Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock
—Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein
When I was twelve, I wasn’t just the tallest girl in my class, I was the tallest girl in my class. Even worse, I had terrible acne which was beginning to leave scars, a bad case of oily hair, and neither my mother nor grandmother taught me the basics of hygiene. I was the freak of my Catholic grade school where the doctrines of Christian love seemed hypocritical since neither nun, teacher, nor priest made an effort to “save” me from the taunts and bullying of students. I had no friends that year: In the morning I used to stand alone waiting for the bell to ring signaling it was time to form lines and enter school. It was humiliating to be so alone so I got the great idea to sit inside church where the old widows chanted prayers over their rosaries or at the Stations of the Cross.
During the day class would get up, form another line and move through the halls to change rooms for different classes. Unwittingly I developed the habit of walking head down, shoulders stooped, which caused me to sway back and forth as I walked. I remember the two boys who started calling me Frankenstein: Thomas Taaffe and Bill Mayer. One doesn’t forget one’s tormentors.
It was also that year that I began to fully understand that I was illegitimate. The term sounds old-fashioned now, but back then it was lethal—you were a bastard—and it was hard to be different, and to be different alone was even worse. I had no siblings, an emotionally distant mother, and a strict grandmother who had left the Pacific Northwest, and her only other daughter, the one with a husband, seven children, and a her own small house, to come and raise me, her bastard granddaughter, something she didn’t let forget.
The stigma attached with being treated differently, for any reason, when you’re a child is never outgrown; it lurks in the shadows and comes out when least expected. Small, offhand comments hurt and Father’s Day is always awkward.
When I first read the novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, I immediately identified with the monster. I felt akin to his isolation; I felt we both had experienced what it was like to live on the fringe of society. I had felt invisible that year of seventh grade, and many times since, like the creature—as well do the destitute, the elderly, the mentally ill, and the deformed.
Rarely, though is a soul a true feral child left to fend for itself, but Shelley births such a creature into the imagination. I could feel his torment of being alone, his sense of abandonment, and the desperate desire for compassion and to know where he came from. I wanted to know who my father was, but my mother remained silent when questioned which only fueled wild imaginative possibilities. Through the years I made up all kinds of stories: He was an Egyptian king, a soldier at war, a band leader touring the country. I thought maybe God was my father like with Mary and Jesus, but then dark possibilities occurred when I watched movies like Rosemary’s Baby (my mother’s name was Rosemary), and The Omen. Strange adolescent considerations at to paternity popped up constantly. Like the creature, I too wanted to understand myself and to be understood.
Understanding Shelly’s created character requires the reader to examine the creature’s inception and development. The details of his galvanic birth from lifeless flesh are few. Electrical currents persuaded dead tissue to fill with oxygenated blood rendering the beat of a heart as never heard before. He became a man-made man, but he brought no memories back from the dead. His brain was a tabula rasa. No ceremony honored his birth; only a baptism of disgust by his creator, Victor Frankenstein.
When I read Shelly’s lines describing how the creature approached Victor while he slept, and stretched out the length of his arm to touch his “father” I imagine the scene like Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” however no poignant gesture was returned. I found Victor’s abandonment of the creature similar to my mother’s refusal to answer my father-questions. Not only did I feel he must have abandoned me but she, like Victor, left me to fend for myself when it came to the questions of neighborhood kids: “Who’s your father?” “Why’s your last name different from your mom’s?” I had no idea what to say. I understood the plight of the creature as he tried to discover for himself the beauty and misery of man and to seek a place for himself somewhere in between.
I played by myself in the basement, and spent a lot of time looking in the mirror as if I’d get an answer. I found freedom in the prairie and small woods near my house. The creature, on his own, matured to a pubescent level of intellect and learned rudimentary skills to keep himself alive. Perhaps some type of instinctive memory did exist in his recycled brain—he had a natural aversion to flesh eating and distaste for wine—integral elements symbolic of the purity and non-violent nature of his being. He embraced the natural world knowing nothing of the cruelty of man, much as a child that is different is unaware of stigma until some cruel event marks them forever apart.
When the creature takes refuge in the hovel attached to the poor family’s cottage he studies them. He learns social skills and develops a benevolent fixation on them. I read books and magazines like Seventeen and Glamour; I observed the popular girls at school and tried to be like them. But, like the creature, I became increasingly tormented by what I coveted—a family unit, a group of friends, and a boyfriend. Both the creature and I were surrounded by what we wanted, albeit socially deprived, and we could feel part of the world by non-sexual voyeurism. Like him, I also had difficulty communicating—I was so shy I rarely talked—but we each listened and learned.
Reading books was an escape and a hope for us both as well. He felt by reading he could “learn the ways of man” and therefore acceptance; I thought if I was seen reading the latest Nancy Drew mystery or movie-turned-novel someone might talk to me. The creature finds similarities between himself and Adam in Paradise Lost, and Werter in The Sorrows of Young Werter, but is blisteringly aware that unlike Adam he has no communication with God, or any manner of father, and that he exists utterly alone.
The creature’s intellect, once fully bloomed, allows him the knowledge to curse his creator, and he learns to feel envy. Though he’s disgusted by his own reflection in a pool of water, he resolves to be inspired by high thoughts and holds to a hope the family he’s been observing will accept him.
Over the summer between seventh grade and eighth, my aunt convinced my mother to take me to a dermatologist. As my skin began to clear up, I made two fellow-misfit friends in a new class that fall. By the time I entered high-school I, like the creature, had high hopes that a normal life would be possible. I joined clubs, had a circle of girlfriends, but by the middle of junior year I had yet to be asked out on a date or to a dance. My girlfriends had boyfriends that bought them birthday gifts like stereos and jewelry. I started to feel like a freak again. One boy I’d had a bad crush on asked one of my close girlfriends to a dance. She knew how much I like that boy but she accepted. By the time my senior prom came and went I’d distanced myself from the group I’d been part of. It felt better to be alone than to be with others who could see what a freak I felt I was.
The creature’s attempt to integrate himself with the family he felt he’d come to love didn’t go so well for him either. He knew that no matter what, people would always see the bad in him, what was different, and he would always be judged by his appearance. He felt the knowledge he’d found in books was hypocrisy. He managed his anger and destroyed property in revenge, not human life. He realizes that to ever be free he must come to understand himself and to do that he must find his creator. He needed to know how he came into existence and why.
When the creature finds and confronts Victor he tells him he’s “malicious because he’s miserable” and that he needs Victor to understand him. He demands a companion. I remember whenever I would ask my mother about where my father was she was always evasive. I used to ask her if I could have a sister of brother—clearly I had no idea how siblings were made—when I was eight or nine I remember my mother showed me a picture of a Vietnamese girl named Nyguan Thuy. She said she would be her foster-daughter and that I could write her letters. I was so damned happy I thought my mother was “getting” me a sister, like the creature thought Victor promised to get him a mate, and she was coming to live with us!
We were both disappointed; the creature didn’t get his mate and I didn’t get a sister. What did I know at that time of the Vietnam War or how people were made? Shelly’s creature was enraged when Victor revoked his promise, but still he presses Victor for acceptance. The creature, at this point in the novel, seems far more human than Victor. He feels he is the birth defect, the subordinate and determines to be valued by authority, a supreme being: his creator. However, the creator no matter how heartily beseeched, remains seemingly insensitive, much as Biblical God can appear to be to the suffering of the marginal and the suffering.
Like the endearing efforts of the creature, I tried to make my mother understand how important it was to me to hear how I came to exist in the world. By the time I was a young woman with a child of my own I’d learned a few details of my father. I learned he had not been dead as she’d told me (I used to ask to see his picture but she’d said there weren’t any; I asked to see her wedding ring, which she’d say was somewhere “in the closet”), and had lived within fifty miles of us. He died a few months before I found out how close he was—I was twenty-three. I learned he had been married when he met my mother, had one son, and he and his wife had another son a few years after I was born. A few years ago I learned his wife had died when I was ten. He’d never remarried.
I was angry with my mother for keeping what I felt was part of me to herself, like she’d selfishly allowed me to endure the uncomfortable questions and feel like some shameful mystery. Even if I’d never met my father, if she’d at least have shared what she knew of him with me, at least I’d know he was “real” and that I had two half-brothers. I wouldn’t have had such crazy thoughts and delusions when I was younger.
I remember after my period started (I was only eleven) I worried I could get pregnant if a man just looked at me. This was around the time I wondered if my “virginal” mother (she never dated or talked of men as attractive, etc.) became pregnant with me via Immaculate Conception. I panicked during church services where we had to turn and shake hands with the people around us. If I shook a man’s hand I worried I’d become pregnant.
When I was thirty-eight, same age as when she met my father, I left my husband for the second time. I phoned my mother to make a lunch date with her. She knew I was having an affair with a married man and I told her I really needed to understand “me” and what circumstances had been like for her. I’d found a few letters my father had written her. They were in an old purse she didn’t use. I wish I’d kept them, but I’d worried she discover they were missing. But the letters proved there’s been a relationship. I remember the words he wrote in one letter: “Today I was painting a house and guess what? The color was Wild Rose and I used a virgin lamb roller.” That little scrap of knowledge let me know I wasn’t a child of rape, another possibility I’d considered.
I was excited about meeting her. I though okay, finally, we’re going to have a real talk and maybe we’ll become closer because of her past relationship and my current one. I needed her help and advice—should I leave my husband or should I stay—I really just needed a mother.
When we met we made the usual safe small talk, ordered food, and I opened the dialogue to the subject for our meeting: How I came to “be.” She couldn’t have hurt or shocked me more when she gave me her “I’m shutting you out” face and said flatly “I’m not going to discuss that. That’s my story.” We ate, exchanged more small talk and that was it. She condemned me every few minutes for moving out of my house and leaving a husband and a seventeen year old son—but she couldn’t get past her wall and show empathy for my confusion or pain from the past.
I only saw my mother two more times. Once at the divorce: she testified against me—something about money she’d given my soon-to-be ex and I, and that it was really a loan that needed to be paid back; a contrived declaration so that I’d get less money in the settlement.
The last time I saw her was when I went to her house to pick up a few personal things my ex dropped off there, and to give her the set of keys to her safety deposit box and her house. She’d given them to me years ago and requested them back. I stopped at the bank first to look in the box—something I’d never done—I thought for sure there would be some documents, letters, some clue as to what her secret life (and mine) was. There was nothing but financial documents; a will, insurance papers, etc.
We met in the alley in front of the garage where my things were stored. I didn’t want to look at her. I thought it was anger I felt at the time but it was hurt I was feeling. My mother had wanted those keys back because she was afraid I wanted to take something from her. She told me earlier in a letter she’d changed her will and everything would be left to my son. All I’d ever wanted from her was a relationship with her and honesty. So I disappeared. No one knew I moved from Chicago to Florida. I wanted to be in a place that reminded me the least of where and how I grew up.
Like me, the creature disappeared for a while—and like me the creature wasn’t as so much angry as he was in a state of tormented pain which pushed him to extreme action. Feeling he has nothing left to live for, Victor dedicates his life to finding the creature, and back and forth they grapple. Creator and created, symbolic parent and child: one who wants love and understanding and one who wants nothing to do with that which reminds him of his sin against God by creating life. I felt my mother had always kept her distance because I must remind her of her sin. Maybe my grandmother never let her forget her sin of adultery. I didn’t know.
The creature weeps at Victor’s death and feels remorse for his own evils; he laments his unrequited relationship with Victor. As a reader I feel his raw pain at the knowledge that his quest for love and understanding by his single “parent” would remain forever futile. Faced with the future of a solitary life he becomes depraved and embraces the idea of his own forthcoming demise where he feels he’ll finally find relief from guilt.
The deaths of Victor and the impending death of the creature resemble more of a retreat from taking responsibility than any kind of reasonable solution. The knowledge the creature found in books of man seemed a paradox: Man held intelligence as an ultimate ideal, and beauty as interpretable, and that all living things have a place and a purpose, yet he had to remain unaccepted and unloved. Both Victor and the creature suffered their own paradise lost. Each, in the course of their human development, proved inadequate to fill the needs of the other. Instead, they enslaved each other, robbing (metaphorically and literally) from the other what was rightly deserved.
I phoned my mother after nearly ten years of silence. She was eighty-six. I’d felt the need to call her for some time—but was afraid of her reaction. Would she reject me? Would she cry? I’d never seen my mother cry—never—not even when her mother died. Or worse, I wondered, would she just be the same? Aloof and distant, offering only talk of weather, what she ate for breakfast, and what program she’d watched the night before.
When she answered the phone I said “Hi Mom.” “Who’s this?” she asked. I had to say my name two or three times, I can’t remember, and then I felt something break when she seemed to say with glory “Oh, Judy!” There were a few minutes of mother and daughter-ness, but she pulled in fast and I could sense through the phone lines her wall had come up.
We spoke for about an hour and agreed it was a good thing to talk. I gave her my number and promised to call again, which I did a few weeks later. She was a bit forgetful but she seemed to enjoy mentioning her “son-in-law” as a dig at me. I thought at first she wasn’t remembering right, that we were divorced, but it was the way she said it that I knew what she meant. My ex-husband hadn’t run away, and had stayed with our son. I was the bad girl, the bad seed, the evil child. I was the daughter that didn’t know if she’d been wanted or not. After the last conversation with her I realized I felt bad; all the old shame and guilt of being different came back. I was tired of carrying sin around on my back. My grandmother once told me, when I was very young, that I was the “result of sin,” a label I never could ignore.
I got word about a year later that my mother had died. I waited. I thought she must have left me something—if not a token monetary inheritance (I naively thought parental instinct would have caused her to worry about me, out there in the world, with no family), at least some personal items. I had a conversation with my son shortly thereafter and he was adamant about letting me know his grandmother left everything to him and that I wasn’t to “come after anything,”
Now, years later it hits me hard when I realize the finality of my relationship with my mother. She had ten years of separation from me—I thought for sure she’d think on how many times I’d asked about me and what my father was like, where was he, and on and on. I have to accept she didn’t care enough about my desperate need for knowledge to write a “give to my daughter when I’m dead” letter. Nothing—she went to her grave as she wished, keeping, as I though selfishly, her story to herself.
Shelly’s Frankenstein is a work of literary art that illustrates the responsibility humans have to care for each other—the indigent, and the weak as well as the powerful. It’s a political novel as well as an emotional and theological one. It’s a masterpiece because it’s a novel which questions the divine and creation itself. In the socio-political world a citizen would have the right to overthrow institutions that hold too much, or unjust, power over the people, or to demand granted legal rights in court. The state-system would fail if citizens were more willing to destroy themselves rather than come to the aide of an oppressed brother.
Shelly’s novel was written during a time of great political re-thinking, scientific discoveries and world exploration. Having been raised by feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and philosopher William Godwin, she learned how to think deeply and ask large questions. In her character of the creature I found a shattered soul I could identify with. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t flesh and blood.
I’ve never met anyone else who didn’t know who their father was and had no siblings. When I grew up every mother of everyone I knew was a housewife and everyone had a father that went to work. It wasn’t the being different that was hard, it was the lack of empathy from my personal creator, my mother, about being different that made me feel alone and monstrous. Clearly there were good times with my mother and grandmother, but the shadow of guilt, shame, and rejection will always loom larger than any good memories. Shelly’s creature let me into a mind that I could identify with, that I could share with, if only figuratively, the anguish of the feeling of rejection by one whose love and approval I sought most, and the very basic human need to understand where we come from and where we belong.
Judith Roney has taught creative writing workshops for adults challenged by mental illness in conjunction with the University of Central Florida’s Literary Arts Partnership. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in: It Is Written: An Anthology of Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop, Steam Ticket, Jet Fuel, Foothill: A Journal of Poetry, as well as other publications. She confesses to having an obsession with all things archaic and misunderstood, dead relatives, the possibilities of haunted sites, and collects vintage religious relics.