I stand over my daughter, vibrating with emotion. I clock how tiny her limbs, how loud her voice, but in that moment, I don’t see tiny. I see instigator. I see button pusher. I see a human whose sole purpose in life is to make me feel unhinged.
Children have a good way of taking the seemingly benign and morphing it to size. While I love my child, would literally break myself apart for her, enjoy spending time with her as I would a best friend, in these rare, toxic moments, it’s hard to walk away, take a deep breath, and remember that I’m the adult.
Only moments later, after I shut my daughter’s door that always sticks due to a slight fracture of wood at the top, we are in each other’s arms, apologizing.
She is only six.
It wasn’t until I became a mother that I observed the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. At playgrounds. In the grocery store. On summer vacation. In the security line at overcrowded airports. Growing up with movies like Mommy Dearest, I knew the wrath of some mothers (but was lucky enough to have one of the kindest imaginable).
While every mother is different, I still marvel at the seemingly universal experience we all share: the insane, blooming love mixed with the insane, blooming rage. How push-pull these relationships can be. How charged. How reticent.
Before I had my daughter, I was a journalist on death row. My former case work did not prepare me to sit across a plate glass window and stare into the doughy, white-washed face of a small-town mother accused of drowning her three young children in a lake. She stared at me with her crooked teeth, her vacant eyes, and parted her lips into a quaking smile.
“I didn’t kill my children,” she whispered. “I’m their mother.”
In extreme cases like these, it’s hard to know who to believe.
In literature—as in real life—we often cast men as villains. The man is the serial killer, the man is the terrorist, the man is always the bad guy. But really…the most terrifying villains can be the ones who create you.
When I decided to write a book about mothers and daughters, I wanted to lift the veil on these (sometimes) tumultuous relationships. I attempted to reveal how our children see not only the best parts of us, but the ugliest, rawest versions that are scrubbed of niceties and robbed of sleep. I aimed to show flawed characters who fuck up, who have regrets, who don’t deserve what they have, but are still bonded by what unites us all: blood.
In the domestic suspense and thriller genres, the most delicious villains can be the ones we least expect. Not the serial killer, the violent husband, or the kidnapper, but the ones who are built to protect and create: mothers.
While recent literature is studded with female villains, unreliable narrators, and puzzles you want to solve, in the current world of #MeToo, #TimesUp, and novels with female protagonists, we aren’t really seen as the villains.
But we certainly can be.
I shook the writer tree and asked some of my favorite fellow writers who their most memorable mother villains are. This is what they said.
Zoje Stage, author of Baby Teeth.
Her pick: Adora from Sharp Objects
Adora is just about the scariest mother villain ever. Her daughters are so messed up—one is covered with scars from self-harming, the young teenager acts like a baby at home and a femme fatale at school, and one is dead. But every time Adora tries to comfort one of her children—usually with medication—I want to jump out of my skin or jump into the book to stop the characters from opening their mouths. Adora is mild-mannered and smooth-talking, and her omnipresence makes her absolutely chilling to read.
Kelli Clare, author of Hidden.
Her pick: Cersei Lannister from A Game of Thrones
Don’t mess with mama’s little birds or else you’ll pay with your own life. I was a latecomer to Martin’s books but quickly became a Thrones fan. Cersei’s vicious character is an egotistical and highly motivated cutthroat antagonist, but readers can still find opportunities to empathize. After all, she was at one time an innocent child to whom awful things happened. Those terrible events were the seeds of the bitterness and fury that later grew to consume her. Cersei’s character also offers some likable qualities that we can access in ourselves, providing us with a more believable villain. Most evident in Cersei’s case is the unconditional love she gives each of her eccentric children. But is she cruel and wicked? You bet. And I love to hate her.
Kimberly Belle, author of Three Days Missing.
Her pick: Anna from Anna Karenina
I love a good, tortured villain, one you can love and hate at the same time. Anna Karenina wins hands down. I was rooting for her happiness, as I wanted to simultaneously reach through the pages and slap some sense into her. Her self-centeredness could be seen as a search for autonomy in a male-centric world, but some of her choices were fueled from a place of pride and not doing what was best for her family. She was the perfect combination of sympathetic and tormented, a woman confined by both her culture and her time.
Emily Carpenter, author of Every Single Secret
Her pick: Margaret White from Carrie
In spite of being fully aware of her daughter’s extraordinary deadly powers, Margaret does not choose to control Carrie in sophisticated ways like gaslighting, manipulation, or even reverse psychology. Oh no. She goes full balls-to-the-wall with crazy-aggressive, in-your-face religious abuse. From teaching her to have shame about her body (dirty pillows, anyone?) to keeping her away from a normal teenage life, her ill treatment of her daughter ultimately ends in her very satisfying demise. She’s a mother you love to hate.
Kate Moretti, author of In Her Bones
Her pick: Mrs. Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides
Mrs. Lisbon is such a complicated character; villain seems almost too strong a word. She was fearful, chilly, harsh, and strict, but she wasn’t evil. She was hopelessly misguided. Because of Mrs. Lisbon’s stranglehold on her daughters, all five of them commit suicide. After Cecilia’s suicide (by jumping out a window and impaling herself on their picket fence), Mrs. Lisbon attempts to loosen the rules to prevent the others from following the same fate. That is, until Lux (the promiscuous one) misses her curfew after Homecoming. The house is on lockdown, no one is allowed in or out, and the Lisbon girls are essentially imprisoned in their own homes for months. The only way out for the Lisbons is death via suicide pact. Mrs. Lisbon is broken by the death of her children and is never heard from again. I always find the most relatable villains to be the most terrifying, and Mrs. Lisbon is no exception.
Rea Frey, author of Not Her Daughter
My pick: Corrine Dollanganger from Flowers in the Attic
Never was there a more sinister mother than Corrine keeping her children locked away in an attic. I remember being tangled in sheets, flashlight in bed, devouring this book, cautious but optimistic that it would all turn out okay. As a child, I didn’t understand a mother’s cruelty to sacrifice her own children’s health and happiness. How could you keep your kids locked away? How could you sacrifice their livelihood for an inheritance? How could you feed your children donuts laced with rat poison? Corrine morphs from a mother who only wants the best for her four children to a selfish, cruel abuser that is the ultimate cautionary tale.