Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage, author; Gabra Zackman, narrator
This is an incredibly creative psychodrama interpreted and read well by the narrator who expresses the thoughts and ideas of Suzette and Hanna very authentically so that their true personalities come through.
Although it has been described in some quarters as a book about relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, and the competitive relationship of those parents with their children, and also about parenting skills, for me it was about the inability of our society to recognize mental illness and the possibility that it can reside in very young children. We want to think of our children as innocent canvases that we lay paint on in order to create either geniuses or monsters or something in between. Actually, the evil may not lie with the parents’ capabilities, but more likely within the DNA of the child who may be born with certain innate tendencies.
Although this book has sometimes been compared to a combination of books, like Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and We Have to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, I am of a generation that remembers another book, as well. For me, it was more likely a twin to The Bad Seed, written by William March and published in 1982. Eventually, it became a movie, as well.
Suzette has Crohn’s disease. She has had a difficult childhood and a dysfunctional home life. When she meets and falls in love with Alex, it fulfills her wildest dreams of happiness, but then, they have a child.
Alex is a patient and loving parent. Although he is presented with many assessments concerning the aberrational behavior of his child, he ignores the signs of abnormality, even though his wife and school officials have witnessed them. He is determined to explain all of the behavioral issues away and ascribe them to the normal way exceptionally bright children mature. He believes Hanna will outgrow all of her inabilities to socialize properly and even learn to speak someday.
Hanna is on some dysfunctional spectrum, but it is difficult to determine which one. She is mute. She communicates with various behavior patterns like pointing or repetitively banging her hands or making guttural noises at high pitch when throwing a tantrum. She even barks like a dog, snarling and making grotesque faces when she wants to intentionally frighten someone. Her behavior is abnormal. This child, Hanna, would be a true trial for any parent, but for parents in denial because of their own emotional deficiencies, dealing with a dysfunctional child can become impossible.
Suzette’s mother neglected her. She learned no parenting skills. Because of this, she was insecure in her own skill as a parent. Also, she suffered with a disease that caused her distress and embarrassment. She knows what it is like to suffer alone. She knows what it is like when real issues are unattended to and ignored by the one you love. She worried that she, too, would be a bad parent, like her mother, unable to care for her child properly or resolve issues when mishaps occurred; she often blamed herself, believing that it was her ignorance of child raising skills that was the cause of Hanna’s problems. She feared blame. No matter how dreadful or how common sense should have pointed to another catalyst for the behavior problems, she questioned herself.
Hanna adored her father too much and competed for his love. Her need for her father’s attention turned her against Suzette. She viewed her mother as her rival. When her anger and frustration become too much for her to handle, she created an imaginary friend. This friend took on the personality of a dead witch. Because Hanna was unusually gifted intellectually, although developmentally arrested emotionally, her behavior grew worse and her actions became dangerous as she began devising diabolical plans to eliminate her mother from her father’s life so that she could become the center of his attention. Although she often blamed the imaginary friend, she too was an active accomplice. She never showed her demonic behavior to her father, which helped to keep him in the dark, questioning those who condemned her behavior.
Hanna is a scary child. Suzette is emotionally dysfunctional. Alex is in denial. This combination of personalities created a monster that they refused to recognize, at first, and then, when they finally did, they had to deal with enormous consequences.
The book raises many questions. Are there evil children? Are they created or born? Can they be helped? Are parents responsible for the inappropriate behavior of their children, even when it is bizarre? Do children learn by example? Can children feel true jealousy? Are some parents jealous of their children? Do children have a positive or negative affect on a marriage? Does life have to change after the birth of a child? Can a couple maintain their privacy and love with a child in the picture? Did living with Crohn’s disease, an illness that is incurable and difficult to control help Suzette understand that Hanna’s mental illness was probably on the same level, incurable and difficult to control? Would she ever truly feel safe if Hanna was released or would she always fear that she was going to plan to hurt her? There is no definitive way to determine if a mental illness has been arrested or cured. Could it recur in the same way her Crohn’s disease might someday return?
This book would definitely make for a good movie, and it feels like the ending set it up for a second book to follow.