Permanently Scared: A Mother’s “Fictional” Nightmares

An x-ray of a broken shoulder

During a visit to Texas State University in April 2018, writer Lauren Groff responded to an inquiry about her writing process, saying, “I either write out of absolute fucking terror or rage…If it’s terror, it’s usually about my children…If you bring a child into the world, you’re just permanently scared for the rest of your life.” As a writer and parent of a three-year-old, I can relate to this sentiment. A writer’s worldview inevitably influences his or her work—and few things, if any, influence a worldview more drastically than being responsible for a child.

Not long ago, my mother randomly texted me an X-ray of a toddler with a whole grape caught in their trachea and the dire warning “CUT YOUR GRAPES!” A parent forfeits the luxury of assuming anything is safe. Even a routine stroll through the produce aisle becomes a gauntlet of potential catastrophes: choking hazards, allergens, and carriers of endocrine disrupting chemicals, all parading as healthy, delicious treats!

This neurotic suspicion of the murderous mundane is what Karen Russell has labeled “Orange World” in her recent short story of the same name. It follows Rae, an expectant mother who has made a back-alley deal with a feral demon to guarantee the health of her unborn child. With her baby’s safe arrival ensured, she prepares for motherhood by attending a new parent class, where she’s conditioned to assign every conceivable scenario to one of three categories: the nightmarish Red World, a horror show of innocent babes “falling down stairwells,” “drowning in toilet bowls and choking on grapes” (emphasis mine); the ideal Green World, “a fantasy realm of soft corners and infinite attention;” or the mezzanine Orange World, “a nest of tangled electrical cords and open drawers filled with steak knives.” This, the fear-mongering educator reiterates, “is where most of us live.”

In April 2018, Russell also visited Texas State—where she’s currently employed as professor and Endowed Chair of the MFA program—and read from an in-progress version of  “Orange World,” which has since been published in the New Yorker and is the title track of her newest story collection (published this past May). In her harrowing, yet humorous story, she uses magical realism to explore the imminent, if at times exaggerated and irrational, fears arising from the uncharted territory of motherhood.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Russell attempts to explain the “mysterious” origins of this dark tale: “I was still living in a surreal nocturnal landscape myself. Our son was a baby and I was sleeping three hours at a stretch, trying to chart a course through a really wild landscape of love and fear.” While the story includes fantastical elements—namely, a chimerical creature manipulating a scared mother to satisfy its addiction to breastmilk—it also powerfully captures the everyday horrors of new motherhood. For instance, Rae experiences sleep-deprivation while waking several times a night to nurse (both her infant and the demon-critter), emotional isolation as her husband travels for work and her mother lives out-of-state, and the fear of incompetence when in her parenting class, she accidentally decapitates her practice doll! The story even opens with the probability of a miscarriage, the impetus to Rae’s Faustian bargain.

Lauren Groff’s recent work has been similarly influenced by her experiences (and struggles) as a mother. During a public reading at her Texas State visit, she shared the “The Midnight Zone,” a story from her 2018 collection, Florida. In this piece, a mother vacations with her family at an “old hunting camp,” where a wild panther has recently been seen, “sliding through the trees.” While her husband is called away by business, the mother falls and hits her head, causing her to blackout. When she comes to, she is in pain, confused, and unable to rise. Twenty miles from town, with a panther on the prowl and no car or cell phone signal, her two small boys must care for her as they anxiously await the husband’s return.

While the young boys who’ve been unexpectedly forced into a position of responsibility have every reason to be afraid, any parent will immediately identify with the dread and panic the mother feels during this getaway-turned-crisis. This was an intentional craft choice by Groff, who claimed in a New Yorker interview, “What happens in terms of the plot is subsidiary to what happens in the psyche of the mother, and if the boys were to be the point-of-view characters, the source and sense of horror would shift.” Parents connect with the narrator because we are already accustomed to being haunted by questions like, “What if my children need me and I can’t be there? What if I’m unable to protect them?” This universal parental paranoia is emphasized by the father’s eventual arrival, when one parent recognizes the unspoken terror of the other: “In his face was a thing that made me go quiet inside, made a long slow sizzle creep up my arms from the fingertips, because the thing I read in his face was the worst, it was fear, and it was vast.”

In an interview with PBS Books, Groff describes Florida as “an argument” composed of stories “about domesticity and about resisting the institutions that we find ourselves within.” Having never wanted motherhood to play a prominent role in her work, her stories involving children possess a deep-rooted “resistance to being categorized as a mother.” Many lines in “The Midnight Zone” are pregnant with this “anti-maternal instinct,” such as “all that seemed assigned by default of gender I would not do because it felt insulting. I would not buy clothes, I would not make dinner, I would not keep schedules, I would not make playdates, never ever.” Here, the narrator’s “resistance” to stereotypical motherhood is undeniably inspired by Groff’s own struggles with identity, as she shared with the New Yorker: “I went to one playdate in my life and wanted to break the Perrier bottle on the floor and stab myself with it.” On a more serious note, she criticizes society’s popular notions of mothers, stating, “the idea of motherhood is pathologically ill, and even well-meaning people assume martyrdom in a mother. Guilt and shame are the tools used to keep people in line.”

 Russell’s protagonist, described as “old” for a new mom, also finds it difficult to accept her changing role and social status. In a humorous scene at the “Milk and Honey Co-op,” Rae visits the New Parenting Group for the first time and chastises herself for being sexist as she “notes the rise of acidity in her body as she listens to the mothers describe their secret torments and night terrors and pelvic agonies.” She experiences “distaste” at hearing women voice struggles identical to hers, yet simultaneously feels isolated by secret “night feedings.” Even when she comes clean to the group, she doesn’t expect any of them to understand, but “watches Yvette’s face and awaits her reassignment, from weary stranger to dangerous lunatic.” Ironically, this group of moms has past experience dealing with Rae’s very devil and will ultimately show her the path to freedom.

In her New Yorker interview, Russell expresses a sincere hope that her work “doesn’t give inadvertent support to the terribly destructive narrative that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling. It’s not. It’s just a different kind of story.” Although it’s a new experience for her personally, she admits parenting is “the oldest story out there.”  Regardless of their defiance of stereotypes, Russell and Groff are experimenting (quite successfully, in my opinion) with unique and engaging ways to write about humanity’s ancient and intrinsic anxieties surrounding carrying its progeny.

These two stories are marked by other interesting parallels. Although the primary settings appear to be in contrast—one urban, one rural—they serve a similar purpose. Although she expresses genuine affection for her adopted home of Florida, Groff also describes its terrain as “an alien place: the foliage wants to eat you; the animals want to eat you.” In “The Midnight Zone,” she uses the landscape to create a mystical and dangerous environment. While in a state of delirium, the narrator takes an out-of-body stroll through the woods and, despite never actually seeing the panther, refuses to allow the reader to forget its threatening presence. However, it isn’t the flora or fauna that ultimately injures the mother and places the children in peril but rather slipping off a stool while replacing a light bulb, suggesting that any simple household task could turn disastrous in the blink of an eye. 

Russell, a Florida native, says, “My work is really informed by a deep interest in the natural world and how characters interact with their settings.” In “Orange World,” her adopted home of Portland, Oregon, is consistently present through its iconic neighborhoods and landmarks, which contribute to the off-kilter atmosphere. Russell is also interested in highlighting the hidden dangers of domesticity, turning common appliances like a toaster oven into a fiery predator, ready to pounce on tiny, unsuspecting hands the second a mother’s back is turned.

Whether in dark alleys or dense forests, both stories feature menacing wild creatures who lurk in the shadows, as well as in the mother’s mind. Both, at some point, express the protagonist’s desire to be comforted by her own mother. Both stories also resolve with a rescue that focuses on the deliverance of mother rather than child. But despite (relatively) happy endings, the threats posed throughout both journeys are undeniably palpable and the outcomes far from certain, as in life.

For my part, I was delighted to hear Groff and Russell share and discuss these works during their visits to Texas State last Spring. I’m encouraged by their honest, unapologetic exploration of the real-life terrors of motherhood. In the future, I only hope to see more of the same from these powerhouses of fiction, as well as the emerging voices they will doubtless inspire.

Lauren Groff lives in Gainesville, FL, with her husband and two children. She is the author of three novels and two short stories collections. In 2018, her book Florida won The Story Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.

Karen Russell lives in Portland, OR, with her husband and son. She is the author of one novel and three short stories collections, including Orange World and Other Stories. She was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 in 2009, her novel Swamplandia! was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and in 2013 she received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”