The subject of cults is one that is equally fascinating and terrifying to me. I’m intrigued by how they work- yet horrified by how they can completely upend a person’s well being. Both of these books display very telling signs of cult tactics being used against characters. Reading these books was similarly a fascinating and scary experience. At the very least, less so that my readings about other cults, as at least I know the events in this book are fictitious, not real accounts of the awful manipulation that real people are unfortunately burdened with.
Firstly, cults typically have a charismatic leader. John Leal in Incendiaries certainly qualifies. He is able to tell tales of his bravery and chivalry while being in a North Korean prison camp. He can preach to a crowd at an anti-abortion march, clearly holding everyone’s attention. “Instead of trying to talk across the noise, he held up his palm, indicating he’d wait. More people turned in his direction. (135-136). Farooq isn’t the leader of ISIS by any means, but he is Parvaiz’s entry point and quickly becomes friends with the young man. Seclusion is also a common cult tactic; Phoebe and Parvaiz begin spending a lot of time with John Leal and Farooq respectively. They are both preyed upon in difficult times in their lives. Phoebe is grieving the loss of a friend, Parvaiz is trying to learn his identity as a man in a matriarchal family.
I thought an interesting parallel between these books is that the victim of the cult was at least somewhat manipulated into joining by way of their father. Farooq earned Parvaiz’s trust through grand tales of his father’s bravery. John Leal got to Phoebe through connections with her father, who publicly admits being involved with Jejah at the end of the novel. This brings to my mind a theme that I’ve also observed through books such as Boy, Snow, Bird and TI, being the cyclical nature of family mistakes. Being mistreated as a child leads to you mistreating your own family; your grandmother was stuck as an unhappy wife, you will be stuck in a house that isn’t yours; you join a cult, your child will follow. I feel it also speaks to the negligence of fathers in these two books. Pheobe’s father doesn’t become involved at all until after she’s been suspected of terrorism, and the Pasha’s father leaves the family, comes home long enough to impregnate his wife, and leaves once more. Even Karamat is unsympathetic to what his son is going through, caring more about his own public image.
Information on cults: http://cultresearch.org/category/cults-the-basics/
The House on Mango Street and Another Brooklyn seemed related to me, similar both in their subjects and writing styles. They’re both told somewhat nontraditionally in smaller vignettes, although I feel that Brooklyn has a more prevalent narrative structure than Mango Street.
A common thread within these books is the “danger” spoken about surrounding young girls. They have moments of adults telling children that other women or themselves are dangerous. August was told by her mother that “...women weren’t to be trusted. Keep your arm out, she said. And keep women a whole other hand away from the farthest tip of your fingernails. She told [August] to keep [her] nails long” (Woodson 19). It can be inferred that something bad had happened in the mother’s life that she blames on at least one other women. As we discussed in class, it’s common in culture to blame a husband caught cheating not on the man, but on the other woman. When Esperanza and her friends are walking around in fancy shoes they had been given, a man tells them that “[The shoes] are dangerous. You girls are too young to be wearing shoes like that” (Cisneros 41).
Both of these instances involve shifting some sort of blame to women in a way they do not deserve. In the case of August’s mother, it could be a case of internalized misogyny. Telling a young girl that women are not to be trusted could be extremely detrimental, keeping her from trusting other women enough to build meaningful and healthy relationships, and could even go as far as to sow distrust in female family members. It could even continue the internalized misogyny. if August had taken her mother to word, her self worth might have plummeted if she accepted herself as a distrustful member of society. If the theory that August’s mother was cheated on, it would show a lack of holding men accountable for their own actions. In the case of the shoes in Mango Street, the man is essentially blaming the young girls for his own discomfort. Sentiments such as these show a disturbing facet of a culture where women are blamed and men are not held accountable. It’s essentially the same argument as when one would say “She shouldn’t have been wearing those revealing clothes” in response to a women being sexually assaulted, as if her outfit is an excuse for assault, instead of saying “He shouldn’t have assaulted her.”
In both of these books, the girls are put in relationships with men that, due to their age, lead to a power imbalance. An older man at Esperanza's job forces himself on her when he asks for a birthday kiss, "...just as I was about to put my lips on his cheek, he grabs my face with both hands and kisses me hard on the mouth and doesn't let go" (55). While their relationship seems consensual, the four year age difference between August and Jerome is extremely worrying, especially considering the sexual acts they engage in. While these girls were growing up and begging to learn more about themselves sexually, it's wrong for older, more mature males to interact like that with them. Esperanza feels better when the older man says they can be friends. August doesn't know any better because "At twelve, I thought sixteen-year old boys said this to every girl" (100). She was too young to know that the age difference is not part of a normal relationship.
Seeing the similarities in the unfortunate relationships the girls are in, I wanted to see if I could find any information on the rates of child sexual abuse in relation to the children's ethnicity. In a 2010 report to Congress by the Department of Health and Human Services, it was found that rates of sexual abuse- and overall abuse- were higher for for Hispanic children in relation to white children, and even worse for black children.
Table Source: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/opre/resource/fourth-national-incidence-study-of-child-abuse-and-neglect-nis-4-report-to
The subject of mirrors in Boy, Snow, Bird is something I find fascinating. When reading it as a re imagining of Snow White, it’s a clear nod to the evil queen’s magic mirror. Each of the women/girls in the Whitman family have a very different relationship with mirrors. Boy, possibly because of the abuse she suffered, is fixated with her reflection. She’s conventionally beautiful, as a white woman with long blonde hair. Arturo catches her staring at her reflection multiple times, and assumes it’s due to vanity. “If it was vanity, I’d have been able to disguise it, all this insipid smirking at myself...No, the only behaviors we can’t control are those caused by nerves...But I didn’t know for sure that it wasn’t vanity running the show” (21). Boy had been abused one time by the rat catcher on account of her beauty, threatening to have a rat attack her face, but seemingly never did so. She describes a mirror as “Such a reflecting surface set in a frame. In a household setting this surface adopts an inscrutable personality (possibly impish and/or immoral), presenting convincing and yet conflicting images of the same object, thereby leading onlookers astray” (129). Boy doesn’t seem to believe that the rat never attacked her, and doesn’t accept the beautiful face in the mirror to be her own.
Snow and Boy both find that their reflections won’t appear in mirrors. Bird says “The mirror stuff only tends to happen in a handful of places...maybe it happens when she steps into spots that belong to this other girl named Snow?” (177). In a letter, Snow tells Bird that her reflection doesn’t always show up either. I think each girl has a different, but somewhat related reason as to why their reflections are not faithful. Snow was always treated extremely well by her family, to the point that they often didn’t even treat her like a person, more like a living embodiment of their success of passing as white. Snow never got treated like a person, and was unable to build her identity of personhood until she was sent to live with her Aunt Clara, who can not pass as white and teaches Snow about the Whitmans’ past.
Bird, in the eyes of the family, seems to have lost the genetic lottery, and her physical appearance betrays the goal they had been working for in order to blend in with a white population. As she was growing up with her sister living somewhere else, her family was always talking about how wonderful Snow was. She was never put on that same pedestal, and her family will never let her forget that there once was a girl who they seemed to prefer over Bird. Perhaps it’s the family’s feeling of missing Snow and wanting her in place of Bird is reflected in how mirrors act: “[Shifting] just a little bit off center...like it’s wondering why it isn’t reflecting all that stands in front of it. I know a girl just came in; now where’s she at?”. The mirror is looking for Snow, and since it expects Snow’s presence, it can’t reflect Bird’s.
While it isn’t exactly the focal point of the novel, I take extreme umbrage with how the rat catcher was handled. Boy’s abuse is however, an inciting factor of the plot, so I feel it’s still relevant to bring up. There are so many things about the character that build up to a massive mess. Firstly, a character finding that they are transgender because of trauma, or as a direct coping mechanism from trauma, is ignorant at best. Applying it to a character that previously identified as a lesbian worsens the already bad taste in my mouth. It seems to imply that heterosexuality is the default, and that being attracted to the same sex is a sign or requirement of a transgender identity. While there are plenty of heterosexual trans persons, gender identity and sexual attraction do not go hand in hand. The rat catcher being Boy’s violent abuser is something else that bothers me deeply. In my views, there are so many different types of people, and having a character that’s a member of a minority in an antagonistic role isn’t in it of itself inherently bad. It bothers me when that character is the only sort of representation that appears in the work. The rat catcher is the only character in the book that is seen to have a lesbian or transgender identity, leading me to wonder if this negative portrayal was done accidentally on Oyeyemi’s part, or in intentional malice. Finally, as if this portrayal wasn’t messy enough, after learning of the rat catcher’s identity, Boy only refers to them as Frances, and goes on a trip with her daughters seemingly with the intention of returning the rat catcher to that identity, Placing all other problematic elements aside for a moment, that is a frankly dangerous and ignorant way to think of a trans person’s identity. Transgender people aren’t “lost” or “misguided” about their identities, and it really shouldn’t be anyone’s goal to try and convince them to return to how they identified before they transitioned.
If I were given the power to change how the rat catcher was written, I would either write them as a cisgender man, or as a transgender man with no mention of a previous identity as a lesbian. I suppose the trauma that he went through could remain, if only to give a reason for his abuse of Boy (Which is, an awful reason, I believe. But this book has themes of Boy being unable to accept or find ways to cope with her trauma, so perhaps it can be a parallel to the rat catcher’s experience). Boy could try and reconcile with him, not to try and bring out his old identity, but so the both of them can learn to cope with their own traumas.
This section was largely based off what I’ve learned from my friends and other members of the LGBTQ+ community. If I’ve said anything ignorant or hurtful on the matter, please let me know. Even as a member of the community myself, I am still learning and want to learn more, and I’d love to have a conversation with you about it.
While I, at least at this time, do not have any desires to be a mother, the theme of motherhood in Red Clocks was still able to strike a chord with me. The fictional legislation that outlaws abortion and broken families affects many women, even when it might not be apparent.
The four women in the town all view motherhood extremely differently. For Ro, it's her deepest desire, and does not want to find a husband, wishing to raise a child on her own. Gin was not interested, and put her daughter up for adoption. Mattie (Gin's biological daughter) is pregnant and, as a highschooler with her whole life ahead of her, is not prepared to face motherhood in this time of her life. And Susan is living a life she once thought would be idyllic, and though she loves her children, her husband fails to put in the effort to help her raise them, causing her great distress.
A simple solution for two of these women seems obvious at first glance. Mattie could go through with her pregnancy, and Ro could adopt the child, giving Ro what she's always wanted and alleviating the burden of child-rearing from Mattie. Of course, it only seems obvious on the surface, as real life (for lack of a better term, in a fictional story) gets in the way. Of course it would be inappropriate for a teacher to ask her student to give her the child. And Mattie doesn't even want anyone else to find out about her pregnancy, and there's only so long she can keep it a secret. Plus, Mattie deals with a rather personal struggle about the possible future of her child after being adopted- she herself was adopted, and though she lives in a happy home, she wonders why she wasn't able to grow up with her birth parents. The thought of giving that same burden to her child is distressing. It's something that could cross the mind of any mother planning on putting a child up for adoption, but it's such a deeply personal issue to her.
Gin is an outsider both in the literal sense, and in the way society expects women to behave. While Ro doesn't want a partner, she wants to be a mother. Mattie is still in school, too young and too estranged from the father of the baby she's caring to take good care of it. Susan is living the "ideal" woman's life, with a husband and children. Gin is simply not interested in having children or a partner. While her lack of a family isn't used to berate her, is the only main character to be estranged from the rest of the town. Not only is she a scary witch, she doesn't live up to our expectations of a woman, and in fact helps other woman fail to do so as well though her helping with terminations.
I find Ro and Susan's relationship to be interesting. Both women want part of the life that other has, while making unflattering assumptions on each other's character. Neither knows what the other is going through, and might not even care enough to see anything past envy.
Just as the women never see what the others really are like, the reader doesn't either. Each woman is referred to her title exclusively in the chapters centered around her. It takes others to refer to the women by their names in other chapters for us to learn them. Even when we are in the head of these women, they are putting up a facade, we are never given a full picture of who they are at any one moment.