Wire Mesh Mothers by Elizabeth Massie
This is a book that has some really excellent factors, but others that are very bothersome, because they suspend disbelief in an otherwise very realistic plot and characterization. I'll start with the good first. The book is definitely a page turner. It is a fast, easy read, very exciting and intense, and draws the reader in right away. It was a wise decision to split the point of view between Mistie, Kate, and Tony, so the reader always knows more about the characters, what they've been through, and why they do the strange things they do, so one can understand them even if one doesn't condone them. This also helps the reader to care about each character and what happens to them, even the volatile, crude Tony. One wants it to all work out okay for everyone. The book's overall message and theme is important, thought-provoking, and relevant to modern society.
The reference to the monkey mothering experiment of Harry Harlow, both in the title and Kate's dream, is a great parallel to the girls' and Kate's desperate search for a replacement mother to give them support and comfort where their own mothers have failed, and how their replacement "wire mesh mothers" have only hurt them more even as they repeatedly try to obtain comfort from them. Kate's words at the end, about how far too many children are growing up without good mothers, works on both a literal and metaphorical level. The depiction of low socioeconomic status and the desperation and significant problems it brings are also well portrayed. Although the plot could be very disturbing (Tony's violence towards Kate, Tony's rape and extreme self-mutilation, the stabbing of the cop, Mistie's sister's death) it didn't err to the side of being too gratuitous, and it all was used as an illustration of the reasons for behavior and psychological states. The more time you spend with Tony and Mistie, the more the reader learns about them, the more they seem like real people, and the more sympathy grows, even as their behavior is slow to change or improve.
Another great message in the book is the cycle of abuse of females in a very patriarchal society. Each of the girls has been sexually abused by men. Kate was raped by a mugger, Mistie repeatedly was raped by her father, and Tony was raped at least twice, once which resulted in her giving birth at fourteen, once which resulted in her stabbing herself with the handle of a knife to make sure she would never get pregnant again. Only Mistie's sexual abuse is plain in her behavior, because she is still a young child, and rightfully so, Tony's and Kate's rapes are revealed later to add a level of understanding to their behavior. Each shows a different type of reaction that is valid and accurate, given their ages and situations.
Mistie, who has already lost a sister and is still a young child without power, shuts down, going nearly mute and instead escaping into TV and fantasy. She does not realize that what is happening to her is wrong, let alone that she can ask for help, so she retreats into silence. Kate, who is used to a comfortable, safe, rather privileged existence, falls into learned helplessness and a victim mindset, which leaves her a prime victim to Tony. Tony has had to fight for everything she's ever wanted in life, is not taken seriously in spite of her intelligence and potential, failed third grade not because of failing grades but because she missed 67 days of school, and at fifteen years old is so uncared for she had head lice and is allowed to roam freely in a wannabe gang. She is a fighter, but she only knows how to lash out in a frenzy rather than to assertively get what is rightfully hers. She is abandoned by her father, her mother, and society, and is understandably bitter and enraged, which grows to the point of borderline insanity and sociopathy.
Because Tony is smart enough to see that her femininity makes her victimized and thought less of, her desire to make herself look androgynous- to not be either a boy or girl, but just a "person," and even giving herself the unisex name Tony rather than the girlier Angela, is another common and understandable reaction to her victimization. Tony is similar to Foxfire's Legs Sadovsky and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Faith Lehane, a bright, capable girl who could be charming and a leader if properly guided, but who is forced to deny herself and her potential because of her trauma and instead becomes twisted and cruel. While Tony's crimes and cruelties are more extreme than Legs's, she too becomes androgynous and disgusted by sex, seeking her place by leading a gang. Like Faith, Tony is naturally drawn to power and strength and loathes to reveal her own weakness; she sees violence as a way of strength.
Yet despite her truly disturbing actions, Tony is still a child with hope, given the right handling. The reader can see her softening towards Mistie over time, and her genuine outrage when Mistie finally speaks of her abuse. As Tony comes to the conclusion that evil is genderless, she feels true regret for having killed the cop, and she vomits after having watched her friend accidentally kill a man during their botched robbery. She rescues Kate and Mistie from drowning at the last minute, and in the end, willingly goes into a burning building to try to save Mistie, then willingly lets herself die as punishment when she incorrectly believes she caused Mistie's death. The thought that a child as far gone as Tony- a child who grew up fatherless, in poverty, neglected, raped, unnutured, and unloved, giving birth to stillborn babies by 14, a child who kills pets, beats kids up, truants school, drinks, vandalizes, engages in robbery, hijacking, and assault…for a kid like that to still have softness speaks strongly of children's need for love and guidance, and their ability to change in time and with circumstances.
Another great theme is the stages of abuse possible. Women are shown as abused by others, abusing themselves after, and then, in the case of Tony, going on to abuse other females and internalizing male consternation of them. This was all very well done.
What I found incredulous was Kate's handling of the situation. First off, any teacher who would kidnap a child rather than appropriately investigate her abuse is crazy. It's hard to pity someone who has such little sense and who thinks she's above the law. Then, Kate makes very little effort to harm Tony or get the gun from her, even though Tony pees, vomits, changes clothes, and SLEEPS while holding the gun, and it should have been all too easy for Kate to take it. Kate is too broken and submissive too fast, and rarely tries to talk to Tony like a person rather than an abductor. Her words feed into Tony's sense of power rather than helping her to think clearly and with sympathy. She made little effort to get to know Tony or to help her, and she did nothing to help Mistie help herself either. If I had been in that car with Tony, Tony would still be alive, and so would the cop and her father before she felt forced to kill them. If Tony had been talked to as a human from the start and carefully directed into a better frame of mind, the ending, if not positive, could have held hope for a future they all could have possibly obtained.