"Is she drunk?" and Alicia whispers back, "I think she was drinking in her room before dinner."
All through dinner Lucille has been careening wildly from sadness to elation to despair . . . But as we sit down and begin to eat dessert, she breaks down and sobs silently, her shoulders shaking, her head turned away as though she's going to tuck it in under her wing like a sleeping bird.
"What's wrong with your mom?" he asks as I carefully arrange myself next to him, trying not to get stabbed by my dress.
"Has she always been?"
"She was better when I was little. She had a baby that died, when I was seven, and that was bad. She tried to kill herself. I found her."
-- The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
I should probably recuse myself here because I am one of the few people on earth who didn't like "The Time Traveler's Wife." But the point remains the same: I was somehow so completely unsurprised to find out that the drunk-by-dinner emotionally vapid and over-reactive mom of the protagonist had a skeleton in her closet: a skeleton of a baby, that is.
What is it with images of mothers who've lost children in popular culture?
I'm sure in my lifetime I've run across this trope a million times between books, the movies, and the television, and yet for the life of me I can't remember many of them that I encountered prior to my own loss. Dead babies were simply a plot device or (as above) character development -- a throw-away line that explained someone's depression or alcoholism or emotional instability. "Ahhh," I can hear myself saying as I read the line, and then moved on to become engrossed by the story's main theme. Now I feel as though I'm a magnet for these storylines, and depending on my mood, and their presentation, my reaction to these literary doppelgangers has been decidedly mixed.
For some fiction, dead babies and children make great plot devices: it's a crime, a mystery, a turning point. A grief-laden springboard from which the rest of the story flows, a sometimes hidden/sometimes overt source of guilt, a crux in a relationship between parents. Recently and notably, there's been "The Rabbit Hole" (an acclaimed play which revolves around parents coming to terms with the death of a 4-year old who ran into traffic) and "Antichrist" (starring Willem Dafoe as half of a grieving couple, whose young child fell out of a window while unattended, apparently because they were next door having a moment, if you catch my drift). (Disclosure: I have not had the wherewithall to watch either of these two productions.) There's at least one recent "Law & Order" depicting a nutty babyloss mom and a few older ones with dead babies as centerpieces; and there's an MI5 from a season ago where a infant-napping goes awry and parents wind up mourning as the mystery unfolds. As many of you are now aware, the first twenty minutes of Pixar's "Up" include a poignant passing reference to either infertility or miscarriage -- a precursor to the balloons uprooting the house and the adventure unravelling as it does. I'm sure there are countless medical dramas that use this riveting ploy, but I stopped watching those two and half years ago. Too close.
Then there's child loss as character development. Think of the quiet, introverted grief-stricken father -- teetering on divorce, by the way -- who spends his life trying to travel and yet not escape the comforting cocoon of his home in "The Accidental Tourist." You just want to hug him, he looks so sad, and eventually Geena Davis does (apparently his grief just needed some fun-time crayzee!). Or another set of parents, in a movie featuring nothing but a relationship, attempting to channel their grief and save their marriage in "Ordinary People." These are "accidents" that happen to "ordinary" parents -- and we're left watching what we assume would be an everyperson, every family type of reaction. This could happen to me; I hope if it does I find a fun Geena type chick to help me out of it. Somehow circumscribing these people by grief makes all the sense in world -- or does it?
Sometimes the personality conclusion from babyloss is a real head-scratcher. In the TV series "Damages," Glen Close deliciously plays Patty Hewes, an evil lawer who eventually is revealed to have a violent streak, especially in regards to one of her young, female employees. In the waning minutes of the season one finale, the mystery explaining Patty's personality is finally unveiled: Her baby died. What are they trying to tell me here? Did she miss her dead daughter, who perhaps would now be around the age of her new hiree with whom she has an intense love/hate(/murderous) relationship? Or was she just fucking nuts thanks to grief? The camera passes over a gravestone, backs up to show Glen Close kneeling over it with tears flowing, and then cuts to a flashback in a hospital where things go horribly and vaguely and fuzzily wrong. We, the viewers, are suddenly meant to understand her -- and an entire season of her icy, bitchy, wild, calculating, sociopathic and homicidal character -- completely. Just like the mom in "Time Traveler's Wife", where with a few throw-away words we're to summarize her identity, her character writ large. And it's not pretty.
What does this all say about me? Where does society (or the literary half) think I'm headed? For divorce? A murderous rampage? The bottle? Hot sex in the woods with Willem Dafoe?
Maybe babyloss is more common than I'm giving it credit for: maybe it really is widespread, hidden beneath the weeds, and all of these authors and television programs are simply stating the obvious, what happens all the time and what everyone knows. Maybe this is the publicity we all need.
Recently In the New York Times Magazine, Gina Bellafante wrote about the novels of Jodi Picoult, and how they all seem to center on children undergoing great peril. Picoult is a best-selling author whose books have spawned movies -- but why? Why does she use this outline, and why on earth are people interested in reading it?
I remarked what a miracle it is that any child survives to the age of 6, given the exposed outlets, tumbling kitchen knives and thousand quotidian threats that are, in a new parent’s mind, colluding toward an entirely opposite outcome. Picoult laughed in sympathy. “You can’t make your kids wear helmets, you just can’t do that,” she told me. The real dangers are, of course, the ones we can’t (or refuse to) anticipate.
So that's it. Point out the stuff I may not have thought of, expand my horizons. Is that what I am to everyone around me, the one who makes them realize and understand danger? To remind them that bad stuff comes from nowhere and can happen to anyone? And what does the reader take away from countless books highlighting a mother's worst fears?
“Maybe the average reader is not facing the daily challenges of a mom whose child is dying of cancer, for example, but she probably had an argument with her teenager that morning about something inconsequential that left her feeling frustrated and certain there’s no middle ground between them,” she told me. Picoult said she hoped in some sense that her books were the way to that middle ground.
Middle ground? Is that what me and my story represent to the general public? I'm wondering here if Picoult means "perspective" ("Things aren't so bad! We could be treating my kid for cancer!") or "gratefulness" ("At least my child is alive to fight about things like her skirt being too short!"). I would like to think that parents around my neighborhood think about me when they begin yelling at their teenagers, and slowly come to understand some nuance about appreciating life, and taking control of what you can. But frankly, I think Picoult is probably a best-seller because Americans love a car-wreck. They love sitting in fear for a brief moment, and knowing it's a fiction and not happening to them or someone they love. According to some of the anonymous comments on our blogs, some people like absorbing stories of woe and figuring they would handle it differently, or better.
That, I fear, is what I represent to many. Alcoholics and sociopaths.
I watched last season's "Dollhouse" feeling simultaneously insulted as a woman, and mystified that Joss Whedon could come up with this stuff on a weekly basis. In short, the series follows men but mostly women who are confined in a spa-like building (after signing contracts, though the pressure to sign is questioned) for a period of years during which time their memories and identities are erased. When they're needed for a "job," (usually a callgirl-slash-adventure type gig) an imprint is placed into their heads of the person/-ality they are to be for that particular job. Tension mounts throughout the season as bits and pieces of the Dolls' past flit through their consciousness. In one episode, the Dolls retain their original identities for a a few hours, and with those some of their residual memories. And one Doll -- a female sub-character -- stumbles across a baby carriage and says bewildered, "I had a baby."
"Just watch," I immediately said to my husband on the couch next to me, "her baby's dead."
Sure enough, minutes later, we find her stumbling into a graveyard to recall the death of her child. And this is why, we are left to connect the dots, she agreed so wholeheartedly to signing over her identity and memories for a period of years, never to think of them, the baby, it. To escape the grief, to escape her. To enter a mini coma. To forget (even temporarily) that horrible day or event. To let that ubiquitous Time, pass.
Strangely, that bit of character I got completely.
Where have you stumbled across babyloss parents in popular culture? How were they depicted? Did you find the plot device or character development that ensued to be familiar or unrealistic? How did it make you feel?