘‘ That still wor­ries me a lit­tle bit. I still have this sense of my daugh­ter’s head­mas­ter read­ing it and hav­ing a fit,’’ Noli says laugh­ing, her ex­pres­sive, al­most hy­per­ac­tive hands keep­ing time with her words.

Nor was it easy pitch­ing a first novel about a baby killer to lit­er­ary agents, she re­veals. ‘‘ You have to read the book to get it. I didn’t know how to put the spin on it, this thing called the pitch.’’ One agent told her flatly: ‘‘ Nuh. Can’t deal with that type of thing.’’

Yet in por­tray­ing moth­er­hood at its most de­viant — and there can be no big­ger re­pu­di­a­tion of the ide­alised wo­man who gives life than the wo­man who takes it — Noli is far from alone. The lit­er­ary sphere is sud­denly awash with nov­els about flawed moth­ers, to put it mildly: moth­ers who ne­glect or give away their chil­dren; who are coldly in­dif­fer­ent; sui­ci­dal; who breed killers; who are killers.

In Ju­lia Leigh’s long- awaited Dis­quiet ( Hamish Hamil­ton), a bat­tered wife and mother, Olivia, flees Aus­tralia for her child­hood home in France. In this exquisitely taut nar­ra­tive, it’s sug­gested Olivia’s home­com­ing may also be a leave- tak­ing: tired of liv­ing, she plans to give her chil­dren to a rel­a­tive.

There is a strange, gothic coun­ter­point to Olivia’s ma­ter­nal de­tach­ment: her sis­ter- in- law can­not re­lin­quish her still­born baby. De­ranged by grief, the sis­ter- in- law keeps him in a freezer and re­fuses to bury him. Here is a ma­ter­nal at­tach­ment so strong, it too be­comes de­viant.

An­other new re­lease, The Bi­og­ra­pher ( Vin­tage) by Vir­ginia Duigan, tells the story of a mid­dle- aged wo­man who when young gave up ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing the chance to be a mother, for a life­time of pas­sion with a fa­mous artist. When a bi­og­ra­pher starts pok­ing around in the hid­den re­cesses of her life, she be­comes ter­ri­fied her se­cret will be ex­posed.

There are strong par­al­lels be­tween The Bi­og­ra­pher and an­other new novel from the Vin­tage im­print, The Steele Di­aries . The lat­ter, by Wendy James, also ex­am­ines the con­flict be­tween moth­er­hood and free­dom. It fo­cuses on Zelda Steele, who is adopted by wealthy art pa­trons af­ter her artist par­ents sep­a­rate and de­cide they can­not keep their child. Zelda’s mother goes on to have other chil­dren with an­other man but never re­claims her first- born.

Amer­i­can and Bri­tish writ­ers are also peer­ing into the ma­ter­nal heart of dark­ness. In Mon­ster Love ( Fig Tree) by Bri­tain’s Carol Topol­ski, a mid­dle- class cou­ple have an un­planned baby daugh­ter whom they con­sider an un­wel­come in­tru­sion into their ob­ses­sive re­la­tion­ship. They build a cage, lock her in it and leave her to die.

Mon­ster Love is more con­cerned with the com­plex causes and af­ter­math of this crime than with its de­tails. Topol­ski, a ther­a­pist, told one jour­nal­ist her aim was to chal­lenge the sim­ple­minded con­vic­tion that ex­plained child abuse as the em­bod­i­ment of evil, ‘‘ the kind of short­hand that goes . . .‘ In­fan­ti­cide by par­ents, sim­ply evil, don’t have to think about it, mon­strous’ ’’.

In a fur­ther vari­a­tion on the malev­o­lent moth­er­ing theme, Alice Se­bold’s latest re­lease, The Al­most Moon ( Pi­cador), has a brow- beaten, mid­dle- aged daugh­ter carry out her long- fes­ter­ing fan­tasy. She kills her 88- year- old mother, an acid- tongued ago­ra­phobe who made the lives of He­len and her fa­ther a mis­ery.

Se­bold doesn’t muck around. She has her sub­ur­ban mur­derer, her­self a mother, kill her mum in the open­ing sen­tence. ‘‘ When all is said and done,’’ the nar­ra­tor says with chill­ing non­cha­lance, ‘‘ killing my mother came eas­ily.’’

What un­der­pins this star­tling in­ter­est in moth­ers who could give Medea a run for her money? ( Medea is the pro­tag­o­nist from the Euripi­des play who kills her chil­dren as an act of re­venge on her hus­band af­ter he dumps her for some­one else.) Why are writ­ers, and pre­sum­ably read­ers, so in­ter­ested in ma­li­cious mum­mies who make the Joan Craw­ford char­ac­ter in Mom­mie Dear­est — the 1981 biopic ex­pos­ing the ac­tor’s cru­elty to­wards her adopted daugh­ter — seem al­most benev­o­lent?

Les­lie Can­nold, fem­i­nist, ethi­cist and au­thor of books in­clud­ing What, No Baby? Why Women are Los­ing the Free­dom to Mother , says be­cause moth­ers are still largely re­spon­si­ble for the care of the young and vul­ner­a­ble, ‘‘ We can’t help but be fas­ci­nated and ter­ri­fied at the same time by the idea of the mother who isn’t go­ing to ful­fil the stan­dards of good moth­er­hood.’’

She also sees the taboo sub­jects ex­plored in th­ese nov­els as a counter- re­ac­tion to the ‘‘ Howard- Bush re­ac­tion to the enor­mous ( gen­der) changes of the late ’ 60s and ’ 70s. We have just gone through a pe­riod where older no­tions, ’ 50s kind of no­tions of what a good mother should be, have been re­assert­ing them­selves.’’ Ac­cord­ing to th­ese no­tions, a good mother is ever- pa­tient and ever- present, Can­nold says, ‘‘ things that by def­i­ni­tion pre­clude ( paid) work and a nor­mal range of hu­man emo­tions and their ex­pres­sion . . . We have just been through a po­lit­i­cal pe­riod when there was a lot of push­ing back ( on gen­der is­sues). When you are pushed, you push back.

‘‘ I think th­ese books are ev­i­dence of women push­ing back against pat lit­tle def­i­ni­tions of who a good mother is and what a good mother does.’’

Can­nold notes that while moth­er­hood has been re- ide­alised — think child­birth with­out pain re­lief or breast­feed­ing on de­mand — there has been no ex­tra prac­ti­cal sup­port for moth­ers at home with young chil­dren. ( Noli’s book il­lus­trates this graph­i­cally.) ‘‘ Moth­ers at home are ide­alised and un­sup­ported, which can be a fa­tal com­bi­na­tion,’’ Can­nold says. ‘‘ I don’t think any­body could ar­gue that that isn’t the case. What has changed?’’

Can­nold agrees that for all the re­forms wrought by fem­i­nism, aber­rant or cruel moth­ers still shock us far more than de­viant fa­thers: ‘‘ That will be the case so long as moth­ers are tak­ing pri­mary care of the youngest chil­dren. At the mo­ment, a de­viant fa­ther is sit­ting safely in his of­fice for 10 hours a day, so he’s usu­ally not so much of a threat.’’

Nov­el­ist Leigh says of mak­ing a dys­func­tional mother the cen­tral char­ac­ter in Dis­quiet : ‘‘ I knew the work was dar­ing. At a very ba­sic level a par­ent of young chil­dren — be that a mother or fa­ther — is ex­pected to have a com­mit­ment to life, to stay­ing alive. Olivia moves through the book in an­tic­i­pa­tion of death. Early on she de­clares, sim­ply, ‘ I am mur­dered’. If you like, she is death- haunted.

‘‘ So is it hereti­cal that she dis­avows her own chil­dren? Yes. In a way, her sense of self as an in­di­vid­ual ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble only to her­self, trumps her sense of her­self as mother.’’

In­ter­est­ingly, Leigh never judges Olivia for her self- ab­sorp­tion, but the au­thor doesn’t see this as her job: ‘‘ Lit­er­a­ture has a great ca­pac­ity — an al­most unique ca­pac­ity — to ask moral ques­tions with­out sup­ply­ing stri­dent an­swers. In other words ( it recog­nises) there are many facets and com­plex­i­ties to moral ques­tions.’’

What would an an­thro­pol­o­gist make of this 21st- cen­tury pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with moth­ers who re­ject, tor­ture or mur­der their chil­dren? An­thro­pol­o­gist Stephen Juan, from the Univer­sity of Syd­ney, says the themes the nov­els men­tioned above ex­hume, from in­fan­ti­cide to ma­t­ri­cide, are

‘‘ re­ally quite ex­tra­or­di­nary. There can’t be any­thing that would be more of an anath­ema to the tra­di­tional, sainted view of moth­er­hood than women who kill their own off­spring.’’

Juan says the achieve­ments of the women’s move­ment mean there is greater aware­ness of what women give up when they be­come moth­ers and, hence, greater am­biva­lence about the role: ‘‘ I am not sur­prised that this theme — am­biva­lence about moth­er­hood — is show­ing it­self in nov­els writ­ten by women be­cause they are deal­ing in their own lives with the chang­ing roles of women and that in­cludes moth­er­hood.’’

He says the nov­els also can be seen as a re­ac­tion against the im­pos­si­ble de­mands placed on women by the dis­cred­ited su­per­mother ideal, which women’s mag­a­zines still push. He ar­gues the books can be read as a re­sponse to the re­al­ity that no wo­man can win in mod­ern so­ci­ety: while moth­ers with ca­reers are ac­cused of ne­glect­ing their chil­dren, stay- at- home mums are looked on as pas­sive vic­tims. Nor does it help that homemak­ers and ca­reer women judge each other, en­gag­ing in wo­man- bash­ing.

Juan dis­agrees with Can­nold that the resurg- ence of the mon­strous mother in fiction is a re­bel­lion against Howardism. ‘‘ I wouldn’t link it to the ( Howard) gov­ern­ment,’’ he says. ‘‘ Th­ese are ma­jor cul­tural cur­rents that are far more pro­found than the poli­cies of any gov­ern­ment of the day.’’

Nev­er­the­less, it wasn’t so long ago that then trea­surer Peter Costello urged women to have three chil­dren each — one for each par­ent and ‘‘ one for the coun­try’’ — equat­ing pro­lific moth­er­hood with the na­tional in­ter­est. And Lib­eral MP Bill Hef­fer­nan had to apol­o­gise last year af­ter sug­gest­ing Ju­lia Gil­lard, now Deputy Prime Min­is­ter, was un­fit for higher of­fice be­cause she was ‘‘ de­lib­er­ately bar­ren’’.

* * * THE novel that has ar­guably re­viv­i­fied the mon­strous mummy trend is US au­thor Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin ( Text Pub­lish­ing), pub­lished here in 2006. Kevin, the anti- hero of this much- de­bated work, grows from a small boy with a mean streak into a ter­ri­fy­ing Amer­i­can cliche: he kills nine peo­ple at his high school when he is 15. Shriver asks whether Kevin was born bad or whether he was warped by his mother’s barely con­cealed dis­like of him, leav­ing read­ers to an­swer the ques­tion.

She ad­mits Kevin gen­er­ated more pub­lic in­ter­est than any of her pre­vi­ous six nov­els. In an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in Bri­tain’s The Guardian news­pa­per, she spec­u­lates this is be­cause her nar­ra­tor, Eva, Kevin’s mother, says ‘‘ all those things that moth­ers are not sup­posed to say. She ex­pe­ri­ences preg­nancy as an in­va­sion . . . She im­putes to her per­pet­u­ally scream­ing in­fant a de­vi­ous in­ten­tion to di­vide and con­quer her mar­riage . . . Worst of all, Eva de­tects in Kevin a ma­lign streak that moves her to dis­like him.’’

Shriver writes that while some read­ers have been put off by Eva’s unattrac­tive con­fes­sions, many have thanked her for putting ‘‘ moth­er­hood’s hith­erto off- lim­its emo­tions into print’’.

Cer­tainly, Noli be­lieves the suc­cess of Kevin helped her novel’s pub­li­ca­tion. Why was Noli — who, like her pro­tag­o­nist, gave up a glam­orous job to stay at home when her chil­dren were young — drawn to the story of a child killer? Noli has al­ways been in­ter­ested in what Jung called the shadow, the dark side of hu­man na­ture. As a child, she wrote a story from the point of view of a fe­tus that was about to be aborted.

Para­dox­i­cally, Noli’s fas­ci­na­tion with a vi­o­lent mother also re­flects her in­dig­na­tion at vi­o­lence to­wards chil­dren: ‘‘ I’ve al­ways been very an­tiv­i­o­lence to­wards chil­dren, and hav­ing chil­dren your­self, you’re very pro­tec­tive to­wards them. Hav­ing chil­dren in­creased my sense of out­rage that any­body could harm a child.’’

Then there were the cases of child abuse re­ported by the me­dia. ‘‘ There seem to be many more cases of hor­rific child abuse around,’’ she says, point­ing out that sub­stan­ti­ated no­ti­fi­ca­tions of such abuse have risen dra­mat­i­cally in Aus­tralia dur­ing the past five years. ‘‘ Cri­sis may be too strong a word to use, but there is some­thing go­ing on there.’’

Nov­els about post­mod­ern Medeas may not be ev­ery­one’s cup of tea.

But Noli rea­sons that if so­ci­ety de­nies that abu­sive, ne­glect­ful or am­biva­lent moth­ers are a prob­lem, such women are less likely to seek in­ter­ven­tion or help that could pro­tect their chil­dren from fur­ther harm: ‘‘ Th­ese is­sues cut across all strata and if we deny they ex­ist, we give them ( dis­turbed moth­ers) more power.’’

Not so pic­ture per­fect: Joan Craw­ford

Eves of de­struc­tion: From left, au­thors Vir­ginia Duigan, Lionel Shriver, Carol Topol­ski and Ju­lia Leigh; op­po­site page, Camilla Noli

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