August 17, 2018
Thanks to Sam Risak, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today’s post.
Ramona Ausubel’s short story “Atria” illustrates the ineffectiveness of logic against constructed but powerful societal pressure. She imagines the struggle of teenage pregnancy through the eyes of Hazel. Regardless of the outside evidence Ausubel provides that the child is a healthy girl, after a non-consensual pregnancy, Hazel cannot be convinced that what she is carrying is in fact human. Still an adolescent, she cannot align herself with her ingrained models of what a mother should be. Overwhelmed by her inadequacies, her loneliness manifests in a child whom she perceives to be as alien as she feels.
Culturally-speaking, sexual experience is often regarded as a divide between adolescence and adulthood, and Hazel falls victim to this ideology. Unplanned by her mother and far younger than her sisters, “Atria” begins with Hazel ready to skip her teenage years. Her vision of adulthood is perfect in its ambiguity—a “small apartment kitchen far from anyone to whom she was related, furnished with upturned milk crates and exactly one full place setting” (53). This fantasy is built from glimpses of her family’s life, an incomplete collage Hazel believes she is joining when she lies in the bushes with the gas-station boy Johnny. She agrees to have sex “because, having decided an hour before to say Yes to growing, she could hardly now say No” (54). After the experience, she expects to feel matured, to have undergone her right of passage into adulthood. She feels nothing but regret. A few days later, a much older man approaches Hazel and demands that she follow him. As he leads her away, Hazel asks herself: “Why am I walking? Why am I not drinking a Shirley Temple and adjusting my bikini top over at the country-club pool like all the other girls? Why did I agree to grow up?” (58). She asks herself these things as if her rape correlates with her desire for adulthood, as if her having sex with Johnny bears her culpability in this man’s decision.
Since society expects young women to remain virgins, Hazel keeps her assault a secret until her body refuses to hide it any longer. When she does tell her mother, she describes only the rape. Her omission of Johnny causes Hazel a guilt that solidifies to her with a karmic certainty that the boy must be the father. Because no one understands what led up to Hazel’s pregnancy, she believes no one can understand her child, and her secret transforms the fetus into a mysterious glowing knot of fur with claws and long, yellow teeth. And as the lie progresses, so does the ball of fur, evolving into a bird of prey and later a three-headed giraffe.
Outraged over her daughter’s rape, Hazel’s mother begins a crusade, the town starting up self-defense classes and emergency phone lines in her daughter’s name. The townspeople drop off condolence casseroles and cakes, gifts for the baby. They tell Hazel being raped doesn’t make her a slut, insinuating that a pregnancy by consensual means would. Every gift and comment reminds Hazel that she is being watched, that her rape and pregnancy have made her an anomaly, one vulnerable to judgment. She already knows that if she confessed Johnny as a potential father, the town would shame and reject her. She internalizes the cultural standards and projects them onto her fetus whose strangeness ensures her a place as distant in society as she already feels.
Hazel cannot conceptualize herself as a typical mother, and when she delivers a typical baby girl, she cannot recognize her as her own. She falls asleep without touching the child; however, when she wakes, Hazel finds not a human baby in her crib, but a seal. Her predictions validated, Hazel grows more confident. She sees the mop bucket in the corner and rubs it up and down the baby, believing she needs water. “‘Now that I am mother,’ Hazel said to the baby, ‘I get to set the rules, and the rules are: swimming, sunning, playing. Everything else we ignore’” (72). Stuck between her disparate roles as child and parent, Hazel creates a new position for herself, that of animal-mother, one unmarred by external expectations. With her seal-child, Hazel finally has someone to live on the outside with her, a comrade in her isolation. Conservative society—such as the one Hazel lives in—promotes motherhood as a woman’s ultimate purpose and creates firm ideals as to how a woman should carry out that purpose. Therefore, any slight deviance from expectation—such as Hazel’s youth—can stir feelings of catastrophic failure. Hazel defends against such condemnation by mentally exiling her and her child. Only once she is alone in the room and nursing does Hazel feels secure enough in her own maternal instincts to see her baby’s human arms and legs.
As the atria passes on blood to the heart’s ventricles, society and family pass on expectations to Hazel who passes them on to her child. When the expectations cannot be met, Hazel separates, internally moves to where she cannot be judged and, therefore, cannot fail. While everyone may have ideas on how to raise a human baby, no one has birthed an animal like the one Hazel believes she is carrying and that deviance allots her some protection from scrutiny. Hazel’s point of view allows readers to see how supposedly thoughtful acts—like the townspeople’s delivering of gifts—raise the stakes for Hazel’s secrecy as she knows she does not meet the conditional premises on which they were given. Her perception of her child thereby becomes a defense mechanism, turning outside opinions obsolete and reducing Hazel’s potential deficiencies. Fortunately, the story ends in a moment of escape for Hazel. Alone with her girl at last, Hazel feels less foreign as a mother and sees the little girl begin to shed her animal form.
Ausubel, Ramona. “Atria.” The Guide to Being Born. New York, Penguin, 2013.
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