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