For our First Sentence series, we ask authors to revisit the inspiration behind their stories. Here, Kelly Magee writes about ‘The Neighborhood’.
‘The wire children move independently and have recognizable faces.’
I first heard about it on the radio during a long commute through rural Ohio, while pregnant with my first child: Harlow’s monkey experiments. I jotted down a note, having heard only the most basic details: wire/cloth mothers. I didn’t yet know which kind I’d be.
My son was born, and four years later, my daughter. There was enough time between for experts to change their minds – peanut allergies thought to be caused by early exposure became peanut allergies caused by lack of early exposure; pacifiers that impeded nursing became pacifiers that prevented SIDS. Co-sleeping either increased or decreased the risk of death. Babywearing improved mobility when it wasn’t dislocating babies’ hips. I spent my first child’s infancy being a nervous wreck. For my second, I declared my own intuition paramount and snubbed everything but the most high-stakes advice.
In the 1950s, Harry Harlow set out to prove the experts wrong. Everyone from the American Medical Association to the government to practitioners of the relatively new field of psychology was of the same mind: love was a menace, and ‘mother love’ was a particularly dangerous brand of it. Babies who were picked up got sick more frequently, so the advice to new parents was to withhold as much touch as possible. Harlow – by all accounts a cold and demanding man himself – embarked on a series of increasingly disturbing experiments to prove that love was real; that babies needed more than nutrition to thrive, that mothers delivered more than just calories, that physical touch was as crucial to primate development as food. The methods Harlow used to prove the existence of love resulted in the torture and death of baby monkeys, and Harlow has gone down in history as being instrumental in both attachment theories and the development of the animal rights movement. He took hundreds of infant rhesus macaques from their mothers and caged them with two surrogate options: a ‘wire mother’ who offered milk, and a ‘terrycloth mother’ who offered only her soft texture. No surprise to whom the babies clung. No surprise that, even when Harlow pushed his theory further by having the cloth mothers shoot out spikes or blast cold air or shove the babies away with spring-loaded arms – he called these the ‘evil mothers’ – the babies still returned to them, held on to their softness for dear life.
Just as fairy tales helped shape my conception of motherhood, in motherhood I returned to fairy tales. In rereading the Grimms, what I found was a troupe of evil mothers casting their children away. When they weren’t refusing love, touch and nourishment, they were absent altogether – birth mothers often killed off when the story begins to pave the way for the emergence of evil stepmothers. Mothers: our first source of love, our first heartbreak. No matter the Oz-like scientist in the background, orchestrating the conditions under which love is possible. No matter the storyteller editing out the sins of the father. It’s always the stepmother who turns the children into soup; always the stepmother who orders a child’s heart cut out.
This is such a startling contrast to my own world of five-point harnesses and organic baby food. I’d swung the other direction, no safety mechanism too ridiculous, no worry too small. With the internet, every symptom can have multiple diagnoses. When my son wouldn’t lift his head long enough during ‘tummy time’, I panicked. When his preschool teacher said he had trouble staying still for meals, I was prepared to call in the experts. And having so much parental anxiety, so much information, made those fairy tale mothers all the more interesting. They were beautiful in their flawed states. They didn’t try to be good.
How delicious, the power these evil mothers had. The boldness of the ogress to demand a child as payment; the fierceness of the witch with her poison apple. They had appetite and desire and ambition; they put themselves first. And yes, they were punished in the end, but their murderous presences called tale after tale after tale into being. They were where the story began. The easy scapegoats, born into villainy, too loaded with their own character to be redeemed.
And where, I wondered, did they intersect with mothers of today? What of the mothers for whom the harming of a child was not just plot? I felt a deep curiosity about the mothers I read about in the news, mothers whose stories began and ended the same way as those from fairy tales: bad moms, shunned or dismissed or punished. I didn’t understand them, but I knew what it felt like to be judged. To be part of the morality tale of motherhood. This chorus of voices – the condemned, the convicted – became the plural narrators of my story.
I tried to write a wire mother story, but she would not speak. It wasn’t the cold, robotic mothers of Harlow’s experiment that I could identify with, but the flesh-and-blood ones whose humanity had been stripped from them. So instead I wrote a wire children story and gave the question of love back to the mothers. Mothers who had committed atrocious acts toward their own children. Mothers who had made terrible mistakes. I couldn’t separate myself from them; becoming a parent was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, and I’d certainly made my share of mistakes. Given a different set of circumstances, I didn’t know what worse mistakes I might’ve made. But the point of the story was not the characters’ crimes. Rather, it was the question of love. Love after trauma, love in an inhospitable environment, love for unlovable creatures. Harlow proved that primates need touch, softness, nurture. I gave my story’s mothers their own collection of scientists, tasked them with the impossible and set out to see if I, too, could prove that love was real.