The short stories in Instances of Head-Switching by Teresa Milbrodt report back from other worlds in sharp prose that is evocative but never flowery. Milbrodt fuses fairytale or mythological elements with the mundanities of adulthood, but there’s a lot more going on in every story. Strange settings are the background for characters to contend with the myths our own culture perpetuates about age and ability. Narrators aren’t named in these stories, giving the sense that they are filing reports with a supernatural news service.
The collection begins with “The Monster’s War,” where a narrator describes the complexities of returning to an office job after a brief societal collapse. The world had just experienced a war of “monsters,” meaning: “protests, riots, crowds on the verge of desperation when the government decided to tear down tent cities.” These are the kinds of monsters that come to attack government buildings “because of the government’s broken promises to help poor people.”
“Before the war we four had not despised or supported the government. We supported staying alive,” she explains. She and her partner Marcus had not been considered candidates for joining the resistance, so they hid in a cave with some neighbors. “With my vision and Marcus’s hearing and Quinn and Jones’s slower gait,” she reports, this group had been overlooked by both sides of a bloody conflict.
This reveals that people living with disabilities are always experiencing some aspects of war (scarcity, threats to life and livelihood, uncertainty) and engaged in a struggle to survive, even when the wider world is not reporting a crisis.
I had personally never read a post-apocalyptic narrative that calls out this genre for its ableism. That criticism is deserved: The trope of leaving behind injured or disabled characters persists in zombie stories and other catastrophic fantasies. But really, folks living with disabilities are trained in survival. Marcus and Quinn and Jones and our narrator make it out of the cave and must do the truly extraordinary: return to everyday life after a war.
In “Switching Heads,” the titular story, the narrator has eight possible heads with distinct personalities she must decide when to wear. Still, wielding this kind of control doesn’t seem to make her life any easier. She laments, “I don’t know what to do with the parts of myself that are annoying and pushy and most likely to get me fired.” Head option number four is a mess of inconsistencies and distraction, yet her boyfriend likes this personality best.
Similarly, in L. Frank Baum’s Return to Oz, the sequel to the book about Dorothy and the magic slippers, cruel Princess Mombi keeps multiple heads in a glass case. She collects heads out of vanity, to make sure she always has a fresh and pretty face. Head-switching is a selfish and monstrous act in this story.
But for Milbrodt, this fantastical element is about the impossibility of learning which face or personality element to display in public during different social interactions. I suppose that is a horror of growing up—this navigation and negotiation doesn’t ever get easier. Shudder.
For this teacher character, head-switching also includes a subtle commentary on neurodivergent learners in the classroom. Our narrator teaches 6th grade and suspects that some children can switch heads to better manage the school days but some cannot. (Perhaps it is rude to ask directly.) Her student Justin is smart, but daydreams and often can’t focus. His parents insist she punish him more to make him pay attention throughout each lesson; our narrator cannot bring herself to do it. Forcing one head to perform dozens of different tasks seems hard enough. And no one can discipline a middle schooler out of their own nature.
After all, is switching heads to best adapt to a social situation any stranger than all the contradictions humans contain inside ourselves? “It’s strange how scared we are of our own deaths, but we’re fascinated by the deaths of others. Another instance of head-switching,” the teacher muses.
“The Mirror,” a fractured fairytale, is the story of a less than happily-ever-after though not explicitly named Snow White after her husband is deposed. This familiar princess inherited the enchanted mirror from her stepmother and uses it to transform into a crone often. This way, she can pick up extra income as a seamstress and not get recognized as a former queen—or be taken less seriously for being young and beautiful: “No one was willing to spill their guts in front of me when I’d been queen. Then they had to be fake cheery, assuming I was pretty and clueless and didn’t understand real people.”
Snow White’s privilege is actually her disadvantage: “Being pretty was a pain. You had to waste all that energy on staying pretty, and that could make you strange and obsessive. It was much more fun to turn yourself into someone who could have an interesting life.”
In “The Mirror,” Snow White contends with a dull marriage, her repressed political ambitions, and the grind of adulthood. For so often fairytales glorify youth, prettiness, and a girl’s naivety. When these characters enter Milbrodt’s modern world, age and experience are the source of both comfort and expertise.
In “Berchta,” a grown woman inherits an old couch that belonged to her recently-deceased German grandmother, and this invites the folk tales she’d heard as a child into her messy apartment. Eight-inch-tall gnomes crawl around the cushions, subsisting off the crumbs of nachos and pizza. Berchta comes to stay, the legendary old woman who is supposed to grumpily clean a house if it grows untidy. But Berchta says she’s tired of being a hag and would rather be a doting great aunt in a pink sweat suit. She takes a dishwashing job at an Italian restaurant and charms employees and customers alike. Berchta is having the time of her life, sipping espresso and almond cookies with the restaurant’s owner.
In the story of Berchta, and in other stories in the collection, the antagonist isn’t a villain—he’s a downstairs neighbor making noise complaints to the landlord. If only he could see the magic happening one floor above! Throughout Instances of Head-Switching, Milbrodt’s tales charm and challenge a reader to leave behind assumptions and stereotypes. Readers should embrace fables but leave behind ableism and ageism.
Instances of Head-Switching, by Teresa Milbrodt. Albany, New York: Shade Mountain Press, June 2020. 195 pages. $22.95, paper.
Laura Eppinger is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry, and essays. Her work has appeared at The Rumpus, The Toast, and elsewhere. She’s the managing editor at Newfound Journal.