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Forget Blue or Brown Eyes, My Baby Will Have Five-Hundred Eyes

August 17, 2018

Thanks to Sam Risak, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Ramona Ausubel’s short story “Atria” illustrates the ineffectiveness of logic against constructed but powerful societal pressure. She imagines the struggle of teenage pregnancy through the eyes of Hazel. Regardless of the outside evidence Ausubel provides that the child is a healthy girl, after a non-consensual pregnancy, Hazel cannot be convinced that what she is carrying is in fact human. Still an adolescent, she cannot align herself with her ingrained models of what a mother should be. Overwhelmed by her inadequacies, her loneliness manifests in a child whom she perceives to be as alien as she feels.

Culturally-speaking, sexual experience is often regarded as a divide between adolescence and adulthood, and Hazel falls victim to this ideology. Unplanned by her mother and far younger than her sisters, “Atria” begins with Hazel ready to skip her teenage years. Her vision of adulthood is perfect in its ambiguity—a “small apartment kitchen far from anyone to whom she was related, furnished with upturned milk crates and exactly one full place setting” (53). This fantasy is built from glimpses of her family’s life, an incomplete collage Hazel believes she is joining when she lies in the bushes with the gas-station boy Johnny. She agrees to have sex “because, having decided an hour before to say Yes to growing, she could hardly now say No” (54). After the experience, she expects to feel matured, to have undergone her right of passage into adulthood. She feels nothing but regret. A few days later, a much older man approaches Hazel and demands that she follow him. As he leads her away, Hazel asks herself: “Why am I walking? Why am I not drinking a Shirley Temple and adjusting my bikini top over at the country-club pool like all the other girls? Why did I agree to grow up?” (58). She asks herself these things as if her rape correlates with her desire for adulthood, as if her having sex with Johnny bears her culpability in this man’s decision.

Since society expects young women to remain virgins, Hazel keeps her assault a secret until her body refuses to hide it any longer. When she does tell her mother, she describes only the rape. Her omission of Johnny causes Hazel a guilt that solidifies to her with a karmic certainty that the boy must be the father. Because no one understands what led up to Hazel’s pregnancy, she believes no one can understand her child, and her secret transforms the fetus into a mysterious glowing knot of fur with claws and long, yellow teeth. And as the lie progresses, so does the ball of fur, evolving into a bird of prey and later a three-headed giraffe.

Outraged over her daughter’s rape, Hazel’s mother begins a crusade, the town starting up self-defense classes and emergency phone lines in her daughter’s name. The townspeople drop off condolence casseroles and cakes, gifts for the baby. They tell Hazel being raped doesn’t make her a slut, insinuating that a pregnancy by consensual means would. Every gift and comment reminds Hazel that she is being watched, that her rape and pregnancy have made her an anomaly, one vulnerable to judgment. She already knows that if she confessed Johnny as a potential father, the town would shame and reject her. She internalizes the cultural standards and projects them onto her fetus whose strangeness ensures her a place as distant in society as she already feels.

Hazel cannot conceptualize herself as a typical mother, and when she delivers a typical baby girl, she cannot recognize her as her own. She falls asleep without touching the child; however, when she wakes, Hazel finds not a human baby in her crib, but a seal. Her predictions validated, Hazel grows more confident. She sees the mop bucket in the corner and rubs it up and down the baby, believing she needs water. “‘Now that I am mother,’ Hazel said to the baby, ‘I get to set the rules, and the rules are: swimming, sunning, playing. Everything else we ignore’” (72). Stuck between her disparate roles as child and parent, Hazel creates a new position for herself, that of animal-mother, one unmarred by external expectations. With her seal-child, Hazel finally has someone to live on the outside with her, a comrade in her isolation. Conservative society—such as the one Hazel lives in—promotes motherhood as a woman’s ultimate purpose and creates firm ideals as to how a woman should carry out that purpose. Therefore, any slight deviance from expectation—such as Hazel’s youth—can stir feelings of catastrophic failure. Hazel defends against such condemnation by mentally exiling her and her child. Only once she is alone in the room and nursing does Hazel feels secure enough in her own maternal instincts to see her baby’s human arms and legs.

As the atria passes on blood to the heart’s ventricles, society and family pass on expectations to Hazel who passes them on to her child. When the expectations cannot be met, Hazel separates, internally moves to where she cannot be judged and, therefore, cannot fail. While everyone may have ideas on how to raise a human baby, no one has birthed an animal like the one Hazel believes she is carrying and that deviance allots her some protection from scrutiny. Hazel’s point of view allows readers to see how supposedly thoughtful acts—like the townspeople’s delivering of gifts—raise the stakes for Hazel’s secrecy as she knows she does not meet the conditional premises on which they were given. Her perception of her child thereby becomes a defense mechanism, turning outside opinions obsolete and reducing Hazel’s potential deficiencies. Fortunately, the story ends in a moment of escape for Hazel. Alone with her girl at last, Hazel feels less foreign as a mother and sees the little girl begin to shed her animal form.

Ausubel, Ramona. “Atria.” The Guide to Being Born. New York, Penguin, 2013.

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Augustine and Monica

March 2, 2018

Thanks to James Keller, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

In leaving Carthage, Augustine abandoned his mother, Monica. A widow, she pleaded with her son not to leave - or, if he must go, not to leave her behind. She would come with him. He lied to his mother, offering her the false comfort that he was not leaving but was only seeing off a friend. In the night, he slipped away, sailing to Rome. Monica suffered a second bereavement. This story, related by Augustine in his Confessions reveals a certain callousness on the part of Augustine toward his mother. Yet, throughout The Confessions, he appears to revere his mother, praising her virtue. How could a man that so loved his mother treat her so despitefully?

That he thought highly of his mother is beyond doubt. He relates several stories of her remarkable virtue and piety. In the third book of The Confessions, he relates how Monica prayed fervently that her son might come to know the Christian god and how she wept over his state of spiritual death. Monica was rewarded with a divinely-authored dream that assured her that Augustine would one day convert to Christianity. In the ninth book, he relates how her mother-in-law originally despised her due to the rumor-mongering of the servants and how Monica, through patience, kindness, and gentleness, won her mother over, so that the two women became quite close. Similarly, she won her husband over to the Christian faith. Augustine sees her as the model wife, never complaining about her husband but defusing his anger with her gentle forbearance. Augustine frequently expresses love and admiration for his mother.

But like most relationships between children and parents, the relationship between Augustine and Monica was complicated. Augustine’s reverence for his mother was mingled with resentment. Though Augustine’s ostensible aim is to confess his own guilt, at times he absolves himself of that guilt by putting the blame on his mother.

For example, even though Monica spent much time praying that her son would become a Catholic, she did not take the opportunity to make him a Catholic when she could. In his childhood, Augustine became quite ill, and it was thought that he should be baptized in order to ensure the saving of his soul. However, he recovered quickly and his baptism was delayed. Monica worried that if he lived a life of profligacy after being baptized, his baptism would be undone and he would be damned. While Augustine praises his mother for her teaching and understands the reason she delayed his baptism, he disagrees with the decision, likening the delay to withholding medicine from the sick man (6). Moreover, he implies that the later sins of his life might not have happened if he had been baptized and purified at that young age and that those years that he wasted as a prodigal son could have been spent in service to the Christian god.

Indeed, that he wasted years serving himself is due in part to Monica’s confused priorities, at least, according to Augustine. It was important to her that he become skilled in rhetoric and be able to make a living at it. To this end, she put him in schools where he was beaten when he did not complete his work, preferring to play games instead. Augustine was quite bitter about the beatings administered by his teachers. He found his teachers to be hypocrites. They too wasted their time with amusements (5). He could not understand why parents would turn their children over to the rough punishment of these teachers. As he grew older, he discovered the intense sexual desire of youth, but he found that his parents did nothing to help him. His mother did not want him to marry, lest he be distracted from his studies and his future career be jeopardized. So, instead of having licit sexual relations with a wife, he sought the illicit relations of a mistress (11-12). Later, he would find the life of a rhetorician empty, the fame that accompanied it hollow. Monica’s emphasis on his career led him to a life of sin and vanity. Moreover, it ultimately delayed his conversion to the Catholic faith, as he did not want to give up his life of sexual libertinism.

Even when he writes of abandoning Monica, while confessing his own callousness, he finds fault with his mother. She is a jealous mother, too desirous of his company. In his opinion, she loves him disproportionately. His leaving her, therefore, is a punishment sent from her god, so that she will learn to love her god first and her son second. Or, to put it more accurately, her distorted love of Augustine, which is the cause of her emotional suffering, is both the cause of her punishment and the punishment itself: “...[God] used her too jealous love for her son as a scourge of sorrow for her just punishment” (39). In this way, Augustine mitigates the guilt he feels over leaving his mother - she has brought this sorrow upon herself.

This attribution of guilt to Monica creates a fascinating dichotomy in The Confessions. On the one hand, he wishes to accept responsibility for his sins. His constant refrain is that every wrong thing he ever did originated from himself. Contradictorily, he relieves himself from guilt by placing the blame on his mother, at least in part. She did not protect him from temptation. She did not purify him through baptism. She taught him to pursue illusory goods - fame and wealth. She drove him away through her neediness and too fervent love. Augustine writes that Monica “inherited the legacy of Eve, seeking in sorrow what with sorrow she brought into the world” (39). But Augustine’s writing echoes the defense of Adam after eating the forbidden fruit, as if Augustine said to his god, “The mother you gave to me, she caused me to sin.”

One can now understand why Augustine, though he adored his mother, abandoned her. He bore her a good deal of ambivalence. While he considered her a model of virtue and religious devotion, he also found her to be negligent of his spiritual good. Though he ostensibly tries to accept responsibility for his own wrongdoing, he finds himself laying much of the blame on his mother: his guilt is her guilt. In confessing his sins, he publicly confesses her sins as well. The mixed feelings that his mother was a most remarkable woman and yet had failed him help explain why he could lie to his mother and leave her lonely in Carthage.

Works Cited

Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. The Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer J. Adler et al., vol. 16, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990, pp. 1-159.

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