The majority of the characters in The Mothers hold tightly to their identities. For example, Aubrey, who wears a purity ring, spends her summers working at the church, and never misses Sunday services, remains rooted to her identity as a pious and pure young woman. Meanwhile, Nadia, who breaks the cast of a high-caliber student by skipping school to party and hook up with boys, doesn’t attach herself to a particular persona. Nadia can’t be easily categorized because she exists as many things at once—an intellectual, a drunk-driving party girl, a lover, an adulterer. This is not to say, though, that the people around her don’t try to pigeonhole her into being just one thing. In particular, the Mothers and the rest of the church community are all too eager to impose a narrative onto Nadia’s identity, making her out to be an out-of-control sinner driven to misbehavior by her mother’s suicide. While there are grounds for this interpretation, viewing this as the only aspect of Nadia’s identity is one-dimensional and reductive. In revealing the Mothers’ perception of Nadia, Bennett explores the unfortunate challenges facing people who exist at the intersection of multiple identities, ultimately suggesting that society tries to force people into being just one thing despite the fact that it is human nature to contain complexities and even contradictions.
Some people are content with being defined as just one thing because it gives them a way to guide their sense of self. For instance, The Mothers embrace the name of their group and let it inform how they see themselves. Interestingly enough, they aren’t even all biological mothers. “We were already mothers then,” they note at one point, “some by heart and some by womb. We rocked grandbabies left in our care and taught the neighborhood kids piano and baked pies for the sick and shut-in. We all mothered somebody, and more than that, we all mothered Upper Room Chapel.” The fact that some of the Mothers have never actually had children of their own suggests that if a person wants to identify as something he or she is free to do so—society will gladly box a person into a particular identity. Indeed, the elderly women of Upper Room who don’t have children of their own only need to act in stereotypically matronly ways—like teaching piano lessons and baking pies—in order to be considered mothers. This is a testament to the community’s eagerness to characterize people based on even the simplest criteria.
Aubrey Evans is another perfect example of somebody who allows herself—and even wants—to be affixed to a certain identity. With her purity ring and impressive church attendance, she is the epitome of a devout young woman committed to living the life of a pious congregant. In fact, she’s so invested in this religious identity that Nadia finds it impossible to relate to her at first, thinking this goody-two-shoes must be “the poor holy child of devout atheists who [is] working hard to lead [her parents] into the light.” Although Nadia eventually comes to see there’s more to Aubrey than her faith, Aubrey’s Christian faith remains a core part of her identity. Even when Aubrey is about to marry Luke, she refuses to betray her own principles by having sex before marriage. It’s worth noting, though, that her desire to adhere to this devout identity is fueled by her tumultuous and painful youth. After all, Aubrey doesn’t come from a religious background, but from a nonreligious, dysfunctional family. When she was a young teenager, her mother’s boyfriend, Paul, raped her on a regular basis, and her mother never intervened. This painful memory stays with Aubrey, causing trouble for her even after she throws herself into the new identity of a pious and abstinent congregant. Looking at the pastor’s wife, Aubrey wonders if Mrs. Sheppard can sense her old life; “Was her past written on her skin? Could Mrs. Sheppard see everything that Paul had done to her?” Afraid that her past will follow her and inform how people see her, Aubrey builds a new identity for herself that is marked by purity and chastity in an attempt to counteract the psychological burdens of her horrific history. This, it seems, is why she clings so tightly to her identity in Upper Room: it provides her with a sense of self that helps her move on from her painful past.
Unlike the Mothers and Aubrey, Nadia doesn’t commit herself to a particular identity. Unfortunately, the people around her think otherwise, defining her one-dimensionally and reducing her to several one-note personas that fail to recognize her complexity. Early in the novel, the Mothers and the rest of Upper Room see Nadia as an irresponsible young woman acting out after her mother’s death. “Since [Elise’s suicide, Nadia] had earned a wild reputation—she was young and scared and trying to hide her scared in her prettiness,” the Mothers say. In this moment, it’s almost as if Nadia’s good looks count against her, since the Mothers implicate her “prettiness” in her “wild reputation.” In doing so, they take the most superficial part of her and turn it into a defining element of her identity as a “wild,” “scared,” grieving teenager. This is reductive, considering that Nadia—despite her partying and frequent truancy—soon gets accepted to a well-respected university on an impressive scholarship. However, since Nadia’s academic gifts don’t align with her “wild reputation,” the Mothers don’t mention her good grades.
Similarly, Mrs. Sheppard, the pastor’s wife, harbors an intense dislike of Nadia because she once caught Nadia kissing a boy behind the church during Sunday school. Since that day, Mrs. Sheppard has seen Nadia as nothing but a promiscuous girl—a reduction of her identity that eventually fuels Mrs. Sheppard’s fury when she finds Nadia and Luke hiding out and talking intimately during Luke and Aubrey’s wedding. Mrs. Sheppard tells her in this moment that “this needs to stop,” and Nadia protests, saying she and Luke were only chatting. Mrs. Sheppard replies, “Girl, who you think you’re fooling? You know how many girls like you I’ve seen? Always hungry for what’s not yours. Well, I’m telling you now this needs to stop. You already caused enough trouble.” In this conversation, Mrs. Sheppard reveals that her disapproval of Nadia is largely based on the fact that (according to her) Nadia aligns with the stereotype of a girl who is “always hungry for what’s not [hers].” This idea demonstrates once again that people are eager to make generalizations that lump others into broad categories. When Mrs. Sheppard adds, “You already caused enough trouble,” she insinuates to Nadia that she knows about the abortion. In this way, Mrs. Sheppard further diminishes Nadia by characterizing her not only as a promiscuous girl, but also as somebody who has done something shameful, since Mrs. Sheppard and the rest of the Upper Room community disapproves of abortion. This view aligns with Nadia’s public persona as a “wild” girl, but it fails to take into account her academic prowess, her genuine capacity to love (since she does, it seems, love Luke), and the complicated remorse she feels regarding her abortion. Instead of considering how these things factor into Nadia’s identity, Mrs. Sheppard writes her off as a troublesome flirt. In turn, Bennett demonstrates to readers how difficult it is for somebody like Nadia—a multifaceted person with conflicting traits—to exist in a world that seeks to flatten people into simple, one-dimensional identities.
Identity Quotes in The Mothers
How could a woman like that kill herself? Aubrey knew it was a stupid question—anyone could kill herself, if she wanted to badly enough. Mo said that it was physiological. Misfired synapses, unbalanced chemicals in the brain, the whole body a machine with a few tripped wires that had caused it to self-destruct. But people weren’t just their bodies, right? The decision to kill yourself had to be more complicated than that.
He wasn’t a big man anymore. He wouldn’t be famous, like he’d dreamed as a kid, teaching himself to sign his name in all curved letters so he would be prepared to autograph a football. He would live a small life, and instead of depressing him, the thought became comforting. For the first time, he no longer felt trapped. Instead, he felt safe.
“You did this thing?” he said. “You did this thing behind my back?”
He’d refused to name her sin, which shamed her even more. So she’d told him the truth. How she’d secretly dated Luke, and discovered that she was pregnant, and how the Sheppards had given her the money for the abortion. Her father had listened silently, head bowed, wringing his hands, and when she finished, he sat there a moment longer before standing up and walking out of her room. He was in shock, and she didn’t understand why. Didn’t he know by now that you could never truly know another person? Hadn’t her mother taught them both that?