“Maternal Monsters”: E.B. Schnepp Reviews SHAPESHIFTING by Michelle Ross

Michelle Ross’ second collection, Shapeshifting, can only be described as a procession of horrifying transformations. More specifically, this is a series of horrifying female transformations that reveal with startling clarity the lack of agency that comes from existing in a feminine body, particularly when it comes to childbearing and its corresponding vulnerabilities. This transformation is demonstrated when the narrator of “Shapeshifting” as the main character is ruminating on the physical changes that came from pregnancy saying, “Shapeshifting isn’t the way I’d imagined it. I’d always pictured myself behind the wheels of other bodies I assumed. This is the opposite. I’m the wheels, not the driver.” For the female figures of Ross’ collection even this transformation from woman to mother and the monster motherhood transforms them into isn’t enough. In the opening story, “After Pangea,” the speaker’s husband is hailed a literal prophet of fatherhood for performing the bare minimum, or taking credit for his wife’s work on their children’s behalf while her actions are always seen as a matter of course or as still not quite enough. This direct contrast is exemplified through the story as her husband begins a fathering blog showing the moments he “babysat” the children or took them to the park. His popular blog and moments of fatherhood leads to a bevy of followers looking to him for advice, and the tidier, ego boosting moments of parenthood (particularly stemming from their son’s hero-worship of him after seeing the respect he was paid by others):

The insanity of people publicly referring to Pete as Our Father was new, but the part where people praised the heck out of Pete for being a good father was tiringly familiar. Me on the other hand, I was just doing what I was supposed to do, what I was made for. When I complained about this to Pete, he acted unawares. “What do you mean? I’ve heard people compliment you on your mothering,” he’d say.

“But not with the same enthusiasm and awe. Not in an oh-my-god-praise-Jesus sort of way,” I’d say.

Then one day Pete said, “Maybe that’s because you’re not that devoted a mother.”

While there are male figures transforming throughout this collection, becoming holy prophets of fatherhood, monsters, and strange hybrid beasts, they always have agency in these actions instead of being passive agents with change (physical or otherwise) being thrust upon them. For the female figures, the most agency they’re given is the split-second choice to, in moments of danger, allow themselves to be a victim or become a beast, such as Jessie in “Play it Safe” being told “I’m proud of you. You kicked that creep’s ass. You’re a beast” and “We’re proud of this young lady. She didn’t let herself become a victim” because she fought off an assailant while out jogging. For Ross, the male figures’ transformations are always the product of an active choice that makes them more powerful; contrary to the female figures who become more vulnerable, both physically and from an inherent sense of wrongness or inadequacy that accompanies the transformation.

The women in these stories struggle to “be good enough,” to break destructive cycles (usually those the women had with their own mothers who struggled with the same transformative horror). They lose further agency, by overcompensating, or even perpetuate the very systems they sought to break. These cycles can be seen in the loss of agency and bodily autonomy through pregnancy and breastfeeding, and through characters struggling with their desire to be loved (and how they are loved) by their children as they grow older, gain greater autonomy, and the distance therein. Often this stems from a lack of closeness the mothers fail to foster in their daughters, forming distant and contentious relationships that mirror the often destructive relationships they had with their own mothers. Along these lines, in “The Life Cycle of an Ungrateful Daughter,” the daughter begins (literally at conception) as “hope, this tiny amoeba swimming in your belly, this fortune cookie. She was your impetus to free yourself from your own mother—for the sake of your unborn child.” But this weight of expectation and the mother needing to be needed is unsustainable; being too good or independent became as cardinal a sin as being contrary, setting the characters at odds and making the mother act in a way she never would have thought herself capable of prior to becoming a mother. These are actions far more like her own estranged mother’s than the mother she thought she would become:

Perhaps because she thought she didn’t need you or perhaps because you felt so hopelessly in the pits, and you couldn’t bear caring for another person, you ignored her for whole minutes—three? five? ten?—before running to her door and lifting her in your arms. […] If you’d known this event would become her earliest memory, perhaps you would have gone to the door sooner. Or maybe you would have waited even longer. After all, it’s dishonest and cruel of her to dwell on one unhappy incident among so many happy memories.

For women who were so sure they were giving their children better childhoods than their own this feels especially devastating and leads to further antagonization stemming from feeling that they deserve better than the relationship they have now, while leaving them without the tools to correct the situation. Ross’ work is masterful in this regard, the plights of her characters visceral. In the process of reading the collection I often had to put it down and walk away—sometimes for days—before I could find the courage to face the characters and the sharp edges of myself that I could see reflected in them. Ross demands we stare boldfaced at these characters in all their large and devastatingly small atrocities and fears, writing urgently in “Shapeshifting,” “[D]on’t kid yourself. There’s monster DNA in all of us.”

In the end, though, no one escapes the collection innocent. The labor lies with the question of agency, the narrator of “Shapeshifting” interrogating the nature of pregnancy and the perceived lack of agency stemming from it: “‘Rosemary’s Baby. Rosemary’s Baby,’ I say. I can’t decide whether that wording makes the baby or Rosemary the subject of the film.’” But, as the stories progress and the lack of agency becomes more felt, the children who are both part and product of this lack can feel monstrous themselves. And, perhaps most devastating of all, this agency loss and monstrous-motherhood persists even among loss. In “Galactagogues” Carla is the mother of a stillborn daughter, Millie, and the mother’s grief turns them both hungry and monstrous: “Always Carla is hungry. Because always Millie is hungry. Millie of the ether. Galactic Millie. She may be returning to dust, but she still wants.” Wanting has transformed them both, Millie from a living breathing child to a doll stand in and Carla into the doll’s mother, producing endless quantities of milk for a child that can’t consume it, sitting in the maternity lobby listening to women from her prenatal group talk about their living children. Amanda, one of those women, remarks, “[I]t’s all so wild. I mean their flesh is our flesh. Or was. And our flesh was theirs and is theirs and keeps on becoming theirs […] And every day they claim more of us.”

While the process of motherhood for the figures is transformative, it’s never transformative in the way they’d like it to be; rather than making them selfless, perfect mothers to match or fill the inadequacies of the male figures, motherhood strips them of their agency, making them both long for who they were or could have been before while simultaneously guilty for desiring freedom and selfhood. Every story is steeped in grief, guilt at the unattainable mother they both do and do not want to become, men who demand even more and even better devotion and sacrifice, and children who, either by turning away from them or by being unsettling and “monstrous” in the way only small children can be, seem to prove they have in fact failed in their mothering role. Ross, through this collection, asks if being a mother is part of what women were made for then why can they never get it right, be enough, transform in the right ways, or make their male counterparts and children love them in the way they so deeply desire. This is truly a collection that devastates us in all the right ways all the way through.

Shapeshifting, by Michelle Ross. Fairfax, Virginia: Stillhouse Press, November 2021. 232 pages. $16.00, paper.

E.B. Schnepp currently resides in Indiana. Their work can also be found in Ninth LetterLongleaf, and Up the Staircase, among others.

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