To make history, gather together a poet and his lover and her stepsister, another poet and his doctor. Send them to the mountains in summertime but have the weather betray them, turn cold and wet, keep them inside near a roaring fire. Provide a book of ghost stories and a spirit of competition. One of them, the lover, Mary Shelley, will write Frankenstein.
History: ORIGIN late Middle English, via Latin from Greek historia: ‘finding out.’
To make a creature, start by stalking the dead. Dig them up and take what you need. Assemble the parts to your ideals: strength, symmetry, beauty. Apply what science you have learned over sleepless nights and fevered days. Behold your creation—and be dismayed.
Dismay: ORIGIN Middle English, based on Latin dis- (expressing negation) + the Germanic base of may, from a base meaning ‘have power.’
To make meat, kill the animal. If it is a lamb, one shot between the eyes will do. When you strip the skin, your hands burnished by fat, the room will smell like sex. When you cut through the abdomen, the organs will spill out onto the floor, the stomach bloating even in death. When you saw through the spine, you will think of Frankenstein and his nighttime labors.
Labor: ORIGIN Middle English labo(u)r, from Latin labor: ‘toil, trouble.’
To make a child, combine an egg and a sperm. But there is violence to it. When the egg is released from the ovary, a follicle ruptures. If the egg remains unfertilized, it dissolves. If it is fertilized, the division and then multiplication of cells begins.
Incarnate: ORIGIN late Middle English, from ecclesiastical Latin incarnat-, ‘made flesh’; from the verb incarnare, from in- ‘into’ + caro, carn- ‘flesh.’
There’s always a little carnage in creation.
To the Sister I Never (Knew I) Had:
How difficult it has been to find a balance between caring for the creations of my body and the creations of my mind.
Frankenstein starts with letters from the explorer Walton to his sister back in England. Walton writes of his ambitions, his desire to explore the North Pole. Instead, he finds Victor Frankenstein.
But, of course, you do not—now—exist. If you had, you were absorbed back into wherever we came from before I was born.
And now I have twins.
I am ambitious—like Walton, like Frankenstein—to explore, to discover, to create.
Frankenstein chose the creation of his mind. It was his research, his scientific experiments, his defiant intellect, and his brutal determination that led him to create life not from his body but from his laboratory. He kept a journal of his accomplishments, but the reader of Frankenstein does not get to read it. Only his creature does.
I keep a journal too:
Washington, DC, July 5th, 20—.
That looks so stark. I’m pregnant! That’s better—and closer to how I feel.
(Even then, barely pregnant enough for the second line on the stick to show, I was struggling with our expectations of what a mother should be.)
Washington, DC, July 28th, 20—.
(That’s all I wrote in my journal that day, and for many days thereafter—aside from a quote from No Country for Old Men: “All the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door.”
I couldn’t manage the door. I could not fathom a life—as a writer, as a person, as a mother of twins; I was convinced they—two against one—would be my undoing. I was completely dismayed.)
I wonder: will my twins ever read these words, as Frankenstein’s creature did? Will they understand the powers and responsibilities of creation? Or will they unravel my life, as the creature does Frankenstein’s?
Once upon a time in Geneva, in the eighteenth century, there was a little boy named Victor Frankenstein, who grew up being told he could do anything. He created a life that killed everyone he loved.
Once upon a time in America, in the middle of the twentieth century, there was a generation of girls who were told they could have it all. They killed themselves trying to acquire it.
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, there was a rebellious angel who was cast out of heaven. How many died from his downfall?
Once upon a time, not all that long ago, there was a different kind of angel—what the Victorians called the Angel in the House, the ideal image of a wife and mother. Woolf wrote, “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”
Who tells your story?
Frankenstein is told through a set of nesting narratives, each a matryoshka doll within the next. First Walton’s, then Frankenstein’s, and then—at the very center—the creature’s, told with an eloquence that will surprise a first-time reader expecting the movie monster’s grunts and groans. This creature has read Milton, Plutarch, and Goethe, and these stories help shape the way he sees the world. They teach him about responsibility and betrayal, ego and exile, love and loss.
What stories shape a creator’s world? For Victor Frankenstein, it was alchemy and science, but nothing prepared him for the creature’s need.
What stories shape a mother’s world? What stories can teach her about desire and duty, self and other, person and parent? The Scarlet Letter? Anna Karenina? Sophie’s Choice? Medea? None of these stories show me a version of motherhood I want to live. Neither does Frankenstein. But only the last shows me the agony of creation—of creations. The struggle of caring for the creations of your body without neglecting the creations of your mind.
The human heart has four chambers. Half of them need oxygen; the other half are full of it.
His need, his oxygen, is the creation of beauty.
Victor’s friend Clerval
His heart beats poetry.
His need is love.
Elizabeth, Victor’s adopted sister and then bride
Her heart beats love for everyone.
To have guts is to be brave. To spill your guts is to tell your innermost secrets. To have a gut feeling is to know beyond knowledge.
There’s a newfound connection between your guts and your mind, what you eat and how you think, the bacteria you harbor and the mood that harbors you.
A pregnancy happens not in your gut but in a place no less visceral. It doesn’t care what you think or how you feel, what you eat—only that you do. Those cells keep dividing, multiplying, with no interference from your mind or will. All that growth happens in the dark.
Hands create in the light. They are of the body, but they can do the mind’s work.
Hands held Frankenstein in a hotel room far from home while eyes read—jealously—about Walton’s voyage and Frankenstein’s research, their freedom to pursue—single-mindedly—one committed passion
Hands held Frankenstein on a sick child’s bed while eyes read—heartbroken—about the creature confronting the creator who abandoned him: “I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.” And then I put the book down, cared for the sick child who had been sleeping, and didn’t pick up the book again for days.
How to weigh the work of the hands against the work of the gut, the work of the head against the work of the heart? Victor Frankenstein fled his creation as soon as it began to need, but I cannot flee mine.
I can cast out the Angel in my house again and again—but I cannot cast out my Adams. Nor can I cast out my writing. In choosing one, I am inherently neglecting the other. There are days when this feels like a butchering—half my self cut away or something unwanted stitched to me. A cleaving, either way.
But I do not abandon my creations. I will live my story and tell it, too. I will keep faith with my work, trust that the spark will come, the words stir. I will remind myself that I am the assembler, and raw materials are everywhere.