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Arts & Culture

How Repulsive

February 10, 2016 | by

On the merits of disturbing literature.

Frederic Leighton, Study at a Reading Desk‎, 1877.

In a letter to a reader who was disturbed by his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If [Malte] contains bitter reproaches, these are absolutely not directed against life. On the contrary, they are evidences that, for lack of strength, through distraction and inherited errors we lose completely the countless earthly riches that were intended for us.”

Faced with a reader like Rilke’s, it can be hard for a writer to defend the need for “bitter reproaches”—to uphold the disturbing above the merely distasteful. After all, some “disturbing” books do nothing more than shock. Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands, for instance, is a litany of gross and obscene bodily functions that never adds up to more than grossness and obscenity. But good books disturb for good reasons. To disturb is, among other things, to guard against complacency: to make the reader face the underbelly of dark thoughts and actions, see how circumstances can make even good people go astray if they are not vigilant in honoring the best in themselves and in the outside world. Disturbing passages, when skillful, make a vital inquiry into the subtle causes and effects of human behavior. 

Consider the following passage from Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, in which a middle-aged woman comes completely unhinged after her husband, Mario, abandons her and their children for a twenty-year-old. As she cleans up her son Gianni’s vomit, Olga recalls the early days of her marriage, when she had put her career on hold to take care of the children:

I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function. And then the warm sweetish odor of baby-food breath. No matter how much I washed, that stink of motherhood remained. Sometimes Mario pasted himself against me, took me, holding me as I nearly slept, tired himself after work, without emotions. He did it persisting on my almost absent flesh that tasted of milk, cookies, cereal, with a desperation of his own that overlapped mine without his realizing it. I was the body of incest, I thought, stunned by the odor of Gianni’s vomit, I was the mother to be violated, not a lover.

This is, undeniably, a disturbing portrait of motherhood. The force of Ferrante’s language is shocking: babies are “greedy bloodsuckers”; nursing is “repulsive”; sex with her husband is “incest,” since Olga has lost her former identity and been transformed into nothing more than a mother. But Ferrante’s intent is not merely to shock but to create a precise portrait of one way it can feel to have a female body. Because Olga submitted to raising children “distractedly,” assuming the “inherited errors” of her own parents’ marriage, her own mother’s obsession with keeping a man’s love at all costs; because her careerist husband took Olga for granted as a body intended to serve the needs of her offspring and husband; because Olga only examines these dark feelings after her children are preteens and her husband is gone, she ends up so out of her mind with rage and helplessness that she mistreats her children and dog. The passage shines a light on a kind of darkness that is not uncommon, even if the power of Ferrante’s language would make it seem so: many mothers feel exhausted and neglected when spending their days caring for young children.

Alas, Olga comes to terms with this reasonable darkness only after it has nearly destroyed her. It is the reader who benefits from Olga’s belated clarity. One merit of such a passage is simply that it identifies an often overlooked or not-talked-about feeling that can result from a nearly universal experience: childrearing. In an objective sense, it’s almost odd that the animal physical reality of breast-feeding is not called “repulsive” more often.

As a woman happily and gratefully expecting her first child, I’ve been surprised by how basely biological it feels to be pregnant: a human being begins as a parasite that makes its host body—the mother—sick, exhausted, forgetful, and moody. I feel disgusted with pregnancy a lot of the time. And yet, whenever I get an ultrasound, my husband and I both cry with awe and wonder at the sound of the baby’s heartbeat and the sight of its tiny feet kicking off the walls of my womb, doing backflips in its private ocean. Wonder, disgust: both feelings are true. And together, they paint a richer portrait of pregnancy than any feel-good clichés about “the miracle of life.” Acknowledging the darkest feelings of pregnancy as well as the most joyful helps me feel more connected to this astonishing experience as it unfolds.

Similarly, Olga’s disturbing feelings about her children coexist with a complicated, necessary interdependence. If Ferrante does an uncannily affecting job of identifying the loss of self that can come from parenting, she also allows Olga’s children to ultimately restore her to herself. It’s not that the narrator snaps out of her depression and realizes that her children are her soul’s highest calling and joy. Rather, in a state of blind desperation, she suddenly feels her daughter gripping her leg and sees her as “a true invention of my flesh that forced me to reality.” That reality may not be glorious and grand, but it is solid and reliable, and prevents Olga from “surrendering to senselessness.” We are moved more deeply by the way Olga’s intractable physical bond with her children ends up pulling her out of a nervous breakdown because we have previously been troubled by that very bond. The beautiful and disturbing parts of Olga’s relationship with her children meld into a portrait of motherhood that is neither beautiful nor disturbing, but immediate, specific, and real.


When I was writing Wreck and Order, I did not set out to disturb the reader. But I did want to give free reign to some of my darkest thoughts, to trace them back to plausible, imaginary beginnings and follow them through to plausible, imaginary results if they were acted upon. My narrator, Elsie, is a passionate, sensitive young woman whose relentless self-awareness does nothing to prevent her from making bad choices. Following, as usual, her desires of the moment—which often betray her spirit—Elsie gets involved with an alcoholic drug dealer who mistreats Elsie even though (or because) he loves her. Tenderness is so overwhelming and scary for both Elsie and Jared that they feel “the need to do violence to [their] love”:

Jared would sometimes use his belt on me, never against my will. He didn’t hit hard. He’d hold my arms down and place his teeth around my nipple, poised to clamp down. “Stop, stop, stop,” I’d say, and he’d tell me to shut up, backhanding my jaw. He’d order me to take my clothes off, but it never became more sexual than that. This wasn’t about sex. It was about having power over life. Jared wanted to believe he had some and I wanted to give all mine away. I wanted bruises, empirical proof of the destructiveness of emotions. The first time he hit me too hard, I winced and put my hand to my jaw. He fell on me with a look of terror and wet my face with kisses.

The thought that gave rise to this passage and the scene that follows is that emotions can wreak all kinds of havoc if, “for lack of strength, through distraction” one allows them to dictate one’s behavior. In this and other scenes in which Elsie finds herself in dangerous situations of her own making, I wanted the reader to fear for Elsie—just as I fear for myself when I find myself trying to fulfill wholesome desires in unwholesome ways. The unwholesome always seems most accessible, less demanding. It’s easier to watch porn than to invite a likeable acquaintance out for coffee and undergo the slow, awkward process of attempting to know each other.

Yet I do not only want the reader to fear for Elsie. I tried to both intensify and relieve that fear by placing it alongside the hope that Elsie will heed the best in herself, as she is, intermittently, able to do. Elsie’s journey does not ultimately paint a disturbing portrait of life. Rather, Wreck and Order sets a young woman’s disturbing behavior against her attunement to the “countless earthly riches” of having a body and a mind, showing how difficult and how necessary it is to honor the simple and the good.

Hannah Tennant-Moore’s novel Wreck and Order is out this week.