Collective, Not Plural: POV in “The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls”

Yes, I continue to be woefully behind in my reading. And yet I still have feels and WordPress hasn’t cut me off, so I persevere in spilling my brain-insides onto the interwebs when said brain-insides begin bubbling. This time, a fairly spoiler-lite discussion about Izzy Wasserstein’s use of POV in her March PseudoPod story, “The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls.”

A little setup just for context: the story concerns a group of girls being “cared for” (scare quotes entirely called for) by the Mothers, misshapen psychic creatures who are ostensibly keeping the girls safe from unnamed terrors outside their walls, but whose security comes at steep personal cost for their wards.

As stories often do, this one starts with a new arrival to the existing status quo. It would have been natural to choose that new girl (Bel) to be the story’s POV. Or, really, any of the other girls. What I find fascinating is that Wasserstein decided to do all of those things by giving us a collective first person POV (“we”).

I say collective rather than plural because it becomes clear as the story unfurls that who we’re hearing from both is and is not the girls. The first person aspect gives us a close POV, wherein we’re privy to emotions, but the collective aspect simultaneously distances us from any given girl whenever she acts as an individual. Bel, Jaq, Kate, Miranda, and Molly are only part of the POV when they are not taking action, or when their actions align with the group.

In a story where standing out seems to universally result in pain and torment, this inclusive yet exclusive POV is a constant addition to that tension. Whenever we see a name, that person is at risk, because for however long we see them, they’re exposed. In a horror story, there’s a secondary benefit in that the POV ensures no one is safe via metafictional armor; no one is required to continue telling the story, after all.

“We” also underscores the ways this story turns on group choices. Yes, individuals do and say things (often to their own detriment), but the crux of the story, the point of no return of it, is a moment wherein an individual action turns the collective will of the group. What “we” think and do is what changes the world for good or ill.

“Gennesaret” and the Crux of Humanity

I’m to spoil the living hell out of Phoenix Alexander’s “Gennesaret,” which I just finished over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you’re like me and haven’t read this story from March, you’re averse to spoilers, and if you aren’t triggered by violence to children, go read it first. Otherwise, I’m about to prattle on.

What’s enthralled me and simultaneously left me queasy about this story is the way in which it keeps re-framing its central questions, and what that does both to me as a reader and to the story itself as an exploration of humanity and the politics of humanity.

It starts simply enough. For a value of simple that involves a lizardlike variation on Homo sapiens. By simple I mean, we have Alissha and Ibliss taking two sides of a debate: do you suppress what makes you unique, or do you embrace it?

It’s a question immediately reframed and complicated by a local disaster which threatens the very lives of their people. Cultural expression here may or may not have a cost: Ibliss believes the only way to get aid for the situation is for everyone to look “civilized,” hiding or completely removing all the physical parts of themselves that don’t look like what those in power on the other side of the water consider human.

Alissha thinks the only way to gain the help of others, though, is to be all the things Ibliss thinks they fear. Culture and heritage are what makes them strong, and what’s worth saving, right?

This alone, this question of what counts as civilized, of what counts as human, of who decides and why they get to decide is already heady and painful (especially when Alissha and Ibliss’s child is caught in the middle).

On the surface the answer here seems hard but obvious, so when Alissha makes a run for freedom, it feels like: okay here is where we’re going. Except not. Because Alissha faces direct violence on the opposite shore even as she runs for safety, at which point: hell, am I supposed to be satisfied with a world where Ibliss was right?, where the only means of survival is to literally cut pieces of yourself off in order to pass for what the current power structure agrees is human?

And just when I’m feeling horrified and distraught and thinking how horrible Those People are for what they’ve done to Alissha and all the people she represents, that’s when the story reframes again. Just like Alissha, I don’t have the option to stop, which means I run full force into the climax of this piece, which isn’t a hail of gunfire.

Here is perhaps the greatest trick the story pulls. Because it traded on my reactions, on my hopes, on my desire to believe that humanity can be better and that people who think like me are that hope. I invested, and then:

Alissha finds a place for sanctuary, but it’s with folks who — while touting their sympathy at the horrors of all this, of the ways in which Alissha has been de-humanized — continue to do exactly that. It’s a horrible sort of twisted mirror, as the question of Alissha and her son’s status becomes more important than the humanity which that status fails to reflect, as their suffering becomes more important than their lives.

Because, while they convince themselves of how deeply they feel this Other’s pain, Alissha’s ‘saviors’ relish that pain’s value for the political changes they can work with it. A couple cry into each other over the tragedy they’ve witnessed, the heartless acts of their opponents, and fuck if I don’t feel exposed, if the very story doesn’t feel like it’s broken its chest open to expose its innards and force the reader to question everything.

I’m still sort of wobbly about how to reconcile it all, to be honest. Is my reading the story just another self-satisfied couple having a good cry while someone else dies? Hell, is all the worrying about I’m doing in the mechanisms of the story an action or an inaction?

I don’t think there’s meant to be an easy answer, of course, but the unease of that is surely a thing I can’t quite shake. Is it vapid to applaud that?