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Illustration for The Mothers of Voorhisville, showing Jeremy arriving to town on a hease

The things you have heard are true; we are the mothers of monsters. We would, however, like to clarify a few points.

Jodie: Over the last year, I've noticed that SFF has almost a sub-genre of stories about fantastical reproduction (The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord, The Brides of Heaven by N. K Jemisin, Maul by Tricia Sullivan to name a few examples). The genre has also produced a lot of stories which imagine, or express concern about, how parents will have children in the future or in magical worlds, for example Starglass by Phoebe North, Motherlines by Suzy Mckee Charnas and God's War by Kameron Hurley all show futuristic reproduction.

The Mothers of Voorhisville by Mary Rickert is one of these stories about fantastical pregnancies, babies and births. SFF has a troubled time with mothers, and the genre is well known for using dead mothers as a quick and lazy way to inject emotional pain into its stories (Guardians of the Galaxy I'm looking at you). Did you have any concerns about the way motherhood was characterised in this story, or did you feel that The Mothers of Voorhisville managed to present a complicated picture of women who were 'the mothers of monsters' without demonising mothers in typical, sexist ways?

Ana: I thought it was a mixed bag. I didn't think the mothers were demonised, but I wanted the story to go further in some regards. One thing I did appreciate was how the narrative made room for complications and undercurrents when it comes to these women's experiences of motherhood. Even though it opens with a first person plural narrator, The Mothers of Voorhisville eventually gives its characters' individual voices and highlights their experiences; by doing so, it challenges the idea that motherhood is "natural", universal, and therefore the same for every woman. Take this bit, for example:

The way I felt inside, I was Elli Ratcher, fifteen and on summer break, and I was a mommy with leaking breasts, and I was the monster who thought I wanted my baby to die, and I was a hundred years old like one of those women they show on TV in the black cape and hood, screaming over my dead baby, and I was the girl with the beautiful bones wrapped around the man with skin that smelled like dirt and I was the man who smelled like dirt and I was his wife dreaming the dead.

I really liked the acknowledgement that Elli contains multitudes and that all these different feelings can coexist in her. Later on there's an even more striking passage that illustrates Elli's complex feelings about motherhood in a way I found moving and humanising:
Though both Timmy and Matthew are sleeping peacefully in the hot crib together, Elli keeps having a thought she doesn’t want to have. She keeps thinking, Why couldn’t it have been Timmy?, then hates herself for having this thought. She doesn’t even want this thought, so she doesn’t understand why it keeps popping into her head. She looks at the sleeping Timmy. I would die if anything happened to you. (Why couldn’t it have been you?) It makes no sense. Elli watches the women walk to the back door. She hears the bell ring. The mind, Elli thinks, is its own battleground (like there’s a war going on up there and she’s just a spectator). The bell rings again. Jesus Christ, would someone just answer it? But it’s too late; the babies wake up, crying.

There are hints of contradictions even in the collective voice of the mothers — for example, when we're told, The mothers greet the day with tired eyes. So soon? It isn’t possible. The babies are crying. Again. The mothers are filled with great love, and also something else. Who knew someone so small could eat so much! The way we as a culture talk about motherhood doesn't usually leave room for any exhaustion or resentment or whatever other completely human emotions new mothers may experience. It doesn't allow these to coexist alongside positive feelings, or even to get the upper hand sometimes (which again is completely human). I feel that the forcedly upbeat tone that final exclamation mark brings to this passage works as commentary on the fact that mothers often feel pressured to make a million disclaimers if they ever say anything about motherhood that's less than relentlessly positive — I'm tired, but I love my baby, of course I do! I wouldn't change a thing about this experience! And it's not that this isn't true for many women — it's just that you shouldn't have to reassure the world at every turn, lest you be deemed "unnatural". These moments of insight, of acknowledging life's messiness, and of voicing women's experiences were my favourite thing about The Mothers of Voorhisville.

Having said this, in the end I wasn't sure if the story had really done enough to challenge the notion of universal motherhood, you know? When all is said and done, the women all end up making the same decision and sacrificing their lives for their babies (it's implied that a violent takeover of the house where they're locked, or else starvation, is imminent, and the mothers tell us "this could very well be our final day") . The fact that the story ends with a return to the first person plural certainly doesn't help:
What we want for our babies is the same thing all mothers want. We want them to be happy, safe, and loved. We want them to have the opportunity to be the best selves they can be.
If you are reading this, then the worst has already happened, and we can do no more.

They are your responsibility now.

I wanted a different ending — one that was more of a challenge and that brought the story's nuances to the foreground.

Jodie: Like you, I thought The Mothers of Voorhisville was going to focus on dispelling the idea that motherhood is the same for every woman. Once it introduced multiple narrators, and used the device of group narration to correct Tamara's more creative approach, it seemed like the story's big themes - the individuality of motherhood and the problem of letting any one person have control of a group narrative - had been set out.

Still, the more I think about that ending the more I feel The Mothers of Voorhisville fails to match up neatly with my ideas about its themes and intentions. Like you say, the ending where most of the mothers lock themselves into the house for the good of their children doesn't seem to fit in a story that has tried to present the women as individuals. It could just be that the story loses its way, and tips over into accidentally reinforcing the idea that once women have children they join this amorphous group of 'mothers' who are all the same. Could be.

Or, it could be that the story is attempting to do something quite tricky; balancing two opposing ideas about 'the mothers' by allowing them all to be definite individuals, but also women compelled to form a group because they all have strange babies. I wonder if the story is kind of negative about women and motherhood, or at least concerned that motherhood can pull women into unhealthy groups and behaviours? The end of the story references a cult after all. After the death of the Ratcher parents, an act of community sanctioned violence which reminded me thematically of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, I felt like the The Mothers of Voorhisville might be a warning about the dangers of collectivism, group think and I wondered if it might even be that signalling that small, close country communities can create unhealthy, closed societies. That would be a very Wicker Man horror theme. And that led me to wonder if the story makes a point about collectivism vs. individualism at the expense of reinforcing ideas about there being a 'common' type of motherhood.

Ana: That's an interesting possibility that hadn't occurred to me. Being the reader that I am, I can't help but find it a shame, because I'd much rather see a story that complicated motherhood in less ambiguous ways than a Wicker Man-style horror tale. The hints of negativity about motherhood you mention are something I also picked up on, and they made me uneasy — at the end of the day, a story that portrays motherhood as universally bad for women isn't a lot more helpful than the dominant "this is the One True Purpose of women's lives and if you think otherwise there's something wrong with you" narrative we see everywhere. I guess that for a critical examination of motherhood to really work for me, I would need a careful and detailed acknowledgement that it's how we frame motherhood that is the problem — it's pushing women towards a single narrative and punishing them if they deviate, rather than the experience in itself. Sadly I didn't feel that The Mothers of Voorhisville made room for that kind of nuance, even if sometimes it hinted at it.

Jodie: I think The Mothers of Voorhisville tries to break with the idea that all mothers are the same by picking out individual characters, like Elli, and allowing them to express their separate feelings. And it's not just Elli who gets set up as an individual; The Mothers of Voorhisville works hard to individualise the women who make up 'the mothers'. It gives them names, histories and wants. I also felt, as you've explained, that by including Elli the story successfully complicated the base idea that all mothers automatically love their children all the time no matter what.

And yet by choosing early on to include a collective narrative and make 'the mothers' into a Greek chorus, which intensifies the creepiness of their slightly removed feeling narrative line, the story groups them together and makes their experience feel collective and similar. When Elli sets herself apart from the other women, calling them 'the mothers', she reinforces the reader's perception of them as a group and her as a special exception to their rule. In the end, the women who feel most separate are the ones who are placed outside of group designated 'the mothers'. The women distanced from the group by the death of their children, or their vastly different circumstances (Maddy Melvern, the only other teen mother apart from Elli). These are the women who have control over their own narratives; who get to speak for themselves and who shape much of what the reader knows about the other women.

I think this is where execution comes into play. For some reason all the work the story does to individualise the women of Voorhisville wasn't enough to counter the story's other insistence that the majority of them form a group with a collective name and voice. Maybe because there are so many women in the story that inevitably some are just sketched quickly, which makes it hard for the reader to hold onto the idea of their individuality against the weight of the story pushing them to form their final, terrifying group. When they're making their final stand in the house the story still brings out individual character details, but it's hard to get over the fact that they're all rushing towards a group fate and that when they speak they tell their story in a collective manner or allow the 'outsider mothers' to tell it.

Whatever the main theme of the story was intended to be, the ending certainly reinforces old ideas about what motherhood means by making all the women take the same terrible path. By showing that taking this path is horrific it critiques the idea that mother love and motherly sacrifice are always justified and pure. At the same time, it doesn't allow the mothers any other option. Like you, I think I wanted another ending.

Maybe, before we move on, it would be useful to discuss Lois Tilton's review of The Mothers of Voorhisville? This review begins by describing the mother's actions as 'increasingly unreasonable', but ends by seeming to approve the 'special bond' between the mothers and their children. The reviewer assumes that this kind of bond must exist in real life and must hold between mother and children even when those children are monsters, and so seems to see The Mothers of Voorhisville as an interesting depiction of that real life phenomenon. I think I found the story's take on the mother's actions as ambiguous as Tilton did, but somehow more cautionary as well. What did you make of this review?

Ana: I thought that the conclusion simplified the story a bit — I fully share your reservations about how successful Rickert's execution is, but all the same I think there's more going on here than just a horror-tinged illustration of the "special bond" between mother and child, or of how far mothers will go for their children. I guess I just can't help but see the fact that The Mothers of Voorhisville amounts to that in the end as a technical failure of sorts — it's not that it didn't aim for more; it's that it fell short.

My reading also differs from Tilton's in that I didn't feel that the story's main source of horror was whether or not these were really evil killer monstrous babies. Obviously this is a big part of the plot, but it's one that I found uninteresting when isolated from the mothers. To me, what makes The Mothers of Voorhisville horrific is that these women are placed in a position of growing powerlessness. The women all initially keep the babies' wings a secret because they know that their personal experience of their children will be dismissed. People (mainly men) who claim to know best will decide from the get-go that the babies are evil and must be destroyed no matter what the mothers say. As the story progresses, this is exactly what happens. The monstrous nature of the babies, then, had metaphorical resonances for me — you can kind of see it as the world's interpretation of what motherhood must be like, which is thrown at the women of Voorhisville from so many directions that it eventually supplants and destroys their experiences (and them in the process). The women are robbed of their agency and disempowered because no one will listen to them, and I found that truly horrific.

Of course, there's one big problem with this reading: the killing of the Ratchers you mention above pretty much works as external confirmation that the women are in denial about the babies and the rest of the world is right — which makes it hard to read this as a story about the awful consequences of imposing external narratives on women's experiences. I'm usually perfectly happy to cling to subversive readings that have little in common with creators' stated intentions (texts belong to their readers, blah blah blah), but a reading that only works if you ignore a key part of a story altogether is a pretty shaky one. So shall we say instead that I saw the ghost of this story in The Mothers of Voorhisville and that I liked it, even though it's not what the narrative delivers in the end?

Jodie: I'd also like to ask you about Tilton's idea that the women are 'parasitized' by Jeremy, especially in light of the fact that all the babies are boys. It seems like the story is making a point there, but what do you think it is?

Ana:This is something I could also tie in with the shadow-story I wanted to be reading: parasite stories are about loss of control, and an understanding of pregnancy and motherhood that privileges received wisdom at the expense of women's individual experiences could perhaps be symbolised by universally male children (it's also relevant that we're told that some of the women were on birth control, but it didn't work — the painstakingly won reproductive rights some women enjoy today and which are so often under threat are taken away from the women of Voorhisville). Again, this doesn't quite work as a cogent critical reading, but does it make sense to say that I wanted it to?

I have to say that in the end I felt conflicted the Jeremy storyline. For example, I love that the mothers tell us,
We would like to stress that we reject the penis-glorifying tone that’s been taken, as though we, the women of Voorhisville, were only completed through penetration. We would like to make it clear that we believe the women of Voorhisville were always beautiful, always interesting, always evolving, always capable of greatness.

And yet — is this acknowledgement enough, or does it amount to a form of lampshade hanging?

Jodie: I didn't feel like that comment was lampshading. Although many of the mothers mention that Jeremy is amazing, and Tamara goes a little bit overboard in the section before the comment you've quoted, I think the fact that Jeremy is absent from the story and the women are the focus of the whole narrative (until Pete and Raj appear) backs this comment up.

Ana: I didn't mean so much that the narrative makes Jeremy sound amazing after all — it doesn't, but in the end their unexpected pregnancies and experiences as mothers veer dangerously close to defining the women in this story. Like we've both said, the attempt to go beyond that is there, but The Mothers of Voorhisville was perhaps too slight for it to truly work. I wanted more, and it would have taken a full novel or a story with a completely different execution to deliver that.

Having said all this, there was enough of interest in The Mothers of Voorhisville that I'm quite curious to pick up Rickert's novel, The Memory Garden. I like the sound of it, plus the blurbs by two authors I love (Karen Joy Fowler and Christopher Barzak) don't hurt. I shall report back!

You can read The Mothers of Voorhisville for free at Tor.

Date: 2014-11-06 12:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com
I'm glad you two led me to read this story. One thing you don't mention, maybe because you haven't experienced it, is how the exhaustion of early motherhood can lead a woman to form support groups with all kinds of unlikely women, just because they're in the same boat. When a person is sleep deprived and responsible for a whole new person, their judgment can be off.
I didn't read the whole story as quite so literal, however. Maybe because I am also reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue and Alias Hook at the same time, I thought that the monstrousness of the seeming angel babies was at least partly metaphorical--that since the Ratchers had come to believe they were monsters, that's how they acted to them. It seemed like the babies were going to conform to whatever idea people had about what they "meant," like how you can raise a child to think in certain ways and avoid things you don't like. I realized the other day when a young father said to me, about his little boy, "he's so loving" that being "loving" wasn't a quality I looked for so much in my own children, preferring other terms of praise like "he's so clever" and "she's so imaginative."

Date: 2014-11-06 06:52 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
"It seemed like the babies were going to conform to whatever idea people had about what they "meant" - I like this a lot, and it does kind of solve the one thing that made me hesitate in my original inclination to read the monstrousness as metaphorical. But if you consider that by the time of the killings enough people had acted as if the babies were monstrous that it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy... then I can see what you're saying. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts - I appreciate the new angle you gave me.
Edited (Typos everywhere) Date: 2014-11-06 11:08 pm (UTC)


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