Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Fear of Motherhood
By Roxanne Fequiere
Like several million others over the holiday break, I turned to Netflix during a bit of downtime and took two hours to watch Bird Box. The post-apocalyptic film about never-quite-specified entities that when seen, either provoke insanity or suicide—leading those who have escaped their clutches to move blindly throughout the world, eyes shut or blindfolded to protect themselves from their own demise—called to mind A Quiet Place– for many, another somewhat similar film. In that movie’s post-apocalyptic world, it is the predatory entities that are sightless, which leads them to hunt humans using their highly developed sense of hearing. Survival here is ensured by remaining noiseless at all times.
I’m at once drawn to and repelled by these sorts of stories. Though a film adaptation hasn’t yet been produced, I think often of David Moody’s Hater trilogy, a series that considers what happens when a genetic mutation splits the world’s population into hunters and the hunted, irrespective of race, gender, class, or any other manmade classification. The books terrified me; still, I look forward to seeing it on the big screen. Likewise, I struggled to determine how I felt about Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones, a tale of survival in a word where hundreds of thousands have been wiped out by a slew of pandemics. The story was compelling, and yet I took long breaks from the text, not wanting to return to Dibbell’s gritty world.
Of course, The Only Ones is much more than a story about simply surviving. After all, the book’s main character, Inez Fardo, has already been surviving for years by the time the book begins. Born immune to all of the diseases that have been ravaging society, survival comes easier to her than others. She makes her money by selling parts of herself to those that want it. She’s a hooker, but as a hardy, or immuno-superior person, she can also hawk her teeth, hair, urine, and so on. When she finds herself agreeing to clone herself for a woman that has lost her children to yet another wave of disease, it’s just another paycheck—until the buyer backs out and asks Inez to raise the baby herself. Suddenly, survival takes on a new shape. Simply scraping by won’t do.
The Only Ones places parenthood at the center of its post-apocalyptic tale, but in one way or another, most post-apocalyptic tales are. The extinction level event in Bird Box occurs while Sandra Bullock’s character Malorie is several months pregnant; she ends up raising her own child alongside the child of a woman who fell victim to the harmful entities. The Hater trilogy is narrated by a man who spends much of his time struggling to reconnect with his young daughter. A Quiet Place begins with the death of a couple’s youngest child and, somewhat infuriatingly, chronicles their decision to have another one, along with the inherent struggle of birthing and raising an infant in a world where loud noise marks you for death.
I’ve reached the age where I’ve begun earnestly contemplating the possibility of having children, and while I’m not opposed to the idea in theory, the reality of the world we live in gives me pause. I’m the sort of person that relishes whatever tenuous claim to control I can convince myself that I have over my own life—whether that manifests itself in the form of going to therapy to untangle the threads of my own upbringing, pulling an all-nighter to power through some combination of self-assigned tasks, or soldiering on with a book-and-essay-a-week project even when circumstances conspire to throw me two months off track. I’m acutely aware of the ways in which a child would obliterate my ability to maintain even this tiny bit of self-determination, and yet, I fear for my potential child’s lack of control, too. What are the odds of a bright future in the face of climate change, violence, and global conflict? Is it fair to bet on it with another person’s life? Perhaps it’s no surprise that I find myself equally ambivalent about stories that highlight the struggles of raising a child against a worst-case scenario backdrop.
Like Inez, her daughter, Ani, is a hardy. They can wander through cordoned-off areas whether they’ve been disinfected or not without fear of contracting disease. Still, as soon as Inez sets off for New York with her new baby to return to her former life, she realizes that disease is just one of many worries that will keep her up at night. Ani can survive the world she’s been born into, but Inez wants her to thrive. She doesn’t want Ani to end up selling herself on the street; she wants her to receive an education beyond the third grade; she wants her to transcend her genetics to become something better than the woman who brought her into the world. As it turns out, motherhood in the post-apocalyptic world mirrors motherhood in the pre-apocalyptic world. Maybe it’s just me, but that may be the scariest concept I’ve encountered in any of these stories yet.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.