This chapter’s epigraph is about how the life of a queen bee is very hard. She doesn’t always know how to take care of her “children,” and she spends her entire life in the dark.
For most of the book, Kidd has shown us strong, nurturing mother-daughter relationships. Now she’s about to show us the opposite.
Lily sits in August’s room, waiting to ask her about Deborah. She’s only been here once before: this time, she notices that everything is blue. She also sees an aquarium that contains honeycomb. Lily finds a book on August’s shelf, called Mary Through the Ages. Inside, she finds depictions of the Virgin Mary from various eras. One image strikes her, because it shows Mary being given a lily.
The image of Mary with the lily has obvious significance for Lily, considering her name. One interpretation of this picture would also be that Lily is finally about to confront her relationship with her mother—her own “Virgin Mary.” It’s also notable that everything in August’s room is blue: the color of Mary, and Lily’s favorite color.
August enters the room and finds Lily waiting for her. Lily reminds August that August wanted to have a talk with her soon, and August nods: she remembers. Lily shows August the photograph of her mother, and August replies, “Your mother was Deborah Fontanel Owens.” August explains that she knew that Lily was Deborah’s daughter as soon as she laid eyes on her, but never revealed the truth to Lily, because Lily wasn’t ready to face the truth. Lily, stunned, tells August that May—before her suicide—told her that Deborah had stayed in the honey house.
Essentially the plot of The Secret Life of Bees is built around an incredible coincidence. Lily happens to find her way to the house of August Boatwright, the woman who took care of Deborah years before, and August immediately recognizes the family resemblance. If there’s ever a confirmation of divine providence in the book, it’s now: there are so many coincidences in the book that they imply a “cosmic plan.”
August tries to tell Lily everything. Years ago, she says, she worked as a maid in Deborah’s house in Richmond. Deborah was a lively child, though a bad student. Before August says anything more about Deborah, she asks Lily to tell her the truth about her own parents. Lily confesses that she’s been lying: her father, T. Ray, isn’t dead, as she’d claimed. She also tells August that T. Ray told her that Deborah was going to leave the family forever: this is why she decided to leave Sylvan. As she says this, Lily bursts into tears. August embraces Lily and tells her to “let it out.”
Chapter 12 is constructed as a series of confessions. In part, August is confessing to Lily, but in a surprising turn of events, Lily begins to confess to August. The principle of confession—a quintessential Christian ritual—is that talking through one’s pain and guilt is the best way to move past it. Thus, like a Catholic priest hearing confession, August encourages Lily to “let it out.” By voicing her fears and insecurities, Lily can gain a measure of control over them, even if doing so is by no means easy.
After she’s finished crying, Lily explains the rest of her story: she and Rosaleen snuck out of Sylvan after Rosaleen went to jail for trying to register to vote. As she admits this to August, she begins crying again. Lily thinks to herself that she’s a bad person: a liar and a thief, full of hate for other people. Reluctantly, Lily tells August the truth: she believes herself to be responsible for her mother’s death. As she says this, she says, “I am unlovable.”
Lily’s insistence that she’s a hateful, unlovable person is a surprising non sequitur—Lily’s not perfect by any means, but “hateful” doesn’t really come to mind when describing her, and she’s often felt entitled to love and care. Perhaps what Lily means is that she’s consumed with self-hatred: she can’t stand the fact that she might have been the cause of her mother’s death. Her simple statement “I am unlovable,” while a powerful condensation of anxiety and depression, likewise doesn’t seem to fit what we know of the character.
August comforts Lily, telling her that everyone loves her—even June, who resented Deborah. Confused, Lily asks August what she means. August explains that June, who also worked as a maid in Deborah’s house, resented having to work for white people. Lily feels “all this love coming to me,” and realizes that she’s not only loved, but loved deeply.
August utterly rejects Lily’s statement, and in response “floods” Lily with the knowledge that she’s a lovable person. This is one moment when the importance of maternal love really sinks in: Lily is surrounded by women who love her deeply, to the point that even she can see the irrationality of her feelings. Lily is now experiencing (although on a different scale) what the Daughters of Mary seek in their religion. Society has told the Daughters that they are unlovable, and so they find comfort and strength in the unequivocal love of the Virgin Mary.
August takes Lily outside for “a little breather.” Outside, Lily gives August the “missing piece” of the story: the picture of the Virgin Mary that Deborah carried around. August explains that she gave Deborah the picture shortly before her death—Deborah must have written the city and state on the back as a record. August is astonished that Lily was able to find her so easily—she says, “I swear, it makes me think you were meant to find us.”
August’s suggestion for a “little breather” is almost amusing, but also calm and wise, and puts things in perspective even when Lily is experiencing great inner turmoil. Even in the depths of her pain, Lily has a sense that everything is going to be all right—there’s a plan to her suffering. August’s statement that Lily was meant to be here sums up the last 200 pages of the book: many times, we’ve gotten the sense that Lily was guided on her journey.
August explains her relationship with Deborah. She worked for Deborah’s mother beginning in 1931. Deborah had an active imagination, and even had an imaginary friend. Lily points out that she and her mother aren’t alike at all, but August disagrees—she points out that Deborah, like Lily, had a rebellious and adventurous streak.
Lily’s kinship with Deborah is at once a source of strength and a source of weakness—something that’ll become very important in the next two chapters.
When August moved to South Carolina to work as a teacher, August explains, Deborah cried like a child, even though she was 19 years old: she loved August dearly. Shortly after August left, Deborah’s mother died. Deborah moved to South Carolina, telling August, “I don’t have anyone left but you.” Deborah moved to South Carolina, but instead of moving to Tiburon, she married T. Ray in Sylvan. Lily can’t understand why Deborah would marry a man like T. Ray, but August explains that sometimes people change over time—T. Ray was a different kind of person when he married Deborah. August also tells Lily that Deborah chose to marry T. Ray because she was pregnant with Lily. Lily is horrified by this news, because it means that she was the reason Deborah entered an unhappy marriage—Lily was an unwanted baby. August insists that Deborah always loved Lily. When Deborah used to call August to talk, she’d always talk about Lily.
For all Lily’s protests, she’s quite a lot like her mother. In the absence of a strong family, both Deborah and Lily turn to black women for love and comfort (and again the criticism could be made that the black characters exist seemingly just to teach lessons to or support the white characters). August presents T. Ray as a disruptive force in Deborah’s life, interfering with the nurturing relationship between Deborah and August, and yet T. Ray isn’t just a stereotypical abusive father—he’s presented surprisingly sympathetically. But even though Lily is learning to forgive T. Ray, she’s immediately faced with a new set of challenges. Lily has always struggled with her guilt and low self-esteem, and now she only seems to be getting more evidence to reinforce those feelings.
August tells Lily that Deborah visited her in Tiburon shortly before her death. Deborah told August that she was planning to leave T. Ray soon—she’d been very depressed lately. Lily is sad to hear this about her mother: after a life spent worshipping Deborah, she tells August, she now finds that she feels only hate for her. August, shocked to hear Lily speaking like this, insists that Deborah shouldn’t be blamed for what she did: she was depressed, and “depressed people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.” August explains that Deborah’s plan was to divorce T. Ray and then take care of Lily. Lily realizes that on the day Deborah died, she was trying to take Lily out of Sylvan with her.
There’s a delicate balance between forgiving other people and forgiving oneself, and August cleverly navigates between these two acts. August is a highly sensitive woman, and she can sense that Lily feels guilty for “locking” her mother into a loveless marriage. August urges Lily to forgive her mother for abandoning her, since nobody’s perfect. The further implication of this is that Lily needs to forgive herself as well—we all make mistakes.
Lily, overwhelmed by everything she’s learned, goes to bed. August kisses her forehead and tells her, “We’re all so human. Your mother made a terrible mistake, but she tried to fix it.”