AFTER HAVING BEEN GOD
Child. By Patti Miller. Allen and Unwin, 1998.
Reviewed by Lesley Walter.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of to-morrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
K. Gibran, The Prophet
Child is predominantly a novel about family relations, but in particular, about motherhood about ways of mothering and ways of being mothered. It is, too, very much a book about loss. In Child, mothers are cruelly deprived of their sons, and children of their mothers, but there are also children who choose to disengage from their mothers of their own accord. It explores with sensitivity and insight gender issues related to parenting, as well as those related to individual autonomy and personal space. In Corrie's detailed tracing of her son, Tom's foetal development, and her corresponding physical and emotional responses to it, one comes to appreciate (if one didn't already) the special connection to her child that a mother can carry into that individual's adult life. A father, on the other hand, is more likely to be able to give space to a child because his own space has never been invaded: he is more likely to nurture independence because he has never experienced the total dependency of another's life upon his own. Frank acknowledges, while fathers might love with all their heart and mind, 'mothers love in the cells of their bodies'. In developing these differences, Miller points to the dramatic impact the loss of even an adult child can have on a couple's relationship, striking so singularly the heart of each partner. Michael's way of relating to his son is reflected in his recollection of a particular beachwalk with Tom:
The crisp shape of Tom's small footprints running ahead of him, becoming wider and wider apart as Tom tried to take longer and longer steps, seemed like a metaphor to him
. He had deliberately avoided walking in Tom's prints, letting them remain clean and shadow-filled.
Corrie, on the other hand, struggles to confine Tom to smaller steps and takes no pleasure in his capacity to make distinct and separate footprints:
He was too separate from her. The unknowable distance even of one I've grown in my own body, she thought. She was a cave uninhabited. A monster, hungry
. He was outside of her, he was heading away from her, she would lose him
. She wanted to engulf him again. Devour him, swallow him back with her wide red mouth.
Tom's physical confinement within Corrie's womb becomes symbolic, in the novel, of the oppressive nature of their relationship after his birth:
His body was regularly squashed by the tightening of uterine muscles, which contracted more and more often every day. His head was held firmly by Corrie's pelvis. He could barely move.
Yet, while the book might be seen to condemn Corrie's oppressive form of mother-love, it also seeks to explain and understand it. Corrie is constantly distressed - even angered and outraged - not only by Tom's 'stubbornly refusing her will' as he grows up, but by others' knowledge of her son where her own knowledge of him is lacking - even by glimpsing something she can't understand in his face! Michael, on the other hand, accepts that his son has secrets, and is even complicit in his son's withholding these from his mother. Pregnant, Corrie had once debated whether she should have the baby or not. At that point, she had the power to choose. Miller suggests that the control and power once held - including the sense of 'invincibility' experienced in the act of giving birth - is difficult for some women to relinquish. For, in Corrie's own words, 'What do you do after having been God?'
But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Corrie's type of mothering is the idea that a child owes a parent something in return. She expects nothing less of Tom than both his continued existence and his continuing happiness - that is the impossible.
Like her sister, Ellie, Corrie suffers from a desire to 'colonise' people, lacks understanding of 'where she ends and other people begin'. But unlike Ellie, Corrie doesn't acknowledge this as a personal failing. And although parents are wont to watch their children unheeded, Corrie's 'keeping an eye' on her young son's 'most private faces
his unspoken self' from her unseen vantage place in the kitchen appears an invasion of privacy of the same order as her later surveillance of her in-laws from that same vantage point. But in writing Tom's life and re-examining specific incidents in the past, Corrie comes to reflect - seemingly for the first time - upon her son's own sense of separateness. In Word-boy: Small Child, she writes from Tom's, rather than her own perspective:
He could not properly distinguish between accident and intent, but he knew that Michael and Corrie could not see his thoughts. He was aware that he existed separately inside his head and that he could have a secret, this last awareness signalling the full arrival of individual ego.
Miller warns against living one's life for and through other people, particularly one's children. As well as the dangers posed to the child by a parent's over-possessiveness these are those confronting the parent her/himself. Such parents may suffer the same loss of identity when these children leave home as Corrie suffers at Tom's disappearance:
Her child. He was her reference point, he placed her on the map. Without him. she couldn't tell where she was. Other people were her coordinates and she had no location without them.
When Corrie sets out to write about her missing child the 'I' is shaky, lacking in self-confidence, lacking a separate identity. Because of this, she chooses the third person voice for her story. Corrie's narrative becomes a search for herself, as well as a search for her son. Her quest is a cathartic one, which ultimately forces the revelation of her own part in her baby brother's death, and thereby illuminates for her the ambivalent and emotionally unsatisfactory relationship she had always maintained with her own mother. This frees her from what might otherwise have remained a life-long burden of indefinable guilt. In their individual searches, both Corrie and Michael discover much they didn't know about their son and yet conversely, discover nothing of great import either. Child is a book concerned with the elusive, private and complicated interior of every individual that no other individual can ever, or should even hope to know. The reader is positioned, like Gina, to perceive as false Corrie's belief that she knows all about Tom because she is his mother, yet also to understand from where that belief arose its germination being during the period of Tom's gestation:
As Ellie, Gina and Michael moved around her asking questions, she was extraordinarily proud of being the source of all knowledge. Proud and powerful. The holder of secret knowledge.
Corrie's love for Tom is at the outset of the novel selfishly exclusive of others. She has always been 'plump with possessive pleasure in her child's accomplished movement through the world'. Unable properly to 'share' Tom in life, she also grieves selfishly upon his loss, unwilling to accord others who also love him their share of grief. She is only able to share her son when she arrives at the humbling understanding that Tom is not just a combination of herself and Michael, but a part of everyone in both her own and Michael's families, 'a recombining of the [ancestral] gene pool'. She ultimately comes to realise: 'The best mother makes herself the least necessary', and that as Tom already precociously knew as a small boy: 'No-one can make anyone's mind.'' Even Frank's remembered advice to her as a child concerning his seedlings becomes richly significant: 'They have to grow in the dark. You can't go looking at them. You've got to trust the seeds know what to do.'
In her celebration of women's shared physicality, Miller develops a strong sense of female inter-connectedness and self-identification. The act of carrying and giving birth to a child is often accompanied in women by a newly-awakened understanding of, and feeling of kinship with the generations of women who've gone before:
Her mother had carried her like this. She must have squatted twenty years ago in the garden at Nerang and felt the odd sensation of her stomach resting against the top of her thighs and knees. Feet apart, a belly as large as the world. Her mother's mother too. And her mother before her, and before her, and before her
. she felt connected to women right down through history. Not a theoretical connection, she said, but in the blood, in the cells, in the umbilical cord from navel to navel.
Child is a book brimful, then, with the joy of creation, with the exuberance experienced in the conception and the gestation of a child, and with the exultation of giving birth. In Corrie's tracing of her pregnancy, Miller writes with both physical honesty and emotional intensity. Miller writes frankly and passionately of mothers as desiring subjects, rather than as the objects of their children's desire, and this helps explain (at least in part) the grief many women feel at the chasm that inevitably opens between their bodies and the bodies of their children:
She remembered the softness of his round belly under her lips, the moistness of his skin when she kissed him under his arms, the tenderness of his neck, the hard muscles of his legs as she rubbed them with a towel.
By contrast, Child is also an unsettling book, full of dark presentiment and sinister foreboding, a book preoccupied with 'the random terror of a world that snatches children' and with a 'malevolent or beneficent will dealing the cards'. Miller engenders a sense of profound unease as she conveys, 'the thin fabric between life and death', the ever-present threat posed by 'the calamity about to happen'. Child forces us to question our own complacency. All of us are vulnerable - we all possess Liam's 'air of insubstantiality'. As Michael acknowledges:
Just the tiniest shift in the pattern of the everyday opened up another set of events. He imagined those pictures painted on narrow strips of cardboard - you pulled a tag the slightest bit and suddenly all the strips shifted at once to reveal an entirely different picture.
The narrative shifts between Corrie's and Michael's perspectives, as well as between present and past time-frames. Much of it is reflective, such as Corrie's rewriting of the past and the construction of her Word-boy. Corrie's occasional adoption of Tom's voice can, however, be problematic. In Word-boy: Adolescence, for example, she appears privy to thoughts and feelings to which only Tom would have had access and might be accused, therefore, of appropriating these in her characteristically invasive way. There are other sections when the writing degenerates into mere reportage, particularly in Word-boy: Completion. Given the vitality of most of the writing in Child, these detached, dryly informative passages appear strangely obtrusive.
In both this and Miller's previous book, The Last One Who Remembers, the message is clear: unless you write things down, they will cease to exist. Miller claims that The Last One Who Remembers was an attempt to keep the past generations of women in her family 'alive'. Stories, Miller realises, not only shape life, establish identity and give meaning to existence, but they also bestow immortality. 'If you're not in a story, you don't exist'. In Child, Corrie unconsciously follows in her father's footsteps when she constructs her Word-boy, for Frank had similarly tried to preserve the albeit brief life of his own son through the writing of his Record. So powerful are words, Miller suggests, that merely to voice an idea might somehow make it concrete. Fearful of giving birth to a Down's Syndrome child, Corrie notes: 'naming the details seemed dangerous. If she didn't give breath and voice to her fear, if she didn't let its precise name echo out into the world, she would be safe.'
This is a book, then, not only about letting go of one's children, but also about letting go of the past - and importantly, about learning something in the process. In this sense, Child is about the pains, rewards and joys of writing itself. For in writing things down, through encapsulating experience in a permanent form, we are often able to free ourselves from what can otherwise become a debilitating sense of guilt or grief, or - perhaps even more importantly - of nostalgia, which is the almost inevitable outcome of loss. In the creation of her Word-boy, not only does Corrie preserve the precious life of her son (the only thing she initially sets out to do) but, in the process, liberates herself from a state of emotional stasis, and discovers the path to self-awareness and, ultimately, self-discovery.
Lesley Walter is a widely published poet and reviewer. Her collection of poems, watermelon baby, was published by Five Islands Press in November 2000.