I’m Not Like Other Girls—I’m a Clone with Mind Control Powers

Sara Flannery Murphy’s novel "Girl One" asks what would happen if women could reproduce without men

Photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash

The events of Sara Flannery Murphy’s novel Girl One begin in the early ’70s, when nine women gave birth to babies created without male DNA while living together in a small commune known as The Homestead. (Picture Ina May’s Farm, but minus the fathers and their beards.) The mothers reared their children together as a group, even though each woman’s child was her exact replica. The Homestead was once the subject of newspaper headlines, magazine articles, and in-depth interviews, but 20 years after the commune fell apart, the moral outrage and general fascination with these women has mostly faded away. When Josephine Morrow—the first child born via parthenogenesis—learns that her mother is missing and that, perhaps, her mother’s version of the past may have glossed over some major details, she sets out on a cross-country fact-finding car trip to reconnect with the mothers and daughters who once made up her whole world. 

As she pieces together the truth about where she comes from, it becomes clear that in order to save the people closest to her, Josephine—who spent most of her life hoping that no one would notice who she was—needs to become a version of herself so concentrated and potent that who she is not only known, but impossible to deny. 

I chatted with Murphy about the actions of men who feel threatened, the misogyny of “I’m not like other girls,” and the sexism of reducing women in politics to snakes and witches.

Janelle Bassett: When Girl One opens, Josephine is returning to her hometown where her mother has gone missing and her childhood home has been set on fire. What made you decide to start the story with Girl One and Mother One—two people whose relationship to each other changed the world—not only apart, but essentially estranged?

What if men were facing the prospect of being cut out of the fertility process altogether?

Sara Flannery Murphy: The core of the story has always been Josephine’s journey to seeing her mother fully after a lifetime of not understanding her. But on a deeper level, I think about the ways mothers can be both the whole center of your universe and complete mysteries. I was so close to my mom as a kid, yet she was raising children in a religious household on the heels of a more secular, liberal youth. So I’d get these occasional glimpses into her past that she’d avoid or dodge.

As I’ve grown up and we’ve left religion behind, I’ve loved having a more complex understanding of my mom as an actual person. Like Josephine, though, I went through a stage where I’d think: fine! You don’t want me to know the real you? Maybe I don’t care, then! Because after that blissful closeness of childhood comes this stage where you start to see your mom as boring—someone to grow beyond.

JB: Totally. But also… ouch. Something I thought about while reading Girl One was the particular loneliness that comes from being “different” while looking the same. Can you talk about how Josephine’s personality and her ability to form relationships were shaped by her being the first child conceived without male DNA? Being labeled a miracle AND a monster before you’re even wearing your first diaper is really a lot to handle.

SFM: Josephine is lonely—she doesn’t reference childhood friends, she doesn’t make friends with her med school colleagues—but she doesn’t conceptualize herself as lonely. In a way, her difference is a shield for her, because she has a reason to be aloof. I’ve known quite a few people who have that love-hate relationship with their own intelligence or anxiety or various outsider qualities— where you yearn to belong, but also find a shelter and identity in your weirdness.

JB: I love the scenes where the sisters (or the other women born via parthenogenesis) get the chance to talk to each other privately, candidly, after being reunited. Many of these scenes take place in beds, a sort of call-back to the intimacy they must have shared as children—sleeping near each other and giggling after lights out. The late-night, feminine co-conspirator energy of those sections rang so true for me. How did you tap into that?

SFM: Piggybacking on my previous answer, it was lovely to explore Josephine’s awakening to regaining these female friendships. At first, she’s so bluntly focused on finding her mom that she doesn’t relish the reconnection, but over the course of the story, it becomes more and more meaningful to her that she found this companionship again.

I’ve been fascinated by the way women supposedly manipulate the world—that my very body was sending signals to men that could manipulate them into lust, violence.

I also wanted to show that Josephine hadn’t sought out other girls and women because she was fixated on the idea of male approval as this ultimate prize. Reading my old journals from my late teens, early 20s, it breaks my heart to see my “not like other girls” misogyny. I know now it was from deep insecurity, this terror of not fitting in with other girls. And when I felt left-out, I had this whole model of misogyny at my disposal to aim at girls who rejected me. I was fully responsible for my own sexism, but it’s such an easy trap to stumble into when the pitfalls are surrounding every step. Even now, I catch myself when I judge moms at my kids’ schools—so easy to mutter in my head about cliquish suburban mommies, when having mothers as friends is incredibly affirming.

JB: Some scenes felt like they had a clear horror movie influence. I am thinking of the scene in Emily’s room and, much later, in the forest where words were slashed into the trees. (There are probably more examples, but I’ve blocked them out because I’m delicate and wimpy when it comes to anything remotely scary!) Did you watch or rewatch any particular movies for inspiration while writing these parts?

SFM: Ooh, good question! I’m constantly watching horror movies and they’ve turned into a gothy stew in my brain that affects everything I write. I’m really into the isolation of the woods, and the way these pockets of wild forest still live on in developed cities. In my childhood home, we had an undeveloped patch of forest next to our backyard and it felt so enchanted and scary.

There’s a brilliant episode in Atlanta that plays with this, when Alfred gets lost in the woods in the middle of an otherwise heavily populated area. (The episode is called … “Woods”.) Atlanta isn’t explicitly horror, and it’s not an obvious influence on Girl One, but I was rewatching because I admire that series so damn much and it struck me how many tiny connections worked their way into my books over the years. And as to Emily in the attic, that was my nod to the Bronte-inspired idea of the madwoman.

JB: I saw that Atlanta episode! Yes, it felt like anything could happen to him out there under cover of night and dense foliage. Now, let’s talk powers. Josephine learns she has the ability to control people’s minds, forcing them to do what she wants. About wielding her new power she says, “I wanted to feel that dizziness that I now associated with reaching into the world and getting what I wanted from it.” Suddenly she can make people listen, and this ability seems to help her make sense of what it is she actually wants. And Cate’s power is healing bodies. She can fix what’s broken, clean up the worst messes. Tell me about how you chose the daughters’ unique abilities and the way they play into (or against) female stereotypes?

SFM: My editor, Daphne, wanted each power to tie specifically to rumors, fairy tales, and stereotypes that women have faced for hundreds of years. Without giving too much away, Delilah’s powers tie into witchcraft; Emily’s into soothsaying. And the powers aren’t just nodding to the supernatural side of things, but to very real misogyny.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way women supposedly manipulate the world around them. I internalized this idea that my very body was sending signals to men that could manipulate them into lust, violence. Then you watch political races with women candidates who are accused of being snakes, witches, of running everything behind the scenes while also being weak and ineffectual. It’s Eve with that apple all over again. And it’s a pernicious idea: women are constantly guilty without having the power that comes along with responsibility. Which isn’t to say women can’t be powerful or hurt people through that power. But just that there’s a disproportionate sense of women being manipulative, and it’s difficult to argue transparently against that claim.

At first, Josephine’s mind control powers belonged to a different Girl. I loved that idea of—okay, what would it look like if women could manipulate people, unnaturally so? Her whole personality sparked to life when I gave her mind control instead of super-strength. She has to learn how to not use it for selfish, harmful reasons— she has to face her own arrogance.

JB: One of the most ominous parts of the book, for me, was realizing that the men in the woods weren’t on their side—that their strength and authority would be used against them, not for them. And other male characters in the book turn out to be… less than trustworthy. These dudes are really making the case for parthenogenesis!

SFM: I struggled with this because I didn’t want every man in the book to be terrible. It sounds goofy because men (well … white/cis/straight ones, anyway) aren’t struggling for positive representation. But it didn’t feel nuanced enough to make men nothing but villains, because, for so many women, men are positive presences in our lives.

But yeah, overall? The men aren’t doing great in this book. When the majority of the story takes place in 1994, “virgin birth” is still limited, but the promise—or threat—of it has entered the public imagination. The ability to create life is so powerful, yet it’s been turned into a liability for women (and people with uteri) for thousands of years. What if men were facing the prospect of being cut out of the process altogether?

If women were able to reproduce without men, that would be a huge threat to men’s role in the gene pool, and to women’s roles in the world. So the men that Josephine and friends encounter are angry, and scared, and … well, not on their best behavior.

JB: I really like the idea that the women in Girl One are part of a semi-hidden lineage—that throughout history people have been able to reproduce on their own from time-to-time, but these stories have been passed down as fairy tales and fables instead of facts. By the end of the book, Josephine has gone from being a private, guarded loner to being part of this high-powered (wink wink) close-knit group. Plus, she has a fuller understanding of her mother and her origins, a budding romantic relationship, and then this historical connection to a long line of outsiders with otherworldly skills. Can you talk about who Josephine is at the end of the book after all the losses, gains, headlines, miles and fires?

The ability to create life is so powerful, yet it’s been turned into a liability for women (and people with uteri) for thousands of years.

SFM:  From the beginning, I wanted to trace her shift from this arrogant but naïve young woman who puts so much stock into male approval to someone who’s able to think honestly about the strength and power of other women.

The process is painful for her, and she resists it. I didn’t want to present change as a neat, singular destination. I wanted Josephine to backslide—even late in the book, she underestimates other women, or puts trust in the wrong people. But her inner transformation, ultimately, is more powerful even than finding out she has superpowers.

JB: In a virgin birth scenario, would you rather be the mother or the daughter, the original or the replica?

SFM: Daughter (no offense, Dad, I love you). Because I’ve already reproduced with a partner and it hasn’t been so bad. Also, significantly, because I want some powers! I don’t know which one I’d get. Maybe a boring one, like the ability to fall asleep at will, or to predict but not control the weather.

JB: The powers are pretty alluring, but think I’d go with Mother. We all pretty much end up becoming our moms with regular reproduction, but at least we have a few years where we can pretend that’s not what’s happening! Hey, maybe that’s how the daughters’ powers developed—from the supernatural angst of becoming their mothers.

SFM: OMG. I’m using that. 

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