Disappearing, Angrily: Adolescent Girlhood in ‘The Girls’ and ‘The Wonder’

On two novels that explore the opposing poles of sainthood and deviance, and how they find common ground in the idea of female self-erasure.

Adolescent girls, at least some of them, seek ways of becoming visible and invisible at once. I think about a scene that played out daily at my high school: a popular girl who stood near the cafeteria line at lunch and shook a whipped cream canister, spraying the white stuff — her only lunch — into her mouth. Some attributed her dramatic thinness to a secret liposuction, but the evidence of her method was right before us, as we loaded chicken fingers and turkey sandwiches onto our trays.  She was performing her paradox: Watch me fade away. 

Two recent novels, The Wonder and The Girls, focus on this notion of public female self-erasure. The two novels seemingly explore the opposing poles of sainthood and deviance, a century apart, and yet reading both this month I was struck by the parallels. In each novel, self-destruction becomes a means of obtaining power and control for women raised to be decorative and obedient and to quench their desires. And indeed, both writers choose grotesque and frightening scenarios to tell a story that can probably be found in every counseling office in every high school in America.

In Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, which is published this week, the author fuses the Irish traditions of political hunger striking and externally imposed famine with an indictment of Catholic approaches to sexuality and sainthood. This is the story of Anna O’Donnell, a miraculously self-starving Irish girl in the nineteenth century.The narrative is based on historical accounts of “fasting girls,” in the English-speaking world — an occasional phenomena of young women who refused to eat, claiming to be nourished by God alone.

Donoghue, author of Frog Music and Room, elaborated on her novel’s premise in an interview with NPR this week, affirming the parallels I noticed. “Anna is a very powerless little girl,” she said. “But she has decided to be the best little Catholic girl she can be. And she’s taken the grownups very seriously. She’s taken their rules very literally. And she’s taken it all to a great extreme.” Donoghue continued:

…I didn’t really want to focus purely on Catholicism. I’m very interested in how idealistic young people can get caught up in all sorts of systems of extreme belief, you know, whether it’s cults or whether it’s suicide bombers.

Emma Cline’s summer novel The Girls, also based on history, takes place a century later. It follows another young girl, Evie Boyd, on the periphery of a Manson-like cult, an involvement that begins when she helps some skinny, ragged, self-possessed young women in her California town avail themselves of toilet paper. Tired of the petty, sex-obsessed social gamesmanship of her dreary suburban existence, she ends up joining this feral pack of girls in a social and sexual experiment that we know is going to go terribly, terribly awry. This soon-to-be murderous band of underfed girls, more so than their predatory male leader, become the object of Evie’s obsession, the means to her rebellion.

Soon enough she’s engaging in petty theft, a kind of truancy, and more frighteningly, submitting to the sexual advances of Russell, the Manson figure who steers the ship at the ranch. The adult Evie, who narrates the story, admits to a stuntedness arising from this experience a lifelong inability to get over her brief season of rebellion, as she observes a young woman from her perch of experience: “Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.” This sentence seems to hold the key to Evie’s choices, especially the use of “fattens,” which suggests that Evie is ravenous for a kind of male love and approval society insists she needs, but she can’t get — because no one can.

Evie’s mother, recently divorced, is desperate for male affection in a manner that arouses her daughter’s scorn. Evie, by casually surrendering to Russell’s exploitation and forming a kind of sister-bond with his other concubines and followers, both embodies and transcends this gnawing female need.  She is acting out her mother’s unknowing self-abasement in a conscious way that’s more humiliating — but, in her mind, more empowering: “Break down the self, offer yourself up like dust to the universe,” is the mantra of the girls at the cult, the reason they submit to Russell’s sexual degradation and also allow themselves to be the corralers of babies, the preparers of food. “All the books made it sound like the men forced the girls into it,” Evie the adult says, later, but she says the truth is different: the women had agency over the men, each other, and themselves. This assertion sums up the extent of her self-actualization, her revolution.

Yet she knows something is wrong underneath, and describes a longing for the real self-actualization that she feels has been cut off from her because of her gender: a sense of being able to feel, and name her feelings. “I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself,” says the adult Evie, looking back on her youth. “My childhood visits to the family doctor were stressful events for that reason. He’d ask me gentle questions: How was I feeling? How would I describe the pain? Was it more sharp or more spread out? I’d just look at him with desperation. I needed to be told, that was the whole point of going to the doctor.”

*        *       *

A medical professional is the protagonist of The Wonder, and she tries to explain to 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, the titular character, that she is starving to death. “You need food like everyone else. There’s nothing special about you,” says Lib, the brisk English nurse in charge of watching Anna “fast.” She acknowledges that the tone, the content of her warning comes out like abuse when she is trying to encourage the child. “If you won’t eat, child, you’ll die,” she says. In response, “Anna looked right at her, then nodded and smiled.”

Those of us, regardless of our background, who find these kind of girls baffling (or tend towards self-indulgence rather than self-denial) are something like Lib, the skeptical, Florence Nightingale-trained nurse in The Wonder who arrives in Ireland, some few years after the potato famine (or the Great Hunger) on a mysterious mission. Charged with observing Anna, who is attracting religious pilgrims due to her claim to be subsisting on “manna from heaven,” Lib watches closely to see when, and how, she is secretly eating. Lib is both nurse and detective, maternal figure and also, she realizes, gaoler. Her “watch” on the girl is preventing whatever kind of subterfuge has allowed her to live this long.

Now that the watch is in place, the child’s life is in danger, but Lib can’t call off the watch without knowing what is really happening, and how. Meanwhile, Anna’s deprivation moves her into a sort of fervor and ecstasy (familiar to anyone who has fasted):

…the girl showed a relish for everything. Snuffed the air as if it were attar of roses instead of cows and chickens. Stroked every mossy rock that they passed.
“What’s the matter with you today, Anna?”
“Nothing. I’m happy.”
Lib looked at her askance.
“Our Lady’s pouring such a great deal of light on everything, I can nearly smell it.”
Could eating little or nothing open the pores? Lib wondered. Sharpen the sense?

Lib’s obsession with Anna’s physical state makes her a poor detective. Lib is a creature of the body, embarrassed by her own appetite in front of her famished charge. She eats anyway. She cannot help it. The idea of using her own body, her own disappearance, as a weapon is foreign to her; it takes her far too long to see what the reader sees; that Anna is dying, that she has specific reasons for her choices, and that her community already saw her, in a sense, as invisible or worse (of course, as with The Girls, sex is at the root of it all). It’s not just Anna’s emaciation that is making her feel so alive, but the psychological control she feels she has. Anna’s fast sanctifies her, makes her worthy of notice and love, in a way that simply being a young girl in a deeply regressive, unimaginably misogynist culture would never have otherwise.

While Anna’s physical diminishing in The Wonder makes her into a sort of blissed-out martyr, Evie and the other girls get thinner as The Girls meanders towards its bloody end — Evie’s two-week absence brings their hunger into relief when she returns — as if their physical health connects them to any lingering morality. It’s hard for Cline to make the leap from their dangerous play to their psychotic descent into child-murder (and indeed, the novel’s focus shies away from the uglier realities of the Manson Family). Perhaps that’s because brutality at the hands of those who are meant to be avatars of purity remains incomprehensible, unsayable, in a white supremacist society.

Indeed, the way “the girls” act out isn’t necessarily intrinsic to all female adolescence, but rather a specific kind of female adolescence. Like the show Girls, which was criticized for claiming universality, The Girls is preoccupied with whiteness and its discontents. The thread that connects the behavior of virtuous Anna and sullen Evie arises as a response to the dictates of a Western, Christian society that places expectation on its young women to toe a perfect line between desirable and chaste. Their struggle, sparked by nascent sexuality, is between being subjects of their own lives and objects of the male gaze, between the pit and the pedestal. At Hazlitt, reviewing The Girls, Morgan Jenkins asks whether “boredom in literature is another form of white privilege.” She writes of the protagonists of novels like this one and The Virgin Suicides “they are the standard for beauty, purity, and innocence, and they reject that world by disappearing. For women of color, it is the opposite, and that makes all the difference.”

Again, as other critics have noted, Cline hedges her moral bets, using her “bystander” narrator to steer away from the violent rape, mind control and racist rhetoric that marked the real Manson family. Thus, though her novel is brilliantly realized, it tends to reinforce an idealization of white female adolescence even during a partially successful attempt to show the monstrousness beneath the veneer. Because of its more simplistic tone, Donoghue’s novel ends up being more valiant than Cline’s in indicting rank, misogynist evil. The author clearly shares Lib’s disgust for Catholicism’s sexual prudery and superstition; this anger blazes off the page, never tempered. While The Girls fades away, showing Evie as an adult who has learned to swallow her dissatisfaction, The Wonder‘s thrilling caper of an ending feels stolen from young adult fiction.

It’s a strange turn after the and almost unbearable psychological detail that suffused the preceding pages — but perhaps the fantastic aspect of YA fiction, the genre that young women read to escape and reflect on their lives, is an appropriate way to end a tale about the hunger many young women feel to transcend the immense weight that has been placed on their bodies.