Siri Hustvedt’s Mothers, Fathers and Others magazine – a confrontation with motherhood | Testing
Motherness has always been at the heart of certain feminist movements, while being deliberately excluded from others. From activists fighting for children’s rights to their mothers after parental separation in the 19th century, to literary figures – like Adrienne Rich in the 1970s and Rachel Cusk in the 1990s – who gave way to maternal ambivalence, women fought to claim motherhood without locking themselves into it. Today, as the issues of surrogacy and trans motherhood pose new challenges, feminism’s confrontation with the issue becomes urgent. Siri Hustvedt joins the fray with a mixture of frankness and obliquity.
She approaches motherhood from all sides, mixing memory and ethnography, history of science and psychoanalysis, literary and art criticism. The book begins with lovingly detailed portraits of Hustvedt’s mother and grandmother, and continues through essays on Wuthering Heights, the art of Louise Bourgeois, the nature of viruses, and misogyny to end with a long tour de force exploring the horrific death of Sylvia Marie Likens in 1965.
The essays are disparate and span a period of 10 years, but the voice is coherent, combining assured erudition with more playful questioning, always thoughtful and capable of surprising changes of register and even of genre (the strange tale and poem are interpolated along the way). Cumulatively, an argument develops. We all come out of mothers, but key aspects of motherhood are left out in our culture, and mothers often become the scapegoat for the evils of society (as in Jacqueline Rose’s story, where mothers are “the” object of authorized cruelty ”).
Hustvedt gently questions his own father’s lack of interest in his mother, the grandmother whose story Hustvedt is now exploring. She sees in it an indication of “the forgotten land of mother and mothers, the voiceless kingdom of the womb”. She thinks we need to make more of our origins in the womb in part because pregnancy and birth are bodily entangling processes that remind us of our general interconnection. She worries that scientists’ fantasies of genetic determinism overlook the role of the female body: “Pregnancy is a chimeric state, and the chimera is always a terrifying animal because it involves mixing. This general and terrifying diversity has also been revealed by the Covid. Hustvedt argues that if we recognize the constant interaction within and between bodies and between bodies and viruses, we will gain access to a broader view of our interconnected and borderless culture. She gives spice and accuracy to these ideas by focusing, for example, on the placenta as a forgotten organ.
The Likens essay isn’t explicitly meant to deal with motherhood, but mothers are everywhere here. Sylvia was left with her informal adoptive mother, Gertrude Baniszewski, and her seven children, as her mother had just been jailed for shoplifting. Baniszewski abused Sylvia from the start, co-opting her children and neighbors in the ever-increasing process, which ended with Sylvia branded with the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” on her abdomen, and tortured to semi-accidental death.
History has long fascinated feminists; Kate Millett has written a captivating and obsessive book about it, where she imagines her way through the heads of the central characters. Today, Hustvedt combines a romantic sense of the passions and intricacies of real life with an incisive sense of political controversy and theoretical shrewdness. She thinks history has been treated as too aberrant and insufficiently political. She reads it as an efflorescence of mimetic desire as defined by René Girard, in which violence became contagion and demanded a scapegoat, Sylvia, who transformed from an obedient virgin to a malicious whore.
“The crowd gathers at a rally or forms online,” writes Hustvedt, recalling that it is those who have been asked too much by society who need scapegoats the most. Baniszewski was invested in her role as a mother and seems to have been so ashamed of her failures (her own unmarried daughter was pregnant) that she had to blame it under the guise of maternal correction. It’s an unexpected place to end the collection, but rightly so. In the face of rising collective violence, mob sentiment and mass shame, Hustvedt calls for vigilance as we analyze the stories of motherhood the world presents.