The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Speculative Fiction
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Frida is a sleep-deprived single mom trying desperately to juggle the requirements of work and the needs of her toddler Harriet. On one very bad day she leaves Harriet home alone, just for a little bit, so she can get a coffee and a report from the office. She admits this wasn’t a good idea, but when you’re sleep deprived you do stupid things, and it wasn’t for long. But one bad day is enough to earn her the state’s attention.
The judge offers an ultimatum: lose custody of your child or attend a year-long residential program using the latest scientific techniques to turn bad mothers into sparkling specimens of devotion.
If Frida wants to see Harriet again, she must first prove herself at the school for good mothers.
In Good Mothers, the protagonist of a slice-of-life literary novel finds herself trapped in a bureaucratic panopticon written in the style of Philip K. Dick. The science fictional elements of the story introduce themselves slowly. By the time the android children programmed to feel pain and love in order to be better training tools show up, Frida is too numb to react with much surprise.
I have never before read a book which conveys in such clarity the feeling of living within the self-perpetuating logic of the carceral state.
The American justice system operates on the premise that crime is a failing of the individual whose proper antidote is punishment of the individual for their moral failing (denying systemic problems and those based on material conditions). Criminals are only eligible to re-enter society as citizens when they have “paid for their crimes” and undergone some sort of personal rehabilitation. This insidious reasoning has becomes so endemic in our society that many Americans would define justice as synonymous with punishment for crime.
So when single, working mother Frida fails to meet the exacting standards of motherhood mandated by the state, the solution is for her to be punished and then rehabilitated. That Frida will never be able to meet standards designed for stay-at-home mothers of petite bourgeois families only serves to proves that she is indeed a bad mother.
She has been put into a Sisyphean struggle. Society demands that she work in order to live, but society has also conveniently defined labor traditionally associated with women as not real work deserving of wages. Frida is therefore expected to excel at the labor of motherhood without payment and still work for a living in a profession whose labor is granted material value by society. When she fails to perform perfect motherhood according to these standards, she is punished.
And not merely punished. At the titular school for good mothers, Frida participates in her own humiliation. She repeats over and over the mantra “I am a bad mother but I am learning to be good” as if she were in a 12-step program. She doesn’t have to say it, but if she refuses, her noncompliance will be noted in the file which the judge will use to determine if she can ever see her child again.
Frida’s constant self-abnegation struck a familiar chord with me. To be poor or marginalized in America is to be constantly groveling. The service worker must apologize to the customer who screams at them or else lose their job. The poor student must right essay after essay flogging their personal traumas for the chance at a life-changing scholarship. The parolee is forced to act as their own warden, enforcing on themselves the onerous terms of their semi-freedom on threat of re-imprisonment.
To become an active participant in one’s own subjugation is the ultimate horror of the carceral state.
I won’t spoil how Good Mothers ends, but I will say that the final scenes are neither hopeful nor despairing, and more than worth the horror one must wade through in the preceding pages.