Saturday, September 15, 2012

The trouble with Grace: killing off the victim... and other problematic fictional mothers

As any writer or reader of fiction for children and young adults knows, the easiest way to push the protagonist into actively coping with the situations hurled at them is to get rid of the significant adults in the young person’s life! This usually means Mum and Dad, or some variation of the primary caregiver. The novels of my childhood did this too, though in the case of these earlier writers the parents were often physically present but not actively engaged in their children’s lives. Parents or slightly daffy caregivers wafted in and out, often drink in hand, barely noticing that their charges were solving death-defying mysteries or escaping through time warps to fight world-saving battles in whole different worlds! Instead, they just got on with their adult lives, oblivious to the pastimes of their children — other than making sure that when the kids came home there were always lashings of ginger beer for Timmy!

I’ve been thinking about the role of parents in my young adult books – and, most particularly, the role of mothers. In my first few books I made a very clear decision to portray the primary (and physically present) parents as loving and supportive, perhaps reflecting the way I felt about my own parents. They were alive at the time — and I didn’t want, under any circumstances, for them to think I was portraying their parenting in a negative light. (N.B. this can be a problem for writers: people jump to the conclusion we must be writing about our own families or situations... not crediting us with any imagination of our own!)

However, as I’ve continued writing, I’ve been interested in plotting more complicated parent/child relationships. Partly, this is a result of wanting to write more layered, nuanced stories as a whole, but also it’s also from thinking more deeply about what makes us who we are, and what made the people who made us! My previous blog on Identity identifies the core shift in my thinking — and has further fuelled my desire to dig into the real dynamics that often go on between parent and child. 

As a consequence, Grace, Ash’s mother in The Nature of Ash, proved more complicated in her make-up than previous parental characters I’ve written, and is sometimes misunderstood as a result.

So here’s the potted story of Grace: she disappeared — left her husband, three year old Ash, and Down Syndrome son Mikey — three months after Mikey’s birth. When Ash eventually finds her, fourteen years later, she is an erratic, drug-addicted, abused, mentally unstable woman living like a fugitive as a member of anti-government resistance group Muru.

At this juncture, it’s important to stress that Muru is not a veiled (or otherwise) reference to the group of people arrested in the 2007 Urewera Terror Raids in NZ.[1]  It’s a fictional representation of the dozens of local protest groups all over the world who have been infiltrated, hijacked, and manipulated by organisations like the FBI (et al)[2] — who’ve used every dirty tactic from propaganda, addiction to drugs and alcohol, fear and torture, bribery and frightening doses of power and control to subvert small-scale local resistance in  order to either undermine their organisation or to co-opt them to fight a new and different battle (Al Qaeda is the result of the CIAs subversive funding in Afghanistan, for instance).  The victims of these unethical tactics are sometimes literally driven mad, and even used as human fodder in a dirty war. It’s not so different from the indoctrination required to create suicide bombers — idealists manipulated beyond rational reason to serve another’s deadly agenda.

This is what I wanted to portray in Ash’s poor mother Grace: how a woman (within the context of a larger group) may well start out protesting for very valid reasons but end up corrupted and broken for others’ political gain. She was brainwashed while already in a fragile mental state, terrorised by a violent partner, purposefully addicted to amphetamines — all of which combined to send the poor woman round the bend. Who wouldn’t go mad?

It ends badly for Grace — though I also like to think that in her final moments she actually did find her last remaining undamaged feelings for her sons. So it was with puzzlement that I read one reader’s comments saying (angrily) that I had punished the only real victim in the book. My first reaction was disappointment at myself: I clearly had not made the reasons for Grace’s confused actions evident enough — and it’s likely I’ll beat myself up over this for some time yet!

My second reaction was horror: does that mean the reader thought I was perpetrating negative images of women trapped in violent relationships? I’ve researched and written a lot about violence against women and the consequences of domestic violence — and in no way want to downplay the terror women in these situations go through.
And yet... and yet... as I was writing the book I made the conscious decision to represent Grace like this (erratic, confused, untrustworthy, quick to anger, emotionally disconnected, deadly) in order to make the point above. And perhaps a bigger point as well — the one my outraged reader centred in on: yes, I killed off the biggest victim in the book. I did. And I did it on purpose! Why? Because it underlines the awful and unpalatable truth: women are manipulated, drugged and driven mad (or told they’re mad) by brutal, conscienceless men (and by the systems they impose on women) every single day, in every country in the world. There never could have been a happy ending in this book for Grace. I was trying to write a believable truth. We have to face the fact that the people at the bottom of the pile (the victims) are usually the ones who’ll pay the dearest price. This can only change if we first acknowledge this inconvenient truth and get angry enough to do something about it on the victims’ behalves.
I did, however, offer this poor woman another grace of sorts: the mother, the woman who at her heart loved Ash and Mikey, still managed to shine through at the very end. In the midst of her poor tangled, mixed up brain she protected Ash and sacrificed her life for his. It didn’t save her but I believe it offered her the opportunity to finally set herself free and acknowledge the deep loving in her heart. It was my writer’s conceit — a chance not usually offered to the down and out.
In the book I’m working on right now, I’m afraid I’m writing yet another outwardly unfeeling mother, though the circumstances are very different. I’m trying to explore the idea that the violence someone’s exposed to in their youth can very likely impact on them negatively in later life. They don’t even have to be the victims of the violence and terror personally, just see it happening and feel the fear. I’m not positing a new idea: these are the sorry facts[3]
It’s my hope that, through the telling of the story, this mother’s history will emerge and help to temper the reader’s opinion of her — and certainly the opinion of her daughter, who has suffered at her hand. And I want to show that it is possible to stop this cycle, given enough support and love.

I am very grateful that I’m not one of the many people I speak to who’ve been impacted by poor and/or abusive relationships with their parents! Good parenting matters. Of course it’s true that parenting is often hard and unrewarding — but the results of bad parenting can ruin generation after generation... it’s up to each of us with children to make a concerted effort to cherish them, so they know how to cherish theirs.

So forgive me, fellow mothers (now that’s quite possibly an oxymoron!) — I’m not trying to give you a bad rep or undermine your difficulties. I’m trying to reflect the real world. Maybe, by writing about it in an open and honest way I can do my bit to break the cycle... or maybe not. At least I’ve tried.

[2] This is not just an internal US problem or tactic – in NZ we have had our own fair share of SIS or Police infiltrators in environmental, anti-racism, Maori sovereignty and animal-protection organisations in particular.