A few days ago, I had the disturbing experience of stepping barefoot on the bloody, decapitated body of a mouse. My first reaction was of course a back-wheeling step away from the corpse. My second was to clean off my foot and dispose of the mouse. But my third was to think of the unfortunate animal’s last, terrifying moments, being chased by my cat, and possibly being toyed with, before the fatal blow came.
“Increasingly I tend to write nonfiction that jumbles up my own experiences with universal problems.”
This macabre domestic tableau, and the sequence of emotions that followed, reminded me of writer Maud Newton’s moving essay for The Awl website last year, “I, Rodent.”
In it, she effectively weaves reporting about genetic engineering, and the mice used therein, with a personal essay about her lifelong identification with the animals. That may sound like a Frankenmouse kind of story, but it’s quite, quite lovely, giving emotional heft to questions about the morality of genetic science by grounding them in her own life experiences.
She talks about the time a handsome boy went around a group of older kids she was hanging out with, saying what animal they’d be. Lynx. Zebra. Grizzly bear. Fox. Then, she writes: “Eventually he reached me, took in my pale skin, my freckled face, my enormous brown glasses. ‘You’d be a mouse,’ he said. I wanted to turn over the coffee table and throw a lamp against the wall, quash his judgment with ten seconds of fury. Instead I smiled regretfully and nodded. I wasn’t up to a scene and objecting politely would only confirm his opinion of me.”
Although she hates being seen as mousy, she’s actually always liked mice. She describes the pet ones she had, who increased in number and bewildered her even as she loved them. “Their interchangeability troubled me; I’d given them names but sometimes got them confused.”
It is that interchangeability — between mice, but also between human and mouse — that is the emotional core of the piece; Newton puts herself in the (tiny) shoes of a cowering lab mouse as the surgical-gloved hand reaches for it inside the cage.
The result? We are all “I, Rodent.”
I talked to her via email about empathy, and combining humor, sorrow and absurdity in her work, and why this is one of her favorites of her own essays. The answers have been slightly edited for length and flow.
You mention in the essay the “origin” story for this piece, an article for Longreads on the BBC America clone dystopia, “Orphan Black.” I read that and saw a strong thread running through both pieces: a deeply personal attraction/revulsion for biotechnology and genetics engineering. I was struck (chilled, actually) by this line in the Longreads piece: “I came into being through a kind of failed eugenics project. My parents married not for love but because they thought they would have smart children together. This was my father’s idea, and over the six months they dated he persuaded my mother of its merits. In the end, as an adult, I was a terrible disappointment to him, and he blamed my mother’s genes.” You play it so deadpan, almost for laughs, but this seems to go to the core of you. Can you talk a bit about this theme and why it resonates so deeply?
It does go to my very core. Here I wanted to keep the focus on Cosima Herter, thus the brevity, and the matter-of-factness. But I tried leaving out this detail about my background, and I found that I needed to include it because it’s so tightly knitted up with the intensity of my interest in “Orphan Black” and my admiration for Herter’s imagination. I started watching “Orphan Black” because I thought it might be helpful for the book I’m writing about ancestors. I kept watching because the storytelling infuses life into so many abstractions I’ve spent years thinking about.
“I kept trying to finish the essay, but the end wasn’t congealing. Eventually I asked myself, What am I avoiding here? What am I embarrassed to reveal?”
As for the experience of being a failed eugenics project: It’s strange to realize that two people got married and had a child for the precise purpose of bringing a particular kind of person into being. It’s also scary to be a kid and realize you’re not turning out to be what your parents hoped to engineer. All parents have hopes and fears about their children, though, so in that sense it’s a universal conundrum, just as the questions “Orphan Black” poses are universal. Why are some of us defiant, some of us docile, some of us professors and some of us cops, some of us sexy and some of us prim, some of us straight and some of us queer? Genes are a fascinating riddle. We’re manipulating them but there’s so much we don’t understand.
A related question: There’s such a strong sense of identification with mice in the piece, a feeling of interchangeability that’s humanizing and dehumanizing alike. Was it your goal to connect your own “mouseness” with the lab mice to make readers connect more deeply to the broader subject of genetic engineering, or was this always intended as a personal essay that used the lab mice to illuminate you? Or maybe you had a different goal altogether?
Increasingly I tend to write nonfiction that jumbles up my own experiences with universal problems. This approach evolved somewhat accidentally, through all my years of blogging. It’s not appropriate in every context, and I have mixed feelings about it. But I’ve found that the more transparent I am about what draws me to ponder some larger phenomenon, the deeper I’m able to go in my thinking and the more readers seemed interested in following me there.
I started this particular essay because I was alarmed by George Church’s “Regenesis” while also being impressed by it. Church is best known as the guy who’s trying to recreate the woolly mammoth in his Harvard lab. He’s brilliant and dogged and, in my opinion, also very careless. As I mention in “I Rodent,” while I was reading the book and afterward I had nightmares about lab mice. While thinking about the mice, I started mulling over my many experiences of rodents and of being dismissed as mousy. I decided to experiment with moving back and forth between the two and see what happened.
You seem like a very empathetic writer. One of my favorite lines, one that will haunt me, is this one: “In bed at night I tried not to imagine them, their bodies trembling, hearts racing with terror, as they ran from someone’s pet snake.” I want to go broad and have you talk about the role of empathy as a writer/journalist. How important do you think it is? Is it possible to be too empathetic?
I really enjoy cool, true writing — Muriel Spark is one of my favorite novelists, I adore the nasty accuracy of much of Hilary Mantel’s dialogue, and I imprinted very early on Joan Didion — but I often when I write that way I end up feeling I’ve been unfair, I’ve left something out. For example, I wrote a semi-speculative essay for The Awl’s most recent year-end series, about the me I might have been if I hadn’t turned out to be myself. It’s called “Fundamentalist Horror Film.” Nothing in it is exaggerated, and people (apart from some evangelicals) responded well to it, but I still feel dissatisfied. There are so many layers missing.
I was a particularly soft-hearted child, to a degree that exasperated my mom. She had to turn off TV specials because I became inconsolable when, just for example, Winnie the Pooh’s house blew away and none of the other reindeer would play with Rudolph. In a letter she wrote to my grandparents when I was a child, she recounts my obsession with a crab I saw at the beach who had only one pincher. Days later, out of nowhere, I apparently said, “Mommy, I believe that crab will be all right.”
On the other hand, when I was a toddler, one of our cats, Eliza, was hit by a car and killed. My mom and I were both very sad, but my mom is also deeply unsentimental. Once we’d dried our tears, rather than burying the cat, my mom set her remains on a trash bag on the front porch until the city could come to take her. I wanted to stay home from preschool the next day to watch Eliza and whoever showed up to carry her off.
“There’s nothing to see,” my mom said. “She’s just going to decay and rot.”
“I want to watch her decay and rot!” I said. I was 3. I didn’t know what I was saying, but I must have had some idea, and it sounded exciting. So I am capable of what some people consider to be a writer’s monstrous detachment, too.
I don’t know if there’s a proper amount of empathy in nonfiction. I do think journalism requires more objectivity than a hybrid essay like “I, Rodent” does.
I kept thinking of “Flowers for Algernon” while reading this: the human and the mouse in lockstep, from engineered intelligence to decline. Do you know it? And if so, did it make you cry too as a kid?
I do know it! A haunting book. I didn’t really think about “Flowers for Algernon” while I was writing the essay, or at least I didn’t think about it until the E.B. White story entered in. (Ed: See question below about the E.B. White story.) I’m sure it made me cry when I read it in ninth grade, but (as my answer above no doubt shows) that wasn’t hard to do. I haven’t gone back to it since that first reading.
Continuing in the book vein, right now I’m reading a book by the naturalist Gerald Durrell, who is such a great writer he makes me want to read about South American birds – not one of my usual interests. Have you read his wonderful “My Family and Other Animals”? This piece reminded me of it. Is that what you aim for, combining humor and sorrow and absurdity and, yes, animals?
I haven’t read it, but it sounds like something I’d love. Thank you! I’ll pick it up.
The cocktail of humor, sorrow and absurdity seems very natural to me. My mom is Texan, from a long line of Texans, and she and her mom, my granny, always told stories that were hilarious and horrible in equal measure.
As for animals, I grew up with so many of them, and so many different kinds, they’ve always figured into my work, or at least into a novel I was working on for years and have put to the side for now. I also grew up hearing the most amazing stories about the menagerie my mom had as a child. She and my granny would tag-team in telling stories about her cats and dogs and ducks and chickens and turtles and mice and hamsters and hermit crabs. She even had an alligator. As the story goes, it was tiny when she got it but grew larger and larger, and eventually got loose in the neighborhood. Supposedly it wound up at the zoo — or at least that’s how I remember it.
I’m a big fan of E.B. White (and not just because I live in Maine). You mention a short story by him, “The Door,” that kind of blew my mind. It was so unlike anything I’ve read by White, very stream-of-conscious, interior, comparing city people and their conditioning to duress to lab rats. This line, brrr: “First will come the convulsions he said, then the exhaustion, then the willingness to let anything be done.” You say it’s one of your favorites. Why?
He’s writing about lab rats, but he’s really writing about us, too. We aren’t so different, rodents and humans. A great deal of scientific research rests on that truth, while also resting on our sense that we’re much more important and complex than a lab mouse.
I didn’t mention the story originally, and wasn’t consciously thinking about it as I wrote, but in the end I realized the essay was too indebted to “The Door” for me to leave it out, so I slid it in. That may be the last thing I added.
I love so much of White’s writing, but, as you say, this is different from most of the rest of his work. It reads like it came from some vital place, some deep frustration. There’s a coolness to it I really admire that keeps it from being overwrought.
The ending is quite moving. What did you hope to achieve with it? And how did it affect you?
I kept trying to finish the essay, but the end wasn’t congealing. Eventually I asked myself, What am I avoiding here? What am I embarrassed to reveal?
I suspect many people would be mortified to disclose other things in this essay: living in two different houses that teemed with rats, for example. But there’s a part of me that’s always satisfied to share that kind of in-your-face truth. When I was younger, everything I wrote was shocking in that way, and there was very little vulnerability.
I realized I had to include that thing I said to myself and see what happened. I cringed for a good two minutes at the typewriter, but I did it. And I cringed again when I sent it to my editor, but it was the right choice for the work.
You said this is one of your favorites of your own essays. Why?
It felt good to let it be the strange, lumpen thing it wanted to be.