Want a long meditation on my story world? Want to see how feminism and social justice are changing my thinking? Read on:
Folks, I fridged a lot of women.
I had my main character, Dusty, losing Mom and Grandma and her best woman friend. To be fair, she also lost her father and a brother and a fiance, but then, I also had her future hubby being motherless, and goodness knows how many other women I’ve offed. Women I knew nothing about. Women who often didn’t even have names outside of mother or grandmother.
You know why? Because my society taught me that’s what women were for, and as much of a rebel as I can be, I didn’t question that.
Many of the stories I grew up with had dead mothers. I mean, fuck, look at Disney. Dead mothers everywhere. Women whose main claim to fame was giving birth to the heroine or hero, and then tragically dying to give the kid a rough start in life. Sure, you could have strong female characters – but they were basically defined by their absent mothers and their strong male role models.
And because, as a storyteller, I read all of these stories and absorbed them, I ended up regurgitating the tropes without realizing what I was doing.
In reading over the story fragment I have that finally has Dusty’s paternal grandmother making a cameo appearance – NAMED, even! – I realized there’s no reason for this woman to tragically die. Not early in Dusty’s life. In fact, the conflict in the stories can be a lot richer if she lives a while longer. A lot about how Dusty sees and interacts with the world makes more sense if she had this woman’s influence past the age of 9.
So I’m getting to know Beth Morgan, a woman raised in the 1950s by conservative charismatic Christians, who was expected to be a wife and mother when all she wanted was to explore the universe. She was forced into childcare for her younger siblings and spent most of her time trying to escape. Eventually, she cut ties with her family and former religion and put herself through college. Sexism drove her out of physics, but anthropology and archaeology extended loving arms, and as social movements like the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests bloomed around her, she came to see them as essential indeed.
She’d settled on a Christianity defined by Christ’s care for the poor and despised. She lived that verse about doing unto the least of these. She believed that was the essential part of the faith: everything else was a distraction. So when she met an atheist who was devoting his life to peacemaking (aiming for a career as a diplomat) and who threw himself into social justice whenever possible, she got over her residual hatred of marriage. When John Adams Morgan proposed after a decent interval, she said yes. Provided his career didn’t take all priority over hers. And provided he didn’t want kids.
She got her PhD while he worked his way up in the State Department. Sometimes, she’d play the diplomat’s wife, but more often she was engaged in her work. Sometimes, they didn’t even live in the same country. But, considering his inherited wealth, at least they were able to travel to see each other.
When he got posted to Israel, she found work there. And she stayed in the Middle East for a long time. She got pregnant during their first stint there. It wasn’t planned. She didn’t want this, but she didn’t believe in abortion, and seeing as how her husband wasn’t upset and was also promising that the world wouldn’t end if they hired nannies and so forth, she kept the kid. So we get Thomas Jefferson Morgan – named after a Founding Father in the tradition of the Morgan family, with full awareness of the clay feet.
Beth Morgan still didn’t allow herself to be defined solely by being a wife and mother, but she discovered that with appropriate help from spouse and hired help, child rearing wasn’t the drudgery her mother had endured. So she went ahead and had another. Besides, her husband had brought home a man who’d told them that their granddaughter would be very important to them, and what if TJ didn’t want kids, or something happened to him? So we add Miriam Morgan to the family, who ended up not being the parent of the all-important grandchild, but a heck of an adventurous auntie. We’ll discuss her at another time.
So, time passes, and TJ finally gets round to getting married and grandchildren start coming. One boy, and then another. Where the hell is this granddaughter Luther’s been promising? Miriam sure isn’t going to be providing her – she has utterly no intention of having a child and no compunction about abortion if accidents happen, and besides, she’s a ladies’ woman anyway.
Then come the fraternal twins.
Finally, this granddaughter has happened. And now it’s time to do some not very above-board things, but they’ve been assured the fate of the world depends upon it, so they go about doing things like giving their granddaughter a samurai for her third birthday (well, that’s how the family, including Akira, like to tell it – they just hired a man who excelled in the martial arts and had studied bushido and samurai history and so forth to teach the kids martial arts. Dusty was the only one who stuck with it. Her parents were flummoxed, but hey, the rich grandparents could spend their money however as long as the kids weren’t getting hurt. And at least it was good exercise). They persuade TJ and Socorra to let the kids visit Israel, and then manage to keep Dusty longer than the boys. They gradually manage to influence her upbringing and education, but I don’t think they told their son and daughter-in-law why.
And when I’d originally considered Beth, I’d had her dying in a terrorist attack when Dusty was nine, and Dusty getting sent back to her parents, but there’s no need for that shit. Beth is welcome to live. There’s plenty of reasons why Dusty’s parents would get sick of having their only daughter away from home so much. Like, this stuff was fine when she wasn’t in school yet, but they want her to go to public school and are concerned about how this weird tutoring they’ve got her going to in Israel is going (you become sort of strange when you’re being taught stuff by a World Tree Serpent). So they can just exert their authority as parents and cut back on the visits.
And Beth is like, fine, let the kid learn how to be an American and get involved with the Hispanic half of the family, because she’s going to need to be comfortable in a variety of cultures and circumstances. She and John Adams both insist on Akira continuing to train her, though. And they still get their visits, including at least two weeks in Israel with them every year.
TJ and Socorra are search and rescue folks, which can be a horribly dangerous job in the Rocky Mountains, and when the twins are twelve, luck runs out. They die trying to rescue an injured hiker. And suddenly Beth and John Adams Morgan have decisions to make. They don’t really want four kids, not at their age, but if they let those kids go to other relatives, they’re not going to have the same amount of influence over Dusty. So they wrangle custody of them all. That leads to some bad blood amongst the branches of the extended family. But John Adams, being the diplomat, smooths things over. There are lots of extended family vacations. And gosh, the boys are getting a super-posh education in Britain’s best boarding schools. They get to travel the world in the summers. Things settle into a new normal. And John Adams and Beth do try not to show total favoritism. They love the boys just fine – it’s just that their granddaughter is the one who’s going to have the fate of the universe resting in part on her shoulders someday, and she’ll need to be prepared.
Beth Morgan being alive clarifies some things I’ve always been confused about. John Adams is a very mission-oriented man. He’s not really good at letting Dusty be herself. But she’s had plenty of times in her life when she’s had no problem deviating from his path. It strikes me that Beth being alive and in her life is the influence and ally she needs. When her oldest brother, who’s now out of school and working as a teacher, gets shot to death during a mugging when she’s 14, it’s Beth who gets her into voice lessons as a way of channeling that grief. And Beth tells John Adams to STFU when Dusty gets serious about it. Someone who’s supposed to save the damn universe will need charisma and know how to work a crowd, and what do you think rock stars do, John? Let her have her band. And so from like 16-18, she’s in a band and she even gets to record an album and play some concerts.
When Dusty’s best friend inspires her to go into law enforcement, John Adams flips his shit. And it’s Beth saying, “Someone who’s supposed to save the damn universe will need a lot of different skills. The girl’s wanting to be a cop while she works her way through college to get her degree in forensic psychology? Let her do it. She’ll learn some very important lessons.” And so Grandma’s there with the rest of the fam to wish her well when she graduates the police academy, while Grandpa glowers.
I haven’t figured out yet when we lose Beth, but we will, and it’s probably just as Dusty’s graduating with her PhD and getting ready to enter the FBI Academy. John Adams is 1000% against her joining the FBI. Her grandmother would’ve supported her. Possibly did through the early part of her career. But at some point, Beth dies of some ordinary accident or illness, and Dusty’s relationship with her grandfather falls apart, because Beth is the one who was keeping his controlling ways in check. They’d never told Dusty what she was supposed to become because Luther told them not to. Beth probably should’ve come clean, but when you know you’re dealing with some kind of deity, not an ordinary dude, you tend to listen to him. So John Adams tries to force Dusty onto the path he’s got chosen, and it goes very badly for him, and they eventually end up not speaking to each other, and they’ve got a fraught relationship to pick their way through later on, with no Beth there to pound sense into John Adams’s stubborn head.
But what Dusty did get from Beth was a love for science, and the determination to navigate the world on her own terms, men’s opinions be damned. She had an extremely healthy marriage modeled. And she was given the confidence to follow her own path, even when certain men were screaming their lungs out at her to change course. Beth may not be technically alive when the main story arc begins, but her influence is all over the place.
And Dusty’s aunt and tias and abuela are all still alive and in her life. She may not see them often, they’re not super duper close, but they’re there and they, too, had their influences on her. They, too, have important places in her life. She works in an overwhelmingly masculine profession and she’s had a samurai following her around since the age of three (well, not so much anymore – Akira went on to do other important things once she was off on her own), so she’s had a lot of male influence, too. But the women in her life have made a profound impact. And not all of them have had to die in order to do that.
So, fuck the fridge. I’m keeping as many women out of it as possible.