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© COPYRIGHT 2019.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Caroline Hagood


 

Excerpts from Ways of Looking at a Woman 


Charlie Chaplin cited his mom as his first influence. He said it was by looking at her that he learned how to study humans and how to channel emotion through his hands and face. As I read essay after essay in my quest for models, a striking theme emerged. I saw these women writers trying to find their mothers and find themselves as mothers again and again.

I can still feel these women’s thoughts living in me, pollinating me, making more babies in there probably, as I write, teach, and clean up child slop. They are exceedingly well endowed. They are cracking me open from all ends with their brilliance, with how they use words to make movies of their thoughts play inside me as I go about my day.

Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Are You My Mother?—which I consider a lyric essay because it intersperses the personal with the poetic and critical—articulates perfectly the Catch-22 of striving to write about your mom. On the subject of her mother, the Bechdel character tells her therapist, “The only thing is, I can’t write this book until I get her out of my head. But the only way to get her out of my head is by writing the book!”I knew a little something about this myself since I can’t write anything without a cartoon thought bubble of my mother hovering around me. It’s happening right now.

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The mother appears again and again in monster and haunted house stories. One of the characters in Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House calls the spooky home a mother house, and this is just the tip of the maternal iceberg in that book. In The Gothic Mirror, Claire Kahane presents two recipes for the haunted novel, and both are mother-heavy. Either a woman with a dead mother must solve a mystery, or, in the Female Gothic version, she’s hounded by the ghost of her dead mom, who stands for the complexities of being a woman.

All this brings me to my own fierce mother, a force who lives inside me as I once lived inside her—a concept I’m unable to get over. Her body was my first home, my first haunted house. Then I think of the feeling of her when she hugs me, skin and bones yet so much force to those hugs, like a tiny determined bird has gotten hold of you, and this bird loves you, but it hurts a bit, and you wonder how on earth this bird ever got to be so strong, if it will ever let go, if you even want it to.

So my mom lives inside me, in a nice Victorian apartment, her own little haunted flat in my inner city. I would say house, but that’s not really her style. She’s in there right now, padding around, making coffee. She always is. It’s something I can’t do anything about, but I would often choose not to evict her because I stand a little straighter this way, a little stronger, knowing we can handle whatever comes up together. I’m willingly haunted by my mother.
 

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a text that’s also haunted by the maternal. In her introduction Shelley calls the book her “hideous progeny,”and Victor Frankenstein, speaks of creating his creature as a mother might speak of giving birth to a child. As I got older, I marveled that Shelley and John Polidori—who wrote The Vampyre, which influenced Bram Stoker’sDracula—birthed with their pens our two most famous monsters in the summer of 1816 when Lord Byron challenged them to write a ghost story. Shelley had lost her own mother, the women’s rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft, ten days after birth.

A year before Byron’s ghost story challenge, Shelley had lost her infant daughter, and at the time of Byron’s challenge, she was caring for her five-month-old baby boy. Shelley had been both the child who lost the mother and the mother who lost the child, so in Frankenstein we see both perspectives: that of the abandoned creation and that of the abandoning creator, who only pursues the creation in the end to destroy it.

When I was a child, my mother told me something that was morbid but also incredibly comforting: she said whenever I was away from her, even after she died, I could look at the moon, and she’d be in there, looking back at me. I thought about this on night car rides as that rock-ribbed, indefatigable moon, its own kind of monster, stalked us always. I thought, too, of the Frankenstein creature pursued by his male mother to the ends of the earth.

 

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As I teach and take care of my kids each day, I carry my mom inside me, and I have to use all my adult knowhow not to try to crawl back inside her on the days we hang out. But what am I looking for? What am I trying to travel back in time and space towards, exactly? Why do I sometimes feel lonely when I’m surrounded by people? Am I secretly sad nobody can climb inside me? Except my children of course. And you know what? The only time in my life I didn’t feel that loneliness was while pregnant because I literally had someone inside me, haunting me.

At night, when my son’s afraid of monsters, or when he needs to leave me and doesn’t feel able, I tell him I’m always in his heart. He takes me at my word, as though I’ve actually taken up residence in that organ of his. Before he disappears into preschool, he pinches his chest with alarming vigor and tells me, “You live right here, mama, all the time,”and this seems to give him the courage to trot on inside. But how does this not scare the hell out of him?

I want to be able to tie myself to him like a talisman, have him never feel alone and unguarded out there in that battlefield that is our life some days, but of course this is impossible in any real dimension. I want to be a teddy bear he can hold inside him always. I find this particularly poignant since he picked out my outfit the other day and included a teddy bear for me to wear. I think perhaps he was trying to hitch a ride on my body, to be always in my heart, to haunt me right back. I loved it. I only didn’t wear the teddy bear because I couldn’t figure out the logistics.

 

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Then it hits me. The monstrous is largely a question of degree. This is at least part of why I always identify with monsters. When I love someone, I want to burrow into their heart, live in that blood moon, and this is too much. I have always been too much. It’s like my calling card. It’s practically a profession since people like me also tend to be largely unemployable at least in any traditional sense. Nobody wants to pay me to write odes to gory lunar landscapes, or at least not enough to live on.

 

At night, my son asks for a special, extra long-lasting hug, and we hold onto each other for what feels like forever. He often says it then, “you’re in my heart,”and I say, “yes, yes,”picturing actually voyaging into my son’s life-giving organ, making a home there.

Then one night he asks to hear my heart. I don’t even know where he learned about the whole procedure of this. I don’t ask because I don’t want to break the magic spell that has fallen over us. I maneuver him so he can put his head to my chest. He lies there for a little, then asks if I want to hear his heart. I see no other answer but yes, and I do, so much.

I put my head to his little chest. He’s warm and smells like fruit juice. His body feels so much smaller than I think it will, just like my mother’s always does. This sound. This feeling. How to even speak of it? I expect to hear something like a “bang bang bang,”but it has layers, just like him, just like me, just like this book. It’s more like a little gurgling metronome, and I see that he’s my little gurgling metronome, the creation that defines my time here on earth. As I rest my head there on his heart, I hear the story of everything.

I realize in this moment that I’ve continued this tradition of maternal haunting. With all this business of living in the heart, am I insisting on haunting my own child as my mother has always haunted me? Can there be a good form of haunting, though? Is it called love?

Caroline Hagood’s first book of poetry, Lunatic Speaks, was published in 2012, and her second poetry book, Making Maxine’s Baby, a small press bestseller, came out in 2015 from Hanging Loose Press. Her book-length essay, Ways of Looking at a Woman, came out in March of 2019 from Hanging Loose. Her writing has also appeared in The Kenyon Review, the Huffington Post, The Guardian, Salon and The Economist. She’s a Staff Blogger for The Kenyon Review, a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Fordham University, and she teaches creative writing at Barnard College. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.