By Denise Duhamel
So often we are drawn to literary villains because of our shadow selves, parts of us so ugly, selfish, or antisocial we repress them. Sometimes we even find ourselves rooting for the villain—if we can’t be the heroes, we can at least find release in cackling along with Captain Hook, Tom Ripley, Hannibal Lecter, or the Joker. And we often can’t help but identify with those villains who are written with empathy and complexity.
In most novels, comic books, or films this villain will be conquered, suppressed, or will enjoy a narrow escape that makes us feel both excited and ill-at- ease. In a sequel, the hero or heroine will battle this villain again, a rematch that seems psychologically true as we recognize the cycles of evil around us.
But how do we negotiate a villain who acts with impunity, with no heroine on the way to save the injured party? How do we negotiate a villain in a poem that has no sequel or counterpart? How do we negotiate a villain in a poem that offers no rescue, just an emboldened perpetrator?
Ai’s “Child Beater” (from her first book Cruelty, published in 1971) presents us with such a villain. The speaker is an abusive mother who seemingly enjoys inflicting pain on her daughter. It is a poem like no other, as Ai gives us very little back-story to humanize the abuser or make sense of the abuse. Though this is a dramatic monologue, the mother in “Child Beater” is not a famous mother from history or from a recent news story in which a child is either rescued or found dead, a detail which might put an end to an unbearable situation. The mother in “Child Beater” is no Joan Crawford, misunderstood star of the big screen, and the setting of the poem is not a glamorous one. Ai’s speaker does not have special powers or any warped intelligence to admire, and the violence is grotesque, banal, seemingly “real.”
The relentless beatings simply seem to go on forever in this poem, and beyond it.
Ai’s poems are remarkable for their revelations and guts, for boxing her readers into impossible emotional corners. In “Child Beater,” we are not sure at first how to react, except perhaps in horror. The mother Ai creates, though, does evoke empathy for the battered child, perhaps even more than if the poem were written in the child’s voice, and this is no small accomplishment, as the child remains “voiceless” throughout, without any characteristics we might recognize in children we know. In this way, the child becomes a stand-in for all abused children, and perhaps this poem is a call to action, provoking empathy for all the children hidden in the basements of poverty and neglect. Critic Claudia Ingram goes so far as to say Ai’s poems call for the “disarmament of phobic violence”; her speakers are so blatant in their sadism that the poems demand a real-world response. With her villain’s gruesomeness, then, Ai compels us to look straight at this terrible person, and without the distraction we might get when encountering a fiendishly intriguing evildoer.
The villainous mother has no cape or nifty weapons—just a belt and a dog’s leash she “whirls” around her head like a lasso. She feeds her child in a “dinner bowl” on the floor, the degradation seemingly routine as the child crawls to it. The child-victim drinks from a “crushed paper cup,” suggesting that it has been given to her over and over again, the trauma highlighted by the rocking chair she cowers in, almost catatonic. There is something Pavlovian about the speaker beating her daughter as “she takes her first bite.” This scene is unspeakably awful, and yet Ai speaks of it, as the child beater “yells” at her daughter, who “keeps rocking; / back, her eyes open, forward, they close.”
The child’s mind is perhaps leaving her body, in shock, but resigned.
The anonymous victim in this poem is seven, what psychologists call the beginning of “the age of reason” or “the age of cooperation.” Though she has lived with this neglect her whole life, one of the true horrors of this portrait, we imagine, is that she might be becoming truly aware of the situation, might be folding herself inward forever. We wonder whether she recognizes that the violence committed upon her body is wrong. She probably does, and yet she is powerless to stop it.
American seven-year-olds are usually evolving beyond their pre-school days of all play and entering a more structured schedule, but the reader infers that the child in “Child Beater” has no such schedule or world beyond this pain-filled relationship with her mother. She has no point of reference, no ability to resist, and we see her lack of agency clearly, especially if we compare her to another notable seven-year-old character.
Elizabeth Bishop gives us a self-aware “Elizabeth” in “In the Waiting Room” (first published in her 1976 collection Geography III). The child in Bishop’s poem becomes acutely aware of the world beyond her as she reads an issue of National Geographic. She knows of war, seasons, darkness and light, warmth and cold. Most notably, she becomes one with her aunt, who is beyond the waiting room, inside a dentist’s office:
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
—Aunt Consuelo’s voice—
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me . . .
Elizabeth Bishop’s young character is learning empathy, how to contextualize the feelings and sounds of pain, as well as her place in the world. The girl in “Child Beater” is afforded none of these realizations, and Ai heightens her isolated suffering as she contrasts images of torture with images of regular girlhood. For instance, the world outside the room of terror contains a “pinafore” of rain, a sweet frilliness (at the same time, Ai is sure to let her reader know that the rain is “gray”). “Pinafore” sticks out from the diction of the rest of the poem in its quaintness, its softness, but the word belongs to the mother/speaker, and there is no “outside,” it seems, for the child. She is always covered and constrained by her mother, by the gray. She has no chance, even, to say “this is me.”
Meanwhile, the mother in “Child Beater” continues to dehumanize her child, criticizing her daughter for being “somehow fat” despite her one meal a day. She is repulsed by her daughter’s body, and, in a strange turn, reveals that she was also repulsed by her own body after childbirth, seeming to internalize, despite her deviancy, societal norms about female weight gain. This detail also hints at post-partum depression that has apparently gone untreated, which just might be the one humanizing thing about this monstrous speaker.
Ai does not let us linger for long in this moment of potential sympathy, though. Immediately, she depicts the mother setting out the dog’s bowl for her daughter to eat from, and though the food the child consumes is never described, we imagine it as a soft, horrible gruel.
The ending of the poem is particularly chilling as the villain-mother, dog leash in hand, says: “O daughter, so far you’ve only had a taste of icing, / are you ready now for some cake?” How can the reader not see the shadowy ghost of a birthday treat that this child was never given, the word “cake” becoming a perversion of celebration and of all things sweet?
It has been over forty years since Ai published “Child Beater,” a poem spoken by a monster mother of mythic proportions. While Anne Sexton (who loved Ai’s first book) and Sharon Olds (who writes so fiercely about abused children) have influenced a generation of writers, Ai remains singularly un-imitated. Perhaps this is because her vision allows for a villain who reveals an unapologetic id, an evil without slick coolness.
Martha Stout has written that 96 percent of the human population has a conscience, and we are perplexed when encountering someone who seemingly does not, like the speaker in “Child Beater.” We try to produce “explanations that come nowhere near the truth” in order to bring these people into our moral world.
Whenever I spend time with this poem, I find myself wanting to understand too, wanting to write a history, or even a name, for this mother, a fill-in-theblank timeline of awful occurrences that might explain why she’s acting this way. Whenever I spend time with this poem, I find myself wanting to take this woman into that “pinafore of gray water” to cleanse her of her transgressions. That is how uncomfortable it is to dwell here. That is how uncomfortable it is to look directly at this character and what she’s begetting.
For many readers, this “shadow self” of human behavior represented by the child beater will be completely unrecognizable, but not for everyone. And the cruelest thing about the poem, perhaps, is that Ai’s memorable villain does compel an empathetic response after all, for herself and her child, even as the poem offers very little sympathetic detail, refuses to show us how to deal with our unsettling need to understand. We are left reaching out without knowing why, aching in miscomprehension.
Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Her other titles include Blowout; Ka-Ching!; Two and Two; Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems; The Star-Spangled Banner; andKinky. She is a Distinguished University Professor in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami.