In many ways, the central theme of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects is that of toxic mother-daughter relationships. Throughout the novel, Flynn uses Adora’s literal poisonings of her daughters with homemade tinctures as an extended metaphor for the ways in which abusive mothers “poison” their daughters every day in small ways. Throughout the novel, Flynn uses the relationships between Adora and Camille, Adora and Amma, and even between Amma and Camille to argue that toxic mother-daughter relationships can indeed “poison” all other relationships the affected daughters and mothers pursue.
Adora Crellin is a refined Southern belle, a holdover from a near-extinct brand of womanhood that prizes propriety and gentility. The heiress to her family’s hog-farming business, Adora has inherited more than material wealth from her parents—a victim of an abusive mother herself, Adora has had only toxic models of mother-daughter relationships and thus becomes a literally poisonous presence in her daughters’ lives. Adora’s second daughter, Marian, died when Camille was young—Camille and Adora both mourn the loss of their beloved, saintlike Marian, and the loss of the girl forever poisoned their relationship to one another. Camille’s resentment of her mother—for loving Marian more than her, and for losing the one they both loved so dearly—is just one poisonous holdover from her difficult childhood, a childhood so painful that she moved away from the small, insular town of Wind Gap at first opportunity.
When Camille returns to Wind Gap to report on a murder and a disappearance—both of girls under the age of ten—she is reunited with her mother and her half-sister, Amma, whom she barely knows. As Camille begins to observe the strange, codependent relationship between Amma, who, at thirteen, still dresses in frilly child’s clothes and allows Adora to baby her and “care” for her with homemade medicines and tinctures, she is reminded of Adora and Marian, and once again feels both left out and off-put by the closeness between the two. Eventually, it comes to light that Adora is poisoning the thirteen-year-old Amma—just as she poisoned Marian to death years ago. Adora suffers from Munchausen By Proxy syndrome, a psychological disorder in which one inflicts pain or harm upon another in order to receive sympathy and adoration. Still clearly unable to cope with the toxicity in her own relationship with her mother, Adora poisons her own children in an attempt to control them and gain the love, sympathy, and attention of others—possibly to fill the void left by her own mother Joya’s abuse and inattention. Adora’s poisonings—which form the novel’s sickening climax when Camille, desperate to expose the truth, at last willingly allows Adora to “care” for her after years spent avoiding the treatments as a child—become Flynn’s metaphor for the poisonous ways in which some mothers infect, weaken, and even destroy their children in an attempt to cope with the toxicity that befell them in their own youth. Amma is revealed to have been willingly submitting herself to the poisonings for years, longing for the closeness she feels with Adora when she lets her mother tend to her. Flynn uses Amma’s willing compliance in her own poisoning, contrasted with Marian’s victimization—and Camille’s willful refusal—to show how children react in very different ways to the presence of such toxicity. Some welcome it, and even grow to crave it; some reject it and distance themselves from it; some don’t even know it’s there, and become hapless victims when their lives and welfare become consumed by it.
At the end of the novel, after Adora has been arrested for the murders of Marian, Natalie, and Ann, Camille takes Amma to Chicago to live with her. There, she begins trying to tend to her sister’s emotional wounds, enrolling her in therapy and trying to give Amma “assurance of [her] love” at every turn to make up for the pain Amma has suffered in Adora’s house. When Amma falls ill one evening, Camille finds herself tending to her feverish younger sister, who begs for Adora’s treatments—rubbing alcohol applied all over her body, for instance—only to break down in tears when Camille reassures Amma that they’re “not going to do it like [Adora] does it anymore.” Soon thereafter, another dead little girl turns up—Amma’s friend Lily—and Camille realizes that Amma, not Adora, killed Ann and Natalie back in Wind Gap, and pulled all three girls’ teeth in order to finish the ivory floor in Adora’s room of her dollhouse. Through her conversations with Amma, who is now in juvenile prison, Camille realizes how toxic her sister’s relationship with Adora was—and how it has “poisoned” Amma’s entire life. When Amma admits that she enjoyed killing her victims, Camille resignedly reflects on the fact that “a child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.” Amma’s violence, cruelty, and numbness reflect the insidious nature of her toxic relationship with her mother, and how that toxicity has prevented Amma from developing correctly. Amma enjoys inflicting harm on others, the way Adora inflicted harm on her.
In the final lines of the novel, Camille reflects on the short time Amma lived with her in her Chicago apartment—when she cared for her sister the night she fell ill. Camille is disturbed by the thought that she enjoyed caring for Amma not out of kindness, but because she has “Adora’s sickness.” Camille tells herself that she is “leaning toward kindness”—but the fear that Adora has poisoned not just Amma’s life and relationships, but Camille’s as well, keeps her up at night and makes her skin “pulse.” Centering her novel around a series of mother-daughter relationships that are quite literally poisoned is Flynn’s way of talking metaphorically about the toxic nature of abusive relationships. Closing the book out, then, by hovering above the lingering fear that Adora has poisoned Camille forever—and even passed on her “sickness” to her—is Flynn’s way of engaging an even larger metaphor about the heredity of violence and abuse, and the ways in which daughters stand to inherit the most toxic traits of their mothers.
Toxic Mother-Daughter Relationships ThemeTracker
Toxic Mother-Daughter Relationships Quotes in Sharp Objects
Alan, Adora, and Amma were all gathered in the living room when I returned. The scene was startling, it was so much like the old days with Marian. Amma and my mother sat on the couch, my mother cradling Amma—in a woolen nightgown despite the heat—as she held an ice cube to her lips. My half sister stared up at me with blank contentment, then went back to playing with a glowing mahogany dinner table, exactly like the one in the next room, except that it was about four inches high.
“Nothing to worry about,” Alan said, looking up from a newspaper. “Amma’s just got the summer chills.”
I felt a shot of alarm, then annoyance: I was sinking back into old routines, about to run to the kitchen to heat some tea, just like I always did for Marian when she was sick. I was about to linger near my mother, waiting for her to put an arm around me, too. My mother and Amma said nothing. My mother didn’t even look up at me, just nuzzled Amma in closer to her, and cooed into her ear.
When I was a child, I remember my mother trying to prod me with ointments and oils, homemade remedies and homeopathic nonsense. I sometimes took the foul solutions, more often refused. Then Marian got sick, really sick, and Adora had more important things to do than coaxing me into swallowing wheat-germ extract. Now I had a pang: all those syrups and tablets she proffered, and I rejected. That was the last time I had her full attention as a mother. I suddenly wished I’d been easier.
“I’m sorry you had to see me that way, Camille,” Amma said. “Especially since we don’t really know each other. I’m just going through a stage,” She flashed an overdone smile. “But now we’re reunited. You’re like poor Cinderella, and I’m the evil stepsister. Half sister.”
“There’s not a speck of evil in you, sweetheart,” Alan said.
“But Camille was the first. First is usually best. Now that she’s back, will you love Camille more than me?” asked Amma. She started the question teasingly, but her cheeks were flushed as she waited for my mother to respond.
“No,” Adora said quietly. […]
“Because you love me,” Amina said, between mouthfuls of ham. The sick smell of meat and sweetness wafted over. “I wish I’d be murdered.”
“Amma, don’t say such a thing,” my mother said, blanching. […]
“Then I’d never have to worry again. When you die, you become perfect. I’d be like Princess Diana. Everyone loves her now.”
“You are the most popular girl in your whole school, and at home you are adored, Amma. Don’t be greedy.”
Amma kicked me again under the table and smiled emphatically, as if some important matter had been settled.
As a child, I don’t remember ever telling Adora my favorite color, or what I’d like to name my daughter when I grew up. I don’t think she ever knew my favorite dish, and I certainly never padded down to her room in the early-morning hours, teary from nightmares. I always feel sad for the girl that I was, because it never occurred to me that my mother might comfort me. She has never told me she loved me, and I never assumed she did. She tended to me. She administrated me. Oh, yes, and one time she bought me lotion with vitamin E.
For a while I convinced myself that Adora’s distance was a defense constructed after Marian. But in truth, I think she’s always had more problems with children than she’d ever admit. I think, in fact, she hates them. There’s a jealousy, a resentfulness that I can feel even now, in my memory. At one point, she probably liked the idea of a daughter. When she was a girl, I bet she daydreamed of being a mother, of coddling, of licking her child like a milk-swelled cat. She has that voraciousness about children. She swoops in on them.
I have one memory that catches in me like a nasty clump of blood. Marian was dead about two years, and my mother had a cluster of friends come over for afternoon drinks. One of them brought a baby. For hours, the child was cooed over, smothered with red-lipstick kisses, tidied up with tissues, then lipstick smacked again. I was supposed to be reading in my room, but I sat at the top of the stairs watching.
My mother finally was handed the baby, and she cuddled it ferociously. Oh, how wonderful it is to hold a baby again! Adora jiggled it on her knee, walked it around the rooms, whispered to it, and I looked down from above like a spiteful little god, the back of my hand placed against my face, imagining how it felt to be cheek to cheek with my mother.
When the ladies went into the kitchen to help tidy up the dishes, something changed. I remember my mother, alone in the living room, staring at the child almost lasciviously. She pressed her lips hard against the baby’s apple slice of a cheek. Then she opened her mouth just slightly, took a tiny bit of flesh between her teeth, and gave it a little bite.
The baby wailed. The blotch faded as Adora snuggled the child, and told the other women it was just being fussy. I ran to Marian’s room and got under the covers.
“Camille, open the door.”
“What’s wrong with Camille?” Amma chimed.
“This won’t work.” The side zipper was sticking. My bared arms flashed scars in deep pink and purple. Even without looking directly in the mirror I could see them reflected at me—a big blur of scorched skin.
“Camille,” my mother spat.
“Why won’t she just show us?”
“Momma, you saw the dresses, you know why they won’t work,” I urged.
“Just let me see.”
“I’ll try one on, Momma,” Amma wheedled.
“Camille . . .”
“Fine.” I banged open the door. My mother, her face level with my neckline, winced.
“Oh, dear God.” I could feel her breath on me. She held up a bandaged hand, as if about to touch my chest, then let it drop. Behind her Amma whined like a puppy. “Look what you’ve done to yourself,” Adora said. “Look at it.”
“I hope you just loved it. I hope you can stand yourself.”
She shut the door and I ripped at the dress, the zipper still jammed until my furious tugs yanked the teeth apart enough to get it to my hips, where I wriggled out, the zipper leaving a trail of pink scratches on my skin. I bunched the cotton of the dress over my mouth and screamed.
“You were always so willful, never sweet. I remember when you were six or seven. I wanted to put your hair up in curlers for your school picture. Instead you cut it all off with my fabric shears.” I didn’t remember doing this. I remembered hearing about Ann doing this.
“I don’t think so, Momma.”
“Headstrong. Like those girls. I tried to be close with those girls, those dead girls.”
“What do you mean be close with them?”
“They reminded me of you, running around town wild. Like little pretty animals. I thought if I could be close with them, I would understand you better. If I could like them, maybe I could like you. But I couldn’t. […] And now you come back and all I can think of is ‘Why Marian and not her?’”
Rage flattened immediately into a dark despair. My fingers found a wood staple in the floorboard. I jabbed it under my fingernail. I would not cry for this woman.
“I’m not so pleased to be left here anyway, Momma, if it makes you feel any better.”
“You’re so hateful.”
“I learned at your feet.” My mother lunged then, grabbed me by both arms. Then she reached behind me and, with one fingernail, circled the spot on my back that had no scars.
“The only place you have left,” she whispered at me. Her breath was cloying and musky, like air coming from a spring well.
“Someday I’ll carve my name there.” She shook me once, released me, then left me on the stairs with the warm remains of our liquor.
"[Natalie] had serious problems. We looked for my earlobe, see if it could be stitched back on, but it was gone. I guess she swallowed it.” [Meredith] gave a laugh that sounded like the reverse of a gulp of air. ”I mostly just felt sorry for her.”
“Ann, was she as bad?” I asked.
“Worse. There are people all over this town with her teeth marks in them. Your mother included.”
“What?” My hands began to sweat and the back of my neck went cold.
“Your mom was tutoring her and Ann didn’t understand. She completely lost it, pulled some of your momma’s hair out, and bit into her wrist. Hard. I think there had to be stitches.” Images of my mother’s thin arm caught between tiny teeth, Ann shaking her head like a dog, blood blossoming on my mother’s sleeve, on Ann’s lips. A scream, a release.
A little circle of jagged lines, and within, a ring of perfect skin.
“She likes to take care of me.”
“It’s weird, Amma said. “After she takes care of me, l like to have sex.” She flipped up her skirt from behind, flashed me a hot pink thong.
“I don’t think you should let boys do things to you, Amma. Because that’s what it is. It’s not reciprocal at your age.”
“Sometimes if you let people do things to you, you’re really doing it to them,” Amma said, pulling another Blow Pop from her pocket. Cherry. “Know what I mean? If someone wants to do fucked-up things to you, and you let them, you’re making them more fucked up. Then you have the control. As long as you don’t go crazy.”
“She gave me something that made me feel really groggy and sick,” I said.
“Yeah, she likes that one,” Amma mumbled. “You fall asleep all hot and drooly, and then she can bring her friends in to look at you.”
“She’s done this before?” My body went cold under the sweat. I was right: Something horrible was about to happen.
She shrugged. “I don’t mind. Sometimes I don’t take it—just pretend. Then we’re both happy. I play with my dolls or I read, and when I hear her coming I pretend to be asleep.”
“Amma?” I sat down on the floor next to her and stroked her hair. I needed to be gentle. “Does she give you pills and stuff a lot?”
“Only when I’m about to be sick.”
“What happens then?”
“Sometimes I get all hot and crazy and she has to give me cold baths. Sometimes I need to throw up. Sometimes I get all shivery and weak and tired and I just want to sleep.”
It was happening again. Just like Marian. I could feel the bile in the back of my throat, the tightening. I began weeping again, stood up, sat back down. My stomach was churning. I put my head in my hands. Amma and I were sick just like Marian. It had to be made that obvious to me before I finally understood—nearly twenty years too late. I wanted to scream in shame.
“I know who did it, Curry,” I hissed. “I know it.”
“Well, that’s no reason to cry, Cubby. The police made an arrest?”
“Not yet. I know who did it.” Thunk on the dartboard.
“Who? Camille, talk to me.”
I pressed the phone to my mouth and whispered, “My mother.”
“Who? Camille, you have to speak up. Are you at a bar?”
“My mother did it,” I yelped into the phone, the words coming out like a splatter. Silence for too long.
“Camille, you are under a lot of stress, and I was very wrong to send you down there so soon after . . . Now, I want you to go to the nearest airport and fly back here. Don’t get your clothes, just leave your car and come home here. We’ll deal with all that stuff later. Charge the ticket, I’ll pay you back when you get home. But you need to come home now.”
Home home home, like he was trying to hypnotize me.
“I’ll never have a home,” I whimpered, began sobbing again. “I have to go take care of this, Curry.” I hung up as he was ordering me not to.
“Camille, if you could be any fairy-tale person in the world, who would you be?” Amma asked.
“Sleeping Beauty.” To spend a life in dreams, that sounded too lovely.
“I’d be Persephone.”
“I don’t know who that is,” I said. […]
“She’s the Queen of the Dead,” Amma beamed. “She was so beautiful, Hades stole her and took her to the underworld to be his wife. But her mother was so fierce, she forced Hades to give Persephone back. But only for six months each year. So she spends half her life with the dead, and half with the living.”
“Amma, why would such a creature appeal to you?” Alan said. “You can be so ghastly.”
“I feel sorry for Persephone because even when she’s back with the living, people are afraid of her because of where’s she’s been,” Amma said. “And even when she’s with her mother, she’s not really happy, because she knows she’ll have to go back underground. ” She grinned at Adora and jabbed a big bite of ham into her mouth, then crowed.
One night I woke to find Amma standing over my bed.
“You like Lily better than me,” she whispered. She was feverish, her nightgown clinging to her sweaty body, her teeth chattering. I guided her into the bathroom, sat her down on the toilet, wet a washcloth under the cool, metallic water of the sink, wiped her brow. […]
I poured two aspirin into my palm, put them back in the bottle, poured them back onto my palm. One or two pills. So easy to give. Would I want to give another, and another? Would I like taking care of a sick little girl? A rustle of recognition when she looked up at me, shaky and sick: Mother's here.
I gave Amma two aspirin. The smell made my mouth water. I poured the rest down the drain.
“Now you have to put me in the bathtub and wash me,” she whined.
I pulled her nightgown over her head. Her nakedness was stunning: sticky little girl’s legs, a jagged round scar on her hip like half a bottle cap, the slightest down in a wilted thatch between her legs. Full, voluptuous breasts. Thirteen.
She got into the bathtub and pulled her legs to her chin.
“You need to rub alcohol on me,” she whimpered.
“No Amma, just relax.”
Amma face turned pink and she began crying.
“That’s how she does it,” she whispered. The tears turned into sobs, then a mournful howl.
“We’re not going to do it like she does it anymore,” I said.
“I was friends with them for a while,” she said finally, talking into her chest. “We had fun, running around in the woods. We were wild. We’d hurt things together. We killed a cat once. But then she”—as always Adora’s name went unsaid—“got all interested in them. I could never have anything to myself. They weren't my secrets anymore. They were always coming by the house. They started asking me questions about being sick. They were going to ruin everything. She didn't even realize it.” Amma rubbed her shorn hair harshly. “And why did Ann have to bite . . . her? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why Ann could bite her, and I couldn’t.”
She refused to say more, answered only in sighs and coughs. As for the teeth, she took the teeth only because she needed them. The dollhouse had to be perfect, just like everything else Amma loved.
I think there is more. Ann and Natalie died because Adora paid attention to them. Amma could only view it as a raw deal. Amma, who had allowed my mother to sicken her for so long.
Sometimes when you let people do things to you, you ’re really doing it to them. Amma controlled Adora by letting Adora sicken her. In return, she demanded uncontested love and loyalty. No other little girls allowed. For the same reasons she murdered Lily Burke. Because, Amina suspected, I liked her better.
You can come up with four thousand other guesses, of course, about why Amina did it. In the end, the fact remains: Amma enjoyed hurting. I like violence, she’d shrieked at me. I blame my mother. A child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.
Sometimes I think about that night caring for Amma, and how good I was at soothing her and calming her. I have dreams of washing Amma and drying her brow. I wake with my stomach turning and a sweaty upper lip. Was I good at caring for Amma because of kindness? Or did I like caring for Amma because I have Adora’s sickness? I waver between the two, especially at night, when my skin begins to pulse. Lately, I’ve been leaning toward kindness.