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Out damned spot: torments of the thriller women

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Essay | 18 minute read
A writer decided to distract herself by reading thrillers after a miscarriage. She found plot-lines filled with distressed and delirious women

1.

For reasons that will become apparent, I have been in need of distraction lately. I have been in need of the kind of distraction that blots out not only small things, but all things. Regular diversions like talking or walking or drinking are insufficient. Rigorous exercise only takes the edge off. What I require is a more complete obliteration of myself, which is how, recently, I came to read eight contemporary thrillers in a row.

I had never read a thriller before this stint. I am fussy about reading, because I’m slow at it; I stick to books that are either useful for my own writing or the sorts of things I wish I could have written, and I don’t write thrillers. But my usual reading diet is too ruminative, too literally thought-provoking to tolerate at the moment. I wanted to be thrilled in the conventional sense, in the airport-bookstore and megaplex sense. I thought the thrillers would be engrossing without being, necessarily, inspiring, would grip me and block out my own life.

And it was a particular kind of thriller I took on; these were not thrillers that the men I used to date would read on the beach, with spies and soldiers strutting across the pages, guns on the cover and a suggestion of high-powered international intrigue. The thrillers I turned to were women’s books, about women, for a readership of women, because I had had enough of men. Female spaces, female worlds and the things that women make are almost always more absorbing to me. I was in pursuit of drama without dick-swinging.

2.

What made me choose this particular thriller? I asked myself this as I read about the dead baby: a skeleton, fragile and wrapped up in paper, excavated by chance on a building site. Whose baby is it?

These are the twin questions that propelled my reading of The Child by Fiona Barton. On rotation: whose baby is it and why did I choose this particular thriller? Perhaps I had selected it despite myself, had been drawn to it, the irresistible pull of the lost baby found. In The Child, all sorts of women with lost babies come out of the woodwork, hoping or fearing that this one is theirs: the reporter, the grieving mother, the angst-addled teen. The story loops through generations, and in each one there is a lost baby, and in each one there is a mother left behind and searching. Whose baby is it? This was not the kind of thrill I’d been looking for.

Why did I choose this particular thriller? If I did not want to think about babies then why had I picked out a book called The Child? I stayed up until three in the morning to find out whose baby it was.

3.

I tried Michelle Frances’s The Girlfriend next. This seemed safer territory: a malevolent influence enters the confines of the family unit, a stranger comes to town. And at first, it really did seem to be working. I was entertained. I was distracted. I wanted to know more about the girlfriend of the bright, beloved son; I wondered who she was, and why she was there, and whether the mother was right or wrong to mistrust her. But—no—wait—stop! What are you doing, Michelle Frances?

The mother of the man with the girlfriend had a baby girl who died, and that is why she feels so conflicted about the girlfriend: she thinks, at first, that this girl will replace the daughter she has lost; then, later, she thinks the girl has come to steal her only child away from her. She is pathologically protective of her son, and the lost baby hovers over every page I turn: is the girlfriend really evil, or is the bereaved mother just mad?

4.

A data set of two is not enough to establish a pattern, but three in a row suggests something at work that is more than mere coincidence. In Under Your Skin by Sabine Durant a jogger discovers the corpse of a young woman in the park. It is eerie, and horrifying, and gripping. Who is the young woman? Why do the police seem so determined to draw a link between the innocent jogger and the crime she stumbled across?

Turn more pages, compulsively, to discover that the dead girl is not just any young woman. She is the mistress of the jogger’s husband, and what is worse, the pregnant mistress of the jogger’s husband, and the jogger is particularly aggrieved by this because, in addition to the whole stumbling-over-a-dead-body thing, her husband has refused to have more children with her.

Is there a twist coming? Turn more pages.

The wronged wife, cheated on and denied the baby she craved, tracked down the pregnant mistress and killed her. The sane woman who appears to happen at random across a body in the beginning is revealed by the end to have been a vicious, confused, baby-hungry murderer all along.

The women in these books are wounded. The women in these books have lost babies, or been denied babies. The women in these books are fucking insane.

5.

I am fucking insane. I am in a hospital gown, refusing to lie on a trolley so that the doctors can administer a general anaesthetic. I am screaming, and flailing, and pulling away from the nurses who try to guide me down. I am out of control, and irrational, and wild, but this is also a strategy: they are going to do something heinous to me and I refuse to allow it; I comply with nothing and nobody; it is inevitable, what is happening, but I need to know, afterwards, that I fought it tooth and nail. Somebody has taken firm hold of my hand, is swabbing it with alcohol and then piercing the skin and then after that I don’t know.

6.

Fiona Barton also wrote a book called The Widow. In it, a woman whose husband has been accused of a terrible crime comes to terms with who he was, and her role in his wrongdoing, after his death. She loved him, defended him, believed in his innocence for years.

The crime he committed? Paedophilia. He abducted and murdered a child. But here’s the complicating factor: his wife, childless, was obsessed with children, yearned for her own, kept scrapbooks of cut outs of babies from magazines, and when her husband told her his crime was her fault, that her obsessions fuelled his, that he abducted the baby for her, she believed him. She lied for him, and supported him, and helped him evade justice. She was childless and therefore like a child herself, reduced to malevolent gullibility by the force of her own longing.

7.

When I come round from the general anaesthetic I’m still screaming. I have been unconscious, but I return at once to the mood and mode I was in before passing out, which was: screaming. Somewhere above me, a voice says, ‘She was like this before.’ I begin to understand that the operation has taken place, so I adjust the nature of my yells. ‘I didn’t want them to do it,’ I cry, and the nurse at my bedside says, ‘I know. I know.’ I wail and wail. I think that if I can just scream loudly enough, somebody will understand how terrible the terrible thing that has happened really is.

I scream, ‘They took my baby!’ and the nurse says, ‘I know,’ but she also says, ‘There was no way of keeping your baby. Your baby died a long time ago,’ by which she means, ‘They did not take your baby.’ Still, I scream it, because it is the most dramatic thing I can think of to say.

Even when she refutes my claim, she is being generous. She is being generous in using the word ‘baby.’ She is being generous in using the phrase ‘died a long time ago.’ Because what really happened is that there was no baby: I was pregnant, but a scan revealed only an empty gestational sac, no foetus inside, no baby whatsoever. All the surgery did – and it was elective surgery too, I could have opted to wait and see whether the non-baby would eventually turn to blood and seep out of me – was remove the products of conception. This is the preferred phrase: the products of conception. It was exactly the same procedure as an abortion, except there was no baby. The baby died a long time ago, before it even had a form.

I know all this, and yet I can’t help but feel the doctors are assassins, have drugged me and taken away the most precious thing I ever thought I had. I can’t help but continue to scream to the captive audience of other patients in the recovery room, ‘They took my baby.’ Like I said: insane.

8.

While thinking about this essay, I had to check whether or not Lady Macbeth was childless. I was embarrassed not to know this offhand, although it turns out, on revisiting the play, that it is not a yes-or-no question. I had imagined, vaguely, that I would give a nod to her as the foundational archetype, the crazed childless mother of my crazed childless thriller-women.

But Lady Macbeth did have children, or at least had nursed a child – ‘I have given suck, and know How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me’ – so it is not as simple as I’d thought. Macbeth, we learn, ‘has no children’.  The possibilities are fourfold: either Lady Macbeth’s baby died, or her husband ignores or does not know that she had another man’s child, or Shakespeare was more interested in poetry than facts in this moment, or those facts were once clear but then, somehow, got muddled among the folios. Perhaps there are other options. A brief survey reveals intense critical and historical debate on this point. ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’ is a slippery question so deceptively simple it is a kind of joke.

‘Lady Macbeth’ by Charles Louis Müller (Leemage/Corbis via Getty)

Maybe the answer doesn’t matter. What we understand from the play is that Lady Macbeth is childless: barren (as Freud believed, despite the babe-that-milks-me line) or bereaved. She takes her place amongst her deranged sisters dotted across the canon, from Medea to Miss Havisham, from the infantilised narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper who is locked away from her infant to my miserable thriller-women in the twenty-first century. These (un)mothers howl and bay and stalk around the edges of their rooms, of their pages. And my instinct is to roll my eyes, to write: how unimaginative, how reductive, how dull; how insulting to trace this derangement, when it manifests itself in women, again and again, to this one source. In life and in literature, we are starved of examples of women whose fertility or maternity is complex but whose mental state is not. What is a woman? ‘A mother,’ comes the reply. OK, but what is an interesting woman, a dramatic woman? ‘A mother without a child.’

I think all this, but then I come to one of Lady Macbeth’s most famous lines, ‘Out, damned spot!’ This line has nothing to do with these questions, really, and yet still when I hear ‘Out, damned spot!’ what I think about is the horror I felt when confronted, before surgery, with a maternity pad – the knowledge that the doctors were planning something that was going to make me bleed, they were going to do it on purpose, they expected me to collaborate with them by wearing the pad into theatre, when don’t they know, doesn’t everyone know, that blood is the anathema of pregnant women, it is the symbol of disaster, and afterwards lying in the recovery room I couldn’t bear to look between my legs, though I could feel the stickiness of it, and knew so well the pattern I’d see, the creep of spreading red on white like a Rorschach test. That damned spot is the stuff of nightmares, of sleepwalking Lady Macbeth’s murderous dreams, my own terror as the mother of an empty gestational sac, staring aghast at the maternity pad’s clean white towelling in the doctor’s extended hand. Out, damned spot!

I don’t know what I mean by this. Only, I suppose, that I vacillate between knee-jerk irritation at the thriller-women, the trope of the mad un-mother, and sympathy with it. There was a reason I was so crazed in the hospital: it was the one time in my life where that kind of fury would be tolerated. I let it all out in the recovery room: rage for my formless child, but also for other things, for all of it, for anything I’ve ever wanted to scream about. Unsex me here, etcetera.

9.

A happy mother of two discovers her personal information on an online database of female commuters in London. The website, it seems, sells details of these women and their daily journeys to stalkers. The mother sets out to discover the mastermind behind the site. This is the beginning of a book called I See You, by Clare Mackintosh.

So far, there are no babies. There is the mother, who seems sane, in her quest to find who made the lady-commuter stalking app. There are the mother’s teenaged children, the mother’s new partner, and the mother’s ex-husband. We eye them all, warily. The villain must, surely, be one of them.

Who could be less suspicious, after all, than the mother’s friendly next-door neighbour, a helpful woman who runs cafés and babysits – as in, watches babies! – and hosts cozy Sunday lunches?

But, you see, the café-owning babysitting neighbour is childless. She is married to an infertile man. She is consumed by jealous rage. She has set up an entire network of stalkers to wreak revenge upon women who use the London Underground and her happily fertile next-door-neighbour in particular.

This might sound ridiculous but it really is the plot of the book. It is stated explicitly that the reason for the neighbour’s rage is her envy of the protagonist’s children.

Was I going mad? Was I choosing these books on purpose, seeking out these stories, bringing them on myself? But when I thought back over my selection process, childlessness had nothing obvious to do with it. I picked out books that were prominently displayed in the ‘Crime & Thrillers’ section, that were written by women and seemed likely to absorb me. I wanted to be distracted. That was all.

10.

In the weeks after my miscarriage, pregnant women stalk me around the internet. ‘You need to delete your cookies,’ my friend Louise says, taking my phone from me and fiddling with the settings. The pregnant women appear in adverts at the side of my screen, grinning and glowing, stroking their stomachs. They urge me to take vitamins, or sign up to tailor-made exercise programs, to buy maternity bras or sleepsuits for the newborn. They squeeze in between my friends’ photos on Instagram. They cluster in the header above the news on the Guardian homepage.

Louise clears my cache and history. All those search queries I typed—how to enhance chances of conception, what to eat for conception, implantation bleeding, symptoms of pregnancy, when does morning sickness start, when does morning sickness end, is it normal to feel sharp pains on left side in early pregnancy, empty gestational sac, chances of misdiagnosis of empty gestational sac, chances that empty gestational sac is actually not empty—are gone. But somehow, despite this erasure, the ads are still there.

Next time I see Louise, I tell her that I am still being pursued by the pregnant women online. She looks at me doubtfully and says, ‘Maybe you just notice them more now. Maybe they’ve always been there.’ She has deleted the cookies. The pregnant women are no longer personalised to me. They are just there.

Maybe the thrillers are not really about deranged childless women. Maybe I just notice those bits now. There are throwaway mentions to childlessness, sure, but they are not the central plotlines they seem to me to be. Maybe this is my own iteration of childless insanity: to see childless insanity wherever I look.

11.

I thought I had dealt with the Lady Macbeth issue, until my friend Michael points out that Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film of Macbeth opens with the cremation of the Macbeths’s child. The first shot is of the dead-white face of the infant, its hands on its chest, its body arranged over heather and stacks of bracken. It seems possible, for a moment, that the baby is sleeping, then suddenly obvious that it’s not. Lady Macbeth steps forward and cries over the corpse. Macbeth places stones over its eyes. The pyre is set alight and it is from this point, the dead child up in flames, that the familiar insanity and cruelty of the plot spirals out.

I am not imagining the link we make between childlessness and female evil. Justin Kurzel and the writers of the thrillers have received the same instructions from – I was going to write ‘our culture’ but should say instead: they have received the same instructions from the frantic web of Chinese whispers that is written and read about women. In a way, I received them too, when I behaved the way I did in the hospital. This is how we are supposed to make sense of female rage, and female viciousness. Only a childless woman could be – is allowed to be – so craven. And while we pathologise pregnancy, too, accusing expectant mothers of having ‘baby brain’, of failing to cope, or of endangering their unborn children by smoking, drinking, moving too much or too little, feeling too much, feeling too little, eating brie, there is a special place in our cultural imagination reserved for those women whose pregnancies do not result in a healthy baby that survives into adulthood. Lady Macbeth was denied the opportunity to be tender to her offspring, and so she will never now be tender at all.

12.

Thrillers are not kind to women. We know this. Women get murdered in thrillers. Women get chopped up, raped, their corpses lain out in the opening pages to be picked over and fetishised and explained by the rest of the book. But this other thing, that in my childless grief I stumbled into, in which the thriller women become weak and/or monstrous after losing their children, feels pernicious in a different way: it is utterly reductive while ostensibly giving depth to these characters.

I read these books, now, with a masochistic fascination, waiting for the moment when the absent child is mentioned. It’s a relief, almost, when it comes and I can stop dreading its arrival. In Sarah A. Denzil’s Saving April, two women with separate histories of childlessness and child loss are placed across the street from one another. One was unable to conceive, the other’s young daughter died in a car accident; both are subsequently vulnerable to the strange manipulations of a psychotic teenager. Emma Curtis’s One Little Mistake allows us a mother with living children as its protagonist, but nonetheless takes as its inciting incident the woman inadvertently endangering her baby, leaving him alone in the house and returning to find him in the arms of a burglar. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train is a story obsessed on every level with babies: who can have them, who can’t, who doesn’t want them, who doesn’t deserve them.

Paula Hawkins, 2017 (Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)

There is a small truth nestled amongst all the melodrama: The grappling with life and death that is part of women’s lives and bodies is profound, painful, potentially maddening. It can lead to terrifying vulnerability; it can lead to a specific, sudden, all-ravaging fury that a woman like me never thought she could recognise or possess.

But it is not the only reason for a woman to be angry. It is not the only reason for a woman to be scared. It is not the only reason for a woman to be cruel. We must be allowed villainy distinct from our vaginas.

13.

One of the most painful things about the miscarriage is knowing how indifferent to my own story I would have been before it happened to me. I was aware that people had miscarriages, and was sympathetic to its most extreme versions; the image of Ariel Levy giving birth to her nineteen-week-old son alone on a bathroom floor, described so precisely in The Rules Do Not Apply, cut through my apathy, I remember. In general, though, it seemed simultaneously distant and normal. That was something people said to me a lot, too, afterwards – ‘It’s very common,’ – as though the frequency of a tragedy diminishes rather than magnifies it. They’re wrong, of course: ‘It’s very common,’ draws attention to a wild and endemically cruel world. Many tragedies are common. It is common to lose parents, but we don’t point this out to grieving sons at their father’s funeral: ‘I’m sorry for your loss, which is a very common type of loss.’

Perhaps I was uninterested in miscarriage not only because it was quotidian, but because it also seemed, perversely, and even before I’d read the thrillers, like the preserve of thriller-women. Miscarriage, childlessness, the absence of children: these were things that inhabited those distant poles but never traversed them: they were either non-events or else the source of melodrama, the kind of manipulative reductive sexist theatrics that I felt should be disdainfully ignored. I had never engaged with it between those two extremes, never witnessed or understood it as the kind of vast tragedy that occurs in many lives, all the time. But that is what it is, after all.