AN INTRODUCTION BY LUCIE SHELLY
If I had to pick the family relationship most difficult to characterize, ‘mother-daughter’ would be up there as a contender — way up there — and I have a great relationship with my mother. When I was about 17, I remember her telling me that a friend of hers called her daughter her best friend and how lovely she thought that was. I told my mother she was not my best friend, and that she never would be — because she was more; she’s my Mum. I meant this with great love, but I still sometimes wonder if she found my words hurtful. That we could use entirely different descriptors for a relationship that is ours exclusively says as much to me about the limited terminology we have for this kind of love as it does about my potentially misguided attempt at profundity. Perhaps, then, the best way to consider a relationship that is irreducible is to write its story. That is what Michelle Ross has done for the mother and daughter in “If My Mother Was the Final Girl,” and done so with language that sears even as it is velvety.
One of the first things we learn about the woman and her teenage girl is that their shared love of slasher films is one of the few areas in which they find common ground. Their favorite is Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The “final girl” referenced in the story title is the last person left to survive or die in a graphic finale. But our narrator, the daughter, explains there is more to slasher movies than gore: “What you have to understand,” she tells us, “is that one, there is slasher etiquette; and two, the killer and the final girl are inextricably linked. The chief rule in slasher etiquette is that you laugh at neither of them.” The two women share many a night watching their bloody favorite together — sort of: “We put in Texas Chain Saw and each curl up in our own blankets at opposite ends of the couch…. We like being sucked up inside ourselves, safe in our own salty warmth.”
“Final Girl” builds towards a declaration by the mother, one quite different than mine, and along the way, Ross brings in a second mother-daughter relationship — that between the mother and grandmother. There is something brilliantly physical about the lineage of women, and before the story’s shattering end, drunk and staring at her mother, the narrating daughter tells us, “I’m spinning with desire. It’s like I’m all tentacles, a giant squid. Give me, give me, give me.” It’s writing born from the likes of Rosetti’s Goblin Market or Angela Carter’s “Reflections.” The moment, like the story and the relationship, is bizarre, and frightening, and entirely understandable.
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading
Mother-Daughter Relations and Other Horror Stories
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
“If My Mother Was the Final Girl”
by Michelle Ross
“…in the end, bloody and staggering, she finds the highway.” — Carol Clover
My mother’s laugh echoes. It’s Disney sinister, like a witch peeping her head into the magic cauldron to see that the hawks’ beaks and chickens’ hearts are brewing as they should.
Her face is buried inside a humidifier-like contraption, which sits on the coffee table like an altar. What I see is a large plastic box topped with curly, frosted hair.
I’m watching a program in which a psychic helps people communicate with their dead relatives. I don’t laugh along with my mother, though I too am skeptical.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m waiting for the microwave to beep. We were supposed to go out for dinner, but my mother has one of her headaches. It’s her sinuses that are the problem. They’re always blocked.
These headaches make her lose her appetite. They’re so bad sometimes that she doesn’t move for hours. She lies on the couch, and closed, her eyes look more pained than when open. It’s like she’s trying to push the headache out through her forehead, like pushing out a baby.
The contraption her face has disappeared into is new to my mother’s collection of headache helpers. There’s the rice bag that she heats in the microwave and wraps around her neck. There’s the eye patch filled with a green liquid. There’s the headband with magnets stitched into it. And the dish that she heats and fills with therapeutic oils that are supposed to open her breathing passages and relax her muscles.
These things help a little, but never enough. She’s looking for the invention that takes her headaches away forever. She’ll collect every gadget she can get her hands on until she finds it, even if it means she can open up her own museum.
She discovered most of these products on television. Half the contents of our apartment, from kitchen gadgets to electric wall art, are wonders she saw demonstrated on television. I hate that. I think it’s tacky, and I’ve told her so.
I’m lucky I don’t have an apartment of my own, according to my mother. She knows a woman who put her fifteen-year-old daughter up in her own apartment because they couldn’t stand the sight of each other. There are days when my mother swears that if she had the money she’d do the same thing. In another year I’ll be eighteen, old enough for her to kick me out legally. She’s made note of this fact on a number of occasions.
The one thing my mother and I share is a love for slasher films. When the first girl gets hacked up or sawed in half or stabbed in the breast, my mother says, “Now there’s real life for you.” And I glance at her sideways and think, you can say that again.
What you have to understand if you’re going to appreciate slasher films is that one, there is slasher etiquette; and two, the killer and the final girl are inextricably linked. The chief rule in slasher etiquette is that you laugh at neither of them.
What can you laugh at? The teenagers who decide it’s a good idea to have sex in the woods. Bimbo victims who slip and fall as they’re running away in high heels. Or very sad, pathetic attempts at killing, like shrunken old grandpa in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but there is always pain behind that laughter.
And the final girl? The killer? They’re nearly one and the same. They’re the two characters you can’t help but identify with. When the final girl is hiding in a closet that the killer is trying to break open, you’re in there with her as his knife slashes through each wooden slat. Her too-loud breathing is yours.
But you’re also out there with him as he approaches that door. You understand his rage, his desperation. You remember when he too was intruded upon, attacked — when someone broke into his house and screamed at him. He is as scared as she is. Fear and violence reproduce themselves. Or at the very least there’s the trauma that lasts forever and ever. And so you know that at the end when the final girl escapes, she hasn’t really. She’s bound to the killer in a way that the truck she jumps in back of can’t save her from. She will take the killer with her wherever she goes. She will never not be afraid. She will never not be angry. And this neverendingness will wear her out. It will ruin her. And she knows it. But there’s nothing she can do about it.
New Year’s morning my mother says she has to get out of this apartment before it kills her. She gives me an accusatory look, as if I have held her here against her will. It’s not worth mentioning that we didn’t leave the apartment yesterday because of her headache. I ended up taking NyQuil and going to bed at eleven. I’m as stifled by this space as she is.
“You coming?” she asks.
It’s bleak out there too. The sky is a sickly yellow. It’s the color that’s left when a bug dies on a windshield. The color of a sharp blow to the head.
The snow is two weeks old, and anything but clean. It’s the kind of weather people disappear in. I want to turn myself inside out, wring, and start over.
“Why not?” I tell her.
At the casino, she takes out forty dollars for herself before handing her wallet to me.
“If I ask for more money, don’t let me have it. Forty’s my limit. If I can’t win with forty, then it’s just not meant to be.”
I’m not old enough to gamble, not that I would anyway, so that means I sit in the buffet and read. Mostly the food is bland, but it’s hard to go wrong with ice cream and all the toppings you want. I have bowl after bowl until I feel ill. My waiter, who wears the requisite New Year’s star-spangled hat, gives me a packet of antacids with the check. He tells me his name is Julian, and he wants to know if I’ll be there this evening for the New Year’s Day party. They’re going to have a band and champagne and dancing.
“All the works,” he says.
When my mother is empty-handed, she collapses onto the chair across from me.
“You know the next nickel that goes into that machine is going to win,” she says.
“Mmm,” I say.
She doesn’t ask me for her wallet, but she muses aloud as to whether she should play just twenty more dollars’ worth. I am silent, which only irritates her further. She told me once that when I don’t say anything I seem like even more of a snob than when I do.
What I know about my mother’s childhood amounts to a smattering of abstractions about her mother, my grandmother: that she was an alcoholic, a chain smoker, a depressive, that she cheated on my mother’s father, and that she was abusive. I learned long ago not to ask for details. My mother shields herself from her memories as though defending against a sharp instrument, withdrawing into her bedroom for days at a time.
This is what I imagine:
My four-year-old mother finds a dying bird lying on hot concrete. Its wings and legs must be broken because it just lies there, flopping like a fish out of water. My mother, transfixed by it, watches until it makes its last flop. Then she pokes the bird’s feathers with her fingertip; already her nails are bitten to nubs. When the bird doesn’t move, she picks it up, one hand for its body, one to hold its head. To save the stiff, soft body from the sun, she brings it in to her mother, who is taking a bath.
Her mother’s body looks unusually large and curvy, magnified by the water’s surface. There is a hardness about her too. She is a sunken gourd, the hollow inside swollen with water. Her knees peek through the surface, two bony turtles’ shells.
What’s most striking is her hair, the yellowest yellow you ever saw. Really her hair is darker like mine and my mother’s. Years of nicotine have created this baby-doll, too-bright yellow.
When my mother brings her the bird, her palm opened for her mother to see, what she has in mind is to lay the bird body along the porcelain edge of the tub, like an offering. But before she can place it there, her mother splashes her and the bird and tells her to get out of the house.
“You have no sense,” she yells.
My mother hides the bird under an empty, upside-down flower pot for later because her mother is already calling after her again. Naked except for a frayed lime-green towel around her middle, her mother knocks her on the head several times, each one harder, and tells her to scrub her hands.
“Thick, thick skull,” she says. “Nothing but bone in there.”
Minutes later, her mother emerges from her bedroom in a bright orange sleeveless dress, low cut in the front, a red scarf wrapped around her still-damp hair. My mother thinks she looks like an angry vegetable.
“Get your shoes on,” her mother says, wrapping a pecan roll in brown paper and giving it to my mother to carry. This is when my mother is the youngest child, and her siblings are all in school.
My mother trails behind watching the orange skirt hem fall behind and catch up with round, pink calves. Her mother does not ask her to hold her hand. She doesn’t turn around to see if she is still there.
When they get to the man’s house, my mother is left alone on a scratchy sofa. Her mother throws her arms around the man’s neck, and he all but drags her away, a bag of stolen goods that must be quickly hidden. My mother stares at a painting of an owl on a tree limb.
I return home from school to find The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on the kitchen counter, a fresh bottle of vodka next to it. Texas Chain Saw is our favorite. It’s the triple chocolate truffle of slasher films. When the Sawyer men place the hammer into shrunken old corpse-looking grandpa’s hand and he keeps missing Sally’s head, dropping the hammer like it was a pencil, you just can’t help but smile. I mean it hurts so bad that if you don’t smile, you’ll cry.
Slasher films mean one of two things, either a really good day or a really bad day. Most often it’s the latter.
“Know that Colleen woman I told you about?” my mother says when she comes out of the bathroom in her robe. The skin under her eyes is yellow. Her sinuses.
“Who?” I say.
“I came back from lunch today with a slice of cheesecake, and she had the nerve to roll her eyes at me. She said that I sure ate a lot and that there’s just no possible way someone could eat so much and stay so small. I swear to you she was trying to say I must have one of those eating disorders, bulimia or something, or else I’d be fat like her and the rest of them in there. All of them are just plain jealous of me because I’m not fat. They’re all just a bunch of miserable old cows.”
“You’re just the belle of the ball, Mom,” I say. “Everyone knows it’s lonely at the top.”
“I just can’t stand a single one of them. They’re all so mean and hateful. It’s hard to believe people can be so terrible.” She rubs a purple towel against her hair.
“Not so hard,” I say. I unscrew the top off the vodka, get a bottle of tonic from the pantry, and set out two glasses. I put three ice cubes in each, fill them half way up with vodka, the rest tonic.
I pass her a glass.
“I worked hard to be where I am. I took night classes while working full-time and raising you, and all by myself.”
“I know,” I say. I show her a pizza from the freezer and wait for a nod, which she gives.
We put in Texas Chain Saw and each curl up in our own blankets at opposite ends of the couch. A few times our feet accidentally touch through the blankets, and we bounce off each other. We’re like mollusks or clams or conches. We like being sucked up inside ourselves, safe in our own salty warmth.
I saw the house she grew up in just once. This was also the only time I ever saw my grandparents. My mother took me to visit them the Christmas before her father died. They’d found cancer in three different places in his body, so I guess she wanted to see him one last time.
The living room was like a place deep under the ground. Whenever I thought about being buried alive, usually I thought no oxygen, bones desperate for space, and the worst kind of aloneness you could imagine. But being buried alive with other people, your family, and the smell of them as they suck up oxygen that could have been yours: that was worse.
Three scrawny, hairless dogs were piled on top of each other in a round bed next to the television. The house smelled like hairless dog skin.
The rest of the house was closed doors with thick, mottled glass, so that all I could see were faint shadows. There was almost no light in the house except for in the kitchen.
My grandmother’s hair was thin and yellow and half-hidden under a pale blue scarf. Her face seemed yellow too, and I could barely understand what she said. I remember that I asked my mother later whether my grandmother was from another country.
My mother said, “You can’t understand her because she’s smoked cigarettes her whole life. She’s lucky she can make sounds at all.”
The kitchen table, which was nothing more than a large card table, the kind my mother would erect so that we could put together a puzzle, was covered with sweets my grandmother had made. Metal pans were arranged like a mosaic. There were brownies, oatmeal cookies, butter cookies, a cake with cherries and marzipan, and fudge, peanut butter and chocolate. She pushed the pans toward me, and I hesitated. I knew the story of Hansel and Gretel. Maybe my grandmother wouldn’t try to fatten me up to eat me, but something bad would surely happen. If I put those gruesome sweets into my mouth, my hair would fall out or I’d turn a dull, sickly green.
My mother didn’t touch the food, so I felt I had to. I felt sorry for this woman, my grandmother, who seemed so small and whom my mother didn’t touch or smile at. But I was afraid of her too. My mother wouldn’t treat her that way unless she’d done something awful. My mother held her father’s hand. She asked him if he was taking care of himself. She brought him packages of summer sausage and a cheese log. She wasn’t a bad daughter.
“I’m sure going to eat good,” he said.
Before we left, my grandmother stood and lifted a cardboard box from the top of the refrigerator. She handed it to me, and I noticed that her nails were bitten down like my mother’s. She said, “Merry Christmas,” and I looked at my mother.
“Go ahead,” she said, so I opened the box to find a little book with a faded orange cover, the spine barely holding on. It was called Bitsy the Spider.
“It was your mother’s. I found it in the hall closet,” my grandmother said.
In the car on the way home, my mother asked me if I really wanted to keep that old torn-up book. “We could go to the bookstore. I’ll get you some nice, new books. I’ll get you whatever you want.”
“I want to keep it because it was yours,” I said.
My mothers’ dark blonde hair was tucked behind her ears, and her lips were pulled tight. She looked fierce, like she was going to tear up the road.
It’s a Friday night, and though we’ve hardly spoken all week, my mother comes home with a large gold plastic bag.
I’m making tea when she enters the door. She smiles at me.
“I got you a present,” she says.
“A present? What for?”
She gives me a look that asks why I’m not playing along.
Earlier in the week I developed a rash on my stomach, and when I told her I was worried about it and wanted to see a doctor, she told me it was nothing and that it would go away.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
She said I was a hypochondriac — this from my mother, who is sick all the time.
I went to the doctor on my own, and it turned out I had scarlet fever. Within a couple of days, the rash covered most of my legs and arms and chest. They weren’t little spots like hives. My rash was like a puddle of purple ink, spilled all over my body. I looked like a burn victim.
It was thirty degrees outside, but I walked around the house in shorts and a tank top, not just because I was burning up half the time, but because I wanted my mother to see my skin, to see what she had called hypochondria.
For three days I was in so much pain I couldn’t sleep. No over-the-counter pain medication would do the job.
She hasn’t said a thing to me, though. What she did was yesterday she brought home a bag full of soup packets.
Now there’s this gold bag.
“Open it up,” she says.
I’m scared to look. My mother’s gifts are always disappointing, if not downright depressing. Inside the bag are two plain white boxes, and I lift the lids to find two wigs. Both are long and straight, but one is red and the other is blonde, a good deal lighter than mine or my mother’s hair.
“You pick whichever one you want,” she says.
“And you’re keeping the other?” I say.
“That’s what I was thinking, but if you want both of them, that’s okay. Try one on.”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Come on. Put one on.”
“Did they cost a lot?” I ask. This always makes her angry, but I hate to think of money wasted.
“No,” she snaps. “They were a bargain. Why don’t you try the red one?”
I lift the red wig from its box. It’s longer than I realized, and it’s the color of cinnamon. My hair is already up in a bun, so I slip it over my head. I haven’t a clue how to do this. My mother adjusts it for me. She’s grinning from ear to ear.
“Look in the bathroom mirror,” she almost whispers.
I look like a stranger. The wig must be a pretty good one because I think that if I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t know it was a fake. I imagine myself running through the aisle of a drug store, knocking bottles from shelves. My lipstick is smeared across my cheek, and I am singing at the top of my lungs.
“I was thinking Sally,” my mother says. She doesn’t have to say Texas Chain Saw. There is no other Sally.
“But Sally is blonde,” I say.
“I don’t know. It’s long and straight like hers. You could try the other one. It’s blonde.”
“But why should I want to be Sally?” I ask.
My mother cannot answer me. She is quiet, and then she says, “I’m so sick and tired of your mouth. I try to do something nice for you, and this is what I get.”
“I like it,” I say, and I think that perhaps I’m telling the truth. This girl fits my mood. I feel malicious. “It’s pretty. It fits real well. Why don’t you put yours on?”
“They’d both look better on you,” she says, still agitated. “You keep them both.”
“No,” I say. “You always do that. I want you to put the other one on. It’s yours.”
“Yes. I’ll help you.”
I pin back her hair with a handful of bobby pins. I feel cruel somehow, my hands in her hair like this. Her hair is dry and brittle from years of coloring. The bobby pins give her the look of a woman who hangs out in laundromats, smoking cigarettes and coughing. My mother has never smoked a cigarette in her life, yet she has aged like a smoker. Stress has laid its hand on her. I set the blonde wig down upon her head. I pull and tug until it seems snug. She was right. It doesn’t look good on her. The blonde is too blonde.
“Look at you. Now there’s a Sally if I ever saw one,” I say.
“It’s heavy,” she says.
“Yes, I know,” I say.
“Do you think people get used to it?” she asks. She is running her fingers through the strands. It hurts me to see her do this.
“Somehow I don’t think so,” I say.
When I won a couple of awards at my junior high commencement, my mother told me she was proud of me. Then she told me I was lucky that I had someone who was proud of me. She said she never had that.
“It’s not like your mother wanted you to fail,” I said. I didn’t believe then that a parent could intentionally hurt her child. It’s not that I never felt hurt by my mother. It’s just that I believed she wanted the best for me. I never had anyone to compare us to. I didn’t have anyone but my mother.
“She told me I was worthless,” my mother said.
“She didn’t use that word,” I said.
“She used that very word. She said terrible, mean things to me. You can’t begin to imagine how terrible a mother can be to her own children. You’re lucky. You have a good mother who works hard for you, and who loves you.”
And I remember thinking, but what about all the times she called me a jerk? If it’s terrible to call your child worthless, is jerk harmless?
And once my mother called me a “fucking bastard,” but that was an accident. My mother almost never swears. She believes that swearing is one of the surest ways to tell if someone’s trashy. On the rare occasions when I’ve let foul words slip out of my mouth, my mother has let me know in no uncertain terms that talk like that will hold me back from everything worth wanting in life. Goodbye good job, goodbye respect, goodbye boyfriend or husband.
“I just want you to have a good life. My mother never did care what became of me,” she said.
And I thought, what about her brothers and sisters? There are six of them. As far as I understand, they are all still in contact, with each other and her mother. It’s my mother who left. She’s the only one who ran away and never went back. She’s the only one who escaped.
So, is she the only victim? Or the only survivor?
After putting on the wigs, we get drunker than we ever have before. Usually, we have just one or two vodka tonics, just enough to make us warm and tipsy. And even that is rare, maybe once or twice a month. My mother is adamant that we don’t “overdo it.” This is so we don’t become like her mother. If I start to pour more than two drinks, she tells me that I better not become an alcoholic. “It’s in your blood. Don’t let it out,” she’ll say.
But in these wigs, we are not ourselves; or maybe we are more ourselves than ever. We drink, and we drink. We end up sitting on the apartment balcony, which is barely large enough for two chairs and the terra cotta flower pot containing only hardened clods of dirt and snow. The chairs are covered in snow too, so we brush it off with our bare hands. I’ve changed into sweatpants and a sweater. I can no longer feel the aches in my tired, fever-ridden body. The vodka has numbed me. Instead I feel a dull throb in my head. My head is a dancer in a deranged music box. It spins and spins.
My mother holds the bottle of vodka in one hand, her glass in the other. She is slumped back, but her gaze is focused. In the long, too-blonde wig, she looks like a puppet or a mannequin.
“I can’t imagine how you could be more different from me. That’s the problem. We’re just so different,” my mother says.
She isn’t looking at me. She’s looking at the porch opposite ours. It’s strung with red Christmas lights, and the chairs are turned upside down to keep the snow off the seats.
She’s got it all wrong, I think. We are the same, she and I. We are nearly identically flawed. And that’s usually what I fear and hate the most. But for this one night, I love it all.
“Oh, Mom,” I say. I’m giddy. “You’re so silly. We’re not different. We can’t talk, and we can’t say sorry and love and — ”
“You don’t even know how different,” she says.
My knee bumps into hers, and she shifts in her seat.
“My head hurts,” she says. She sets down the vodka and rubs her temples.
“Let’s just say it all. Please. Let’s say everything,” I say.
“I’m going to bed,” she says sharply.
Oh God, all I want is for her to hold me. I want to tuck myself into her stomach and neck. And she could touch my hair and kiss my forehead and eyelids. I want to smell the salt on her. But none of this is going to happen.
She stands and fumbles with the sliding glass door. In the reflection, she is a dark smudge in the shape of a person, a smudge that is close enough to wrap its fingers around my throat.
Without turning around, she says, “Sometimes I really hate you. And then I have to stop myself and remember who you are and that you weren’t sent here to eat me up.”
I don’t feel shocked by this confession. Somehow, this seems the most natural thing. It’s like getting the dish on someone, and you just want more.
So I say, “Sometimes I really hate you too.” I can’t feel my lips enough to know whether I’m grinning as wide as I think. I want this to go on all night. I want us to have it out until we’re kissing each other on the mouth. There is a part of me that knows I probably won’t feel so good about this in the morning, but for now I’m spinning with desire. It’s like I’m all tentacles, a giant squid. Give me, give me, give me.
But my mother claws the porch door open. “I can’t breathe out here,” she says.
Alone on the porch, I see my mother running through brambles. Everything is gray and orange. She is barefoot, and her hair is long like the wig, but real. There is blood on her face. Her skin is scratched and torn. I hear her breathing, thick rasps in and out. Something is chasing her, a loud rumbling. It’s a crunching, heavy noise. She throws large stones over her shoulders as she runs, trying to kill or slow down whatever it is.
With my mind, I try to reach into this picture and lift my mother out. I try to switch us. Let me run for a while, I think. I’m stronger than her, younger. But it’s no use. Trying only wears me out. I know I better get myself inside. It’s dangerous to pass out in the cold, and it must be twenty or below out here.