Privacy is a tenuous concept in The Mothers, as much of Nadia’s personal life is subject to public scrutiny and gossip. Most prominently, her abortion attracts scandalized whispers from the Mothers—a group of elderly women in Nadia’s church—who hear the story years after the fact but still can’t keep themselves from spreading it through the congregation. However, they soon regret their decision to repeat such sensitive information, since it involves their pastor and eventually forces the church to close. It’s clear, then, that the Mothers’ tendency to gossip is destructive to their own lives. At the same time, though, Bennett also suggests that the impulse to spread gossip is actually an impulse toward storytelling. In turn, the Mothers’ inability to refrain from spreading Nadia’s secret shows that storytelling itself is an inevitable and deeply human inclination.
The Mothers’ obsession with Nadia’s personal life is less than altruistic. Indeed, their gossip about her secrets mainly functions as a form of entertainment. They repeat her story to each other, thrilled by the fact that they possess private information. When Betty, one of the Mothers, overhears Robert Turner yelling at the pastor for financing Nadia’s abortion, she quickly tells her group of friends the news. “‘He called pastor an S.O.B.—can you believe it?” she asks them. “Of course we couldn’t,” the Mothers note, “which was why Betty looked so delighted to tell us.” Betty is “delighted” to have shocked her friends with the salacious news, illustrating that the gossip encircling Upper Room is rooted in sensationalism rather than concern for others. The Mothers are eager for the opportunity to disseminate scandalizing stories.
Although the Mothers are initially excited by the salacious gossip they spread, they come to regret spreading Nadia’s story throughout the community. After everybody hears that the pastor and his wife paid for Nadia to get an abortion, congregants start leaving Upper Room one by one until, finally, the church is forced to close its doors. As such, the Mothers—who have dedicated much of their lives to Upper Room—lose the cornerstone of their community. Considering the role they’ve played in exposing Nadia’s secret, the Mothers’ tone is remorseful: “All good secrets have a taste before you tell them,” they admit, “and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season. But we didn’t. We shared this sour secret.” In this moment, they acknowledge that the “delight” they took in this “sour secret” ultimately led to the demise of their own community. At the same time, when they refer to Nadia’s abortion as a “sour secret,” they imply that some secrets are less harmful than others, and that the Mothers’ primary failure in this instance was their inability to recognize the danger of spreading this particular story. However, by bluntly stating that they shared the secret anyways, the Mothers suggest that the impulse that drove them to repeat Nadia’s “sour secret” was simply too great to resist, implying that some stories are too tempting to not repeat.
Gossip, the Mothers hint, is inevitable. Years after the church has closed, the Mothers sit on a stoop and see Nadia driving her father’s truck as an adult, and they wonder why she has returned to town. “We will never know why she returned, but we still think about her,” they say. “We see the span of her life unspooling in colorful threads and we chase it, wrapping it around our hands as more tumbles out.” In this moment, the Mothers acknowledge that sometimes the details of other peoples’ lives are elusive and unknowable. However, this mystery naturally invites curiosity. Even though Nadia has long since left California, the Mothers still try to trace the “thread” of Nadia’s story as it “unspool[s].”
To emphasize their point that storytelling is an unavoidable human impulse, the Mothers involve the reader in the repetition of Nadia’s story. In the novel’s concluding lines, they say, “[Nadia] is her mother’s age now. Double her age. Our age. You’re our mother. We’re climbing inside of you.” This suggests that the reader, having completed the novel, has become a mother, too. Since the Mothers are the people in Nadia’s community who spread her story, the reader is now the person who will continue to tell the tale. Bennett leaves readers with the sense that they have inherited the Mothers’ desire to tell somebody’s else’s story, suggesting that the details of Nadia’s life are “climbing inside” him or her, too interesting and irresistible not to pass along to yet another listener.
Secrecy, Gossip, and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Secrecy, Gossip, and Storytelling Quotes in The Mothers
All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season. But we didn’t. We shared this sour secret, a secret that began the spring Nadia Turner got knocked up by the pastor’s son and went to the abortion clinic downtown to take care of it.
But they had used condoms, at least most times, and Nadia felt stupid for how comfortable she had felt with their mostly safe sex. She was supposed to be the smart one. She was supposed to understand that it only took one mistake and her future could be ripped away from her. She had known pregnant girls. She had seen them waddling around school in tight tank tops and sweatshirts that hugged their bellies. She never saw the boys who had gotten them that way—their names were enshrouded in mystery, as wispy as rumor itself—but she could never unsee the girls, big and blooming in front of her.
Her mother had been able to tell when she’d had a bad day at school moments after she climbed into the car. What happened? Her mother used to ask, even before Nadia had said hello. Her father had never been that perceptive, but a pregnancy wasn’t a bad day at school—he would notice that she was panicking, he would have to. She was grateful so far that he hadn’t, but it scared her, how you could return home in a different body, how something big could be happening inside you and no one even knew it.
If you don’t become them, even for a second, a prayer is nothing but words. […] That’s why it didn’t take us long to figure out what had happened to Robert Turner’s truck. Ordinarily waxed and gleaming, the truck hobbled into the Upper Room parking lot on Sunday with a dented front bumper and cracked headlight. In the lobby, we heard young folks joking about how drunk Nadia Turner had been at some beach party. Then we became young again, or that is to say, we became her. Dancing all night with a bottle of vodka in hand, staggering out the door. A careless drive home weaving between lanes. The crunch of metal. How, when Robert smelled the liquor, he must have hit her or maybe hugged her. How she was probably deserving of both.
Not ghost eyes, but she had been gifted with a second sight nonetheless: she could look at a girl and tell if she’d been hit before. Forget bruises and scars—hit women learned to hide or explain those away. No need for stories about running into doorknobs or tripping down stairs—all she needed to do was lock her odd eyes onto theirs and she knew a woman surprised or outraged by pain from a woman who’d learned to expect it. She saw past flawless skin to diamond-shaped iron burns, gashes from golden belt buckles, necks nicked by steak knives, lips split by class rings, faces blooming purple and deep blue. She’d told Aubrey this the third time she’d invited her for tea, and after, Aubrey had stared into the mirror, wondering what else the first lady saw. Was her entire past written on her skin?
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 silently dressed but paused halfway, his pants hanging at his ankles. He looked like he might cry, and she turned away. He didn’t love her. He felt guilty. He’d abandoned her once and now he was latching onto her, not out of affection but out of shame. She refused to let him bury his guilt in her. She would not be a burying place for any man again.
“Well, you got your husband to protect you.”
“My husband’s the one who hurts me,” she said. “He thinks I don’t know he’s in love with someone else.”
She had never said it out loud before. There was something freeing in admitting that you had been loved less. She might have gone her whole life not knowing, thinking that she was enjoying a feast when she had actually been picking at another’s crumbs.
“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?