Grace begins narrating her life story. “As they say, Sir,” she tells Dr. Jordan, “you cannot choose your own parents, and of my own free will I would not have chosen the ones God gave me.” Grace grew up in a village in Ireland. Her maternal Aunt Pauline (married to Grace’s Uncle Roy) was convinced that her younger sister, Grace’s mother, married below her and advises Grace to “set a high price” on herself when she marries. Grace says of her mother, “She’d begun life under Aunt Pauline’s thumb and continued the same way, only my father’s thumb was added to it.”
This passage introduces Grace’s mother, a woman whose death has haunted Grace even longer than that of Mary Whitney. Grace’s relationship to her Aunt Pauline is also important because Aunt Pauline’s marital advice to Grace has colored the way she conceives of her self-worth throughout her life. The phrase “a high price” reflects not only the economic reality of marriage at the time—women were a kind of commodity in the marriage market—but also the damaging social implications of this reality, which cause an aunt to see her very young niece as, fundamentally, an object. This passage thus powerfully suggests the way that a system that objectifies women limits their ability to conceive of themselves as full persons.
Grace describes her younger self as “a little pitcher with big ears.” By eavesdropping she learned how much her father resented his wife and children, who he felt were “too many in number.” (Grace had two older siblings and six younger. Her mother also had three stillborn children and one miscarriage.) Grace’s father refers to his children as mouths to feed, and Grace comes to see pregnancy as “an unhappy condition followed by a happy event, although the event is by no means always happy.”
This passage is significant in two ways. The first is that it gestures at the inherent hypocrisy of Grace’s father; he blames his lack of financial success on his large family, even though he is the one who continues to impregnate his wife. Secondly, it reveals Grace’s strong aversion to pregnancy and motherhood, which will be important in understanding her reaction to Mary Whitney’s pregnancy and Nancy Montgomery’s.
Grace’s father, a stonemason by trade, was an alcoholic and struggled to find work. When a house is burnt down and a man killed, Grace’s father comes under suspicion, though he is never arrested. Aunt Pauline and Uncle Roy begin supplying Grace’s family with food, and Grace helps her mother with sewing to earn money. Eventually, Uncle Roy pays for Grace’s family to immigrate to Canada. Aunt Pauline gifts Grace’s mother with a flowered teapot as a goodbye present.
The fact that Grace’s father is suspected in a case of arson/murder is an intriguing detail—as Dr. Jordan will later point out, this may serve as evidence of the “hereditary nature of insanity,” of which he himself is skeptical. More importantly, this passage shows that Grace had to work to support her family at a very young age, which explains not only her resentment of her father but also her skill at and love of sewing, which she learned from her mother.