My birthday is at the end of the month.
I am turning forty.
And though I am mostly okay with this passage, sometimes, in the middle of the night, a shadowy whisper wakes me and I lay in bed, listening to it scratch out a list of things for me to worry about. Will I get a full-time job? Am I a bad mother? Will I be accepted into an MFA program? Can I pay off my debt? What is happening to our country? To the world? To my body?
I thought by this age I would have more answers, but I don’t, so I listen to these questions and stare at the ceiling, far away from sleep and uncertain about everything, as fear settles cold in my bones.
The reason people are frightened of aging is because it brings to the forefront things that are unknown. Big things like mortality, and smaller things like wrinkles. The unknowable makes us uncomfortable, unbalanced, and scared.
Horror fiction capitalizes on these same feelings; it gives shape to the shadowy whispers that keep us awake at night, creating stories out of our fears—of the dark, the woods, the supernatural; of technology that advances too quickly, diseases without cures; of death and strangers and war. These types of fictions provide a concrete interpretation of what we may have, until reading or seeing them, only imagined; and so we can watch a movie about a masked man wielding a chainsaw and recognize the horror, but we’re able to distance ourselves enough to find our fright entertaining.
Summer is a good time for horror. The contradiction of scary material and warm sunny days makes the darkness lighter.
I just watched and read Stephen King’s Misery, the story of Paul Sheldon, a famous novelist who completes a book, drives into a snowstorm a little drunk on Dom Perignon, and has a terrible accident. When Annie Wilkes, his self-proclaimed number one fan and a former nurse, finds him and rescues him, she brings him into her isolated home to convalesce. Terror ensues as we learn that Annie is an unstable, obsessive, violent, controlling murderer.
It’s difficult to imagine how a person becomes a cold-blooded killer, so when the film came out in 1990, Kathy Bates and Rob Reiner agreed on a backstory for Annie that isn’t mentioned in the book: that the break in Annie’s psyche is because her father molested her, and although that is one possible explanation, I see something more.
In many ways, Annie is both a representation of, and problematic to, the deep-rooted, patriarchal demands most women face, for she is a childless, middle-aged woman. Women are inherently valued for their ability to produce children; the pressure to become a mother is something we feel, something we internalize, from a young age. Television, movies, books, and toys often depict a girl’s path to womanhood as heteronormative and ending with marriage and children. (See the Bible, see Disney’s princess movies, see the toy aisle at Target, see your many well-meaning relatives.) In addition, women without children are eternally asked, “When?” and if the answer is “Never,” they are then forced to answer the question, “Why not?”
I wavered over this decision once, too, a little over a decade ago, when I was nearing thirty. My reservations for becoming a mother then were mainly environmental, my concern for the state of the earth, for the burden a life can bring. And, shortly after my first wedding, when a friend asked me when we’d be having a baby, I answered her truthfully, and she laughed, loudly enough for me to second guess myself, to be embarrassed by my own opinions.
This shame is not uncommon. There is an expectation placed on women to have children, and those who don’t (or can’t) are seen, sometimes, as less than, as failing to perform what their bodies are “meant” to do. And this shame and pressure worsens for women as they pass through their thirties and into their forties, for our fertility has a timeline, and this is the age when the end begins to feel close. And with this ending, women start to become invisible.
In her book Motherhood, Sheila Heti seeks answers to big questions about whether or not to have a child, about the sources of mother pain, and about the similarities between child-rearing and art-making by tossing coins, a prayer of sorts. She consults the coins to find answers when there seem to be none. She writes, “On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them.”
And I this brings me back to Annie Wilkes.
In Misery, we see Annie, who is in her mid-to-late forties and is, though violent and terrifying, also, oddly maternal. As we watch her “nurse” Paul back to health, we see her vacillate between love and hate, between caretaker and tormentor, as well as between mother and child. I think Annie’s fluctuating, erratic behavior has less to do with any unspoken abuse and more to do with her complicated feelings about motherhood. (It is, of course, widely discussed that Annie is mentally ill. I am not looking to diagnose her here, simply close read her character. However, Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist, gives a thorough analysis of Annie in a special feature in the collectors’ edition DVD.)
King’s book delves into Annie’s past a bit more than the film does. In the book, King explains Annie’s devotion to her mother—a woman who taught her good values like “frugality” and “neatness”—when he describes a portrait hanging prominently in Annie’s house. “The photograph, enclosed in a rococo frame of gold gilt, was the size of the president’s photograph in the lobby of a big-city post office. Paul did not need a notarized statement to tell him that this was Annie’s sainted mother.”
And if her mother was a saint, then Annie is a victim. She tells Paul, “No one has been on my side since my mother died twenty years ago,” and we learn that not only does she see her mother as her idol, but also as her only ally. Annie, fraught with maternal tension, wants to be just like her mother, but she cannot, because she does not have a child. And this becomes an obsession.
This also reminds me of Heti, who felt that writing her book was a way to think about her mother’s pain, and her mother’s mother’s pain. Heti states, “I only knew that I had to create a powerful monster, since I was such a weak one. I had to create a monster apart from me, that knew more than I knew, had a world view, and did not get such simple words wrong.”
As if having a child might fix the mother.
As if mothering Paul might fix Annie’s madness.
In the film, we see Annie become a mother when Paul, broken and helpless, is (re)born from the twisted cavern of his car and into Annie’s strong and capable arms. However, as the story unfolds, we see her teeter between nurturer and torturer. “Like a baby. All done,” she says, after shaving him, but later withholds his medication, relishing in his torment. She also feeds him, gently, unnecessarily, but then spills it and shouts, “See what you made me do?”
She is both too devoted and too violent. She loves him and then turns on him. “You poor, dear thing,” she says, helping him back to bed. And then, quickly, “You’re such a crybaby.” She buys him a typewriter then cuts off his thumb, she gives him a wheelchair and then hobbles his already broken leg. (In the book she uses an axe, in the movie a board and a hammer.) Over and over again she berates him and then begs for his forgiveness.
It is exactly these contradictions that create the tension and the horror. Annie is a monstrous mother—unreliable, powerful, and impossible to predict. All of this wavering between kind and doting and violent and loathing keeps Paul, and us, from settling. Her existence disrupts any chance for equilibrium. Which is, quite frankly, sometimes what motherhood feels like.
So Annie is not only a mother, but also a petulant child.
At the point in the story when Paul sneaks out of his room, he finds a memory book, something like a scrapbook or a baby book, of Annie’s previous murders. Here we learn that Annie Wilkes is not only a monstrous mother and a moody child, but also a serial murderer. Paul flips through the pages of the book and discovers that years ago she killed the children she babysat for, as well as her father, her nursing school roommate, a lover, a coach, a car salesman, and a veteran pediatrician. And then Paul learns of Annie’s most heinous crimes.
Shortly after she is named head maternity nurse, a string of newborn deaths rocks the community. Annie, dubbed “The Dragon Lady,” is arrested but found not guilty of the charges.
There is a pattern here, a timeline, which coincides with Annie’s physical development. Her first murders start around the onset of puberty, at age eleven. She kills her father when she is fourteen, an age when menstruation often begins. In the years typically filled with dating and marriage, she murders her roommate and several men.
And when she murders the babies, she is thirty-nine-years-old.
If we understand Annie as both a motherless child and as a childless mother, if we understand that her relationship with motherhood and with womanhood is fraught with the desire to be like her mother and the fear of being “trapped like a rat,” we see a pattern.
In the first murders, at the time when her body is changing, when she is moving away from childhood and into womanhood, she kills a bunch of children, as well as their father. But she leaves the mother alone.
And when she murders her own father, she leaves her mother alone.
During her reproductive years, she first kills her roommate, who may have been seen as competition, a threat to her dating and mating possibilities. Yet she then murders a string of men. And, remembering that she told Paul that “no one has been nice” to her in the twenty years since her mother’s death, we can do the math ourselves and see that this is also when Annie becomes motherless. She is not only grieving but wavering between the desire for the traditional female narrative and a resistance against it.
What a struggle this is for Annie, to idolize her mother but be unsure whether she wants the very thing that made her mother her mother. Perhaps this is why she marries a man who looks like her father, to try and be her mother. But he leaves her before they ever have a child, and because we know of her religious convictions, it is safe to say Annie would see her husband’s abandonment as ruining her chances for motherhood, denying her the chance to make the decision for herself.
And then, as she sits on the edge of forty, Annie murders nearly a dozen infants.
Like the children she murdered when she was eleven, this, too, is about mothers. Because mothers are Annie’s fixation. She is haunted by them. And this is why, on the bookends of her female body’s greatest changes, she creates a brood of childless mothers.
Annie teeters between loving mothers and feeling apprehensive about becoming one.
This makes her like so many women— like Heti, like myself, unsure of what we want, though knowing what is expected.
When Annie rescues Paul, these fixations converge. He is the object of her obsession—the creator of the Misery series she loves. A series, it should be noted, with a book for every month of pregnancy—nine already published, and a tenth and final book, which only Annie is privy to. A book series that ends with the main character dying in childbirth. And a dead mother is, of course, Annie’s worst nightmare.
In fact, Annie is so furious with Misery’s death she demands Paul rewrite the book, and she plans to steal his words and pass his writing off as her own. When Heti writes of art and motherhood, she asks, “Then can a woman who makes books be let off the hook by the universe for not making the living thing called babies?” The coins she’s consulting reply, “Yes.”
Annie, of course, is not a writer. But she is harboring a writer, a writer who, despite the mother-murderer he created, is helpless, therefore giving her a chance to nurture him, to mother him. He has disappointed her, like so many men before him have disappointed her, but because he is as incapacitated as a child, he also gives her the chance for redemption.
And because of this, she never wants to let him go. Annie does everything she can to prevent him from healing. She has no phone, no one knows where he is. She controls his medications and his movements. But despite the number of times she injures him, Paul still heals. He gains strength, moves from his bed to a wheelchair, from constant sleep to waking more, from completely dependent to independent.
And don’t all mothers harbor a sense of fear as their children get older? Don’t we all worry what will happen to them when they grow up?
What will happen to us?
There’s a point in the film where Annie leans into Paul and says, “You’ll never know the fear of losing someone like you when you’re someone like me.” This is a line that haunts me.
Of course, even though I see this line as heartbreaking, I am aware that Annie is a serial killer, a monster, a criminal. Although on one hand I can see her as a woman pushing back on patriarchal norms, as a woman filled with sadness and confusion, a woman like myself who sees mothers everywhere, I still root for Paul in the bloody gory fight at the end.
Though a tiny part of me cheers, just a little, when I think of Annie this way: a woman invisible, by choice and by circumstance, a motherless child, a childless mother, confronted with her obsessions, holding, for a little while, power over a man.
When Heti asks, “Don’t men who don’t procreate receive punishment from the universe?” The coins say, “No.”