By the time Aubrey Evans, one of the three main characters of Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, whispers “Tell me a secret” to her budding paramour, I realized that I had been privy to so many secrets in the narrative that it almost felt as though she were talking to me.
In her debut novel, Bennett, who has previously written excellent essays on Jezebel and The Paris Review, begins her skillfully woven narrative by parsing various types of secrets: “unripe” secrets, gossiped secrets, open secrets, secrets owned by the dead that will remain forever unknown. What makes the novel exceptional is that Bennett’s story about a young girl’s abortion traces the dimensions of black women’s inner lives with a diamond-cut precision. Black women have long been the keepers of generations of secrets—not simply their own, but also the secrets of people they work for, people they love, and people they have prayed with and over. The setting revolves around a Southern California church called Upper Room.
For best friends Nadia Turner and Aubrey, PK (preacher’s kid) Luke Sheppard, and even Nadia’s mother Elise—an enigma glimpsed only through hazy memories of her suicide—Nadia’s abortion isn’t just about how the act is perceived by the Upper Room’s devout members; it’s also how much the idea of being a “respectable” black woman is connected to that decision, including the internal turmoil and the judgments we simultaneously hand down and are marked with. That’s where The Mothers operates on the lower frequencies, to quote Ralph Ellison.
The politics of black respectability are an insidious force, whether or not we believe in or uphold them. The talks we have given our children for generations about using a specific type of diction, about the clothes we wear, the hairstyles we create, the jobs we hold, and the manner in which we create our families—they’re all connected to the idea that we could hopefully be respected by white people as equals, if we only conformed to their standards and rules and lived above reproach. One need only read a news article about black victims of police violence to see the ways in which the dead are meticulously researched for any evidence of imperfection that would rationalize or justify their deaths to see the limitations and futility of respectability politics.
It is telling that one of the first reasons Nadia gives for needing her abortion is that she is on her way to college, and that her father would be really upset. The scene is reminiscent of an episode in the most recent season of BET’s Being Mary Jane, in which the titular character played by Gabrielle Union angrily reveals to her father that she had an abortion when she was younger so as to not bring shame on her family for being unmarried at the time, in contrast to her niece, who has two out-of-wedlock children.
I was around nine or ten years old—shortly after I had received the sex talk—when my mother told me about young girls in her Chatham neighborhood in Chicago—itself an enclave for black middle-class strivers—who were sent “down South” to wait out their out-of-wedlock pregnancies or abortions. I took the stories as a veiled warning (whether or not they had been intended as such) and an example of the ways in which black women could be hidden if they did something to make their communities look “bad”—not unlike the ways in which Nadia hides emotionally in the novel.
Bennett explores this concept with the elder mothers in the community. Nadia spends much of the book trying to decipher the reasons behind her mother’s suicide. Elise Turner had dreams of going to school; did this mean that she was unhappy being a mother or that she wished she had never given birth? The “first lady” or pastor’s wife of Upper Room, Latrice Sheppard, makes some crucial decisions based on the perceived respectability of her family that ripple through the larger community many years later. It’s powerful—she accurately connects reproductive decisions to a community and its institutions through the narrative voice of the Upper Room mothers, who are omnipresent like a Greek chorus.
In The Mothers, the secrets of women’s bodies are whispered on every page. If I wrote on a doctor’s form that I had only two pregnancies instead of three, who but a tiny number of people would know that my body carried the secret of an abortion? In what way would I have been marked or identified as someone whose body knew more than it was telling? There are no red letters, no cauls, no painted Xs on the navel. There is only what I choose to reveal. The secrets Nadia, Aubrey, or even Elise hold in their bones, hearts, or wombs are registered as a series of pauses and silences, words and what ifs, that lock the tongue and cast doubt on everything.
Despite centering on an abortion, The Mothers is actually about birth: of friendships and love. It is also an incisive commentary on the ways in which those things can be corrupted by greater systemic and institutional forces, twisting even the most beautiful experiences of humanity into something ugly and unrecognizable.