On Ethics and Motherhood: Children’s Bodies in Art

Monday, October 28, 2019

In 1992, photographer Sally Mann published her third book of photographs called Immediate Family. These photos follow her three young children moving throughout their daily lives on a farm in Virginia. The children are depicted clothed and nude, in wet beds and swollen from infection. The photographs themselves are stunning in a way that holds the viewer still.

I want to say hostage, but I don’t want to imply terror. I want to say transfixed, but I don’t want to imply a fairy tale. Not static or stagnant, because we are moved. Not tranquil, because, though there is something idyllic here, we are also being challenged.

The Wall Street Journal ran a photograph of her daughter Virginia, who was four at the time. Rather than run the photograph as-is, it placed black bars across her eyes, breasts, and genitals. Artforum refused to publish a photograph of her daughter Jessie, who was swinging, nude, on a hay hook. 

Virginia saw the photograph of herself with bars across her body and wrote a letter to the editors. It reads, Dear Sirs, I don’t like the way you crossed me out.

In Mann’s biography, we read on how the children have been willing participants. Mann cites wanting to wait a decade before releasing the book and the children objecting to this proposal. Mann tells of how her children were permitted to edit out photographs she wanted to include. Her son chose one where his lower half was photographed, not because of the vulnerability of his nudity, his penis resting on his thigh, but because he was embarrassed at having socks on his hands.

I think of Sharon Olds’s “Bathing the Newborn” in which she writes, “the scrotum wrinkled as a waved whelk shell.”[i]

Arts critic Robert B. Woodward in The New York Times[ii] calls her method of motherhood “ingenious: with her children as subjects, making art became a kind of child care.” In Mann’s recent memoir, she at turns calls the photos “documentary” and others calls her children “actors” in staged photographs.

The gaze is always, literally, the mother’s, though, hanging on the walls, you might not always know it.

From the poem “The Argument Was Simple” by Rachel Zucker: “my son’s thumbprint on the lens of my camera / my eyes in that photo after our wedding.”[iii]

Woodward continues to ask, “The shield of motherhood can quickly become a sword when turned against her. … Is it pandering or bravery, her willingness to photograph what other adults have seen but turned away from?”

A Poet-Mom emails me and tells me she has no answers to my question (What are the ethics of using your children as subjects in art?), but that a friend of hers was a model for her parents in similar ways as Sally Mann’s children and this friend is still traumatized by it. I think to myself, “Who else has done it? Is the art any good?”

A. A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, was made into a character. His son fell in love with a bear named Winnie at the London zoo. After his father died, he wrote a series of memoirs expressing his discomfort at being turned into a character. He cites being unable to parse whether a memory was his or the character from the book: which invented Pooh sticks? Milne said of his father, “His heart remained buttoned up all through his life.”[iv]

I’ve also read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s son was similarly upset at the creation of Little Lord Fauntleroy.

In a secret Facebook group for mother-writers, one mama started a thread asking, essentially: I have this ripe topic that centers around past abuse and the experiences of raising a special needs child, but my son has asked me to refrain from publishing about him. What should I do?

My response: Write about it as if you were sending it out for consideration. Don’t just write about it for therapy—that won’t be enough for you. Write it with an audience in mind. Maybe your son will never change his mind. I’d respect that. Maybe he will. Maybe you can show him how there is an audience wanting for this kind of work—other women who need your voice. Maybe he’ll read what you write and be moved himself, realize how much love is behind the work.

In Rachel Zucker’s MOTHERs, a kind of lyric essay, she writes about female mentorship, about nonbiological mothers (such as her sons’ daycare provider Peggy) and loss, about her own mother, a storyteller. Many times, she tells us exactly what we need to know about these women in her life, but then reminds us: “But there are things about Peggy’s life I can’t write about. She’s not my mother and her story doesn’t belong to me” (27). [v]

One story she does tell is of her Iowa Writers’ Workshop mentor Jorie Graham, a mother-poet who does not tend to use her children as subject in her work. Zucker writes, “Graham feared that having a child might herald the end of her writing life. In despair she went on a pilgrimage to Emily Dickinson’s grave. It was storming, and Graham sought shelter in Emily Dickinson’s home. The home (also a museum) had shut down for the evening. Soaking wet and largely pregnant, Graham pounded on the door. A caretaker opened it. Graham begged to be let inside to see Dickinson’s desk. The caretaker nodded, and Graham rushed past her to Dickinson’s study. There, where Dickinson’s desk usually stood, was a small cradle. The caretaker explained that Dickinson’s desk was on loan to Harvard, and because the room seemed so empty without the desk, someone had put the cradle (found in the basement) in its place” (6).

As I researched this essay, I re-read the work of some of my favorite so-called confessional poets—Plath, Sexton, Olds, Zucker. When I read them, when I read the stark and visceral, why is it that all I can do is feel my body buzzing and think Yes this is it YES it is so good YES.

I think: I’ve looked at my children this way. I remember reading in Beth Ann Fennelly’s epistolary Great With Child, a book I wanted to consume quite literally as if it were a peach, how she confessed she bit her child on the thigh once, could not resist the impulse, how we don’t speak about the sensual interactions we have with our children. How different it is when nursing—not the same charge, but there is erotics to it. Our skin is lit up.

When I say erotic, I don’t mean incest. I don’t mean lewd or smutty or ribald. But you knew that already.

Art historian Anne Higonnet states, “No subject is as publicly dangerous now as the subject of the child’s body.”[vi]

Celia Carlson wrote an academic essay called “Lyric Image as Sensuous Thought.” In it, she writes, “Neither beauty nor sublimity is an attribute of the object but a judgment made upon an object. The Key is that such judgment gives us pleasure.”[vii]

I can’t stop thinking about Virginia Mann’s Dear Sir letter. I can’t stop thinking about her own interpretation of the gaze.

In an interview with Terry Gross, Sharon Olds states, “I keep my private life very separate—in my mind and in public—from my life as a writer.” [viii]

I remember in a mixed-genre workshop through the Loft Literary Center’s Mentorship Program, how two of the nonfiction participants were flabbergasted at how the poets used invention, imagination, and truth as kernel for Truth in their work. One participant protested, “But—but I thought they were always true!” Always, all-the-way-through true.

I’ve read somewhere that newer versions of Sharon Olds’s books have her children’s names edited out.

I’ve read somewhere her children had injunctions put out against some poems.

I’ve scoured the internet to see if these things are true, to find some kind of verification, but there is only that white noise that only a Google search can produce. I do not know if this is all-the-way-through true.

Carlson brings us to “the conceptual territory that allows Daniel Tiffany to refer to lyric poetry as the property of the fetish. Our poems, indeed, all our commitments, are zombies that haunt us. … The human body can be a beautiful object for us provided that it be entirely dismembered first, and it can be made meaningful by voiding it of all meaning.” Carlson continues, ““The key to lyric subjectivity is transformation. This is how lyric can be intimate—a song—but not personal.” Here, “the poem became very much a linguistic object. The child’s body provides a way of combining a personal story with a visual artifact.”

In Sharon Olds’s poem “For My Daughter,” the poet begins and ends in the river. She starts, “Somewhere someone will be / entering you, his body riding / under your white body” where her body is the subject of the water, of eyes that are liquid, her hair “fine / as water poured at night.” This river becomes the story “that changes in the telling, the story of the river.” [ix]

It is this that hooks me, when Carlson says, “To save her daughter, she turns her into water, like a god turning a nymph into a tree or a star. In order to protect her daughter, Olds removes her reality.”

Sally Mann’s photographs begin to flash through my mind: Jessie the sea nymph, the angel on the breakfast table. And just as the shifting of reality is what has suddenly linked these mother-artists together, it is also this insistence on what nudity does to form (photograph versus poem) that unlinks.

Carlson states, “As a theme, [children] support the modernist injunction to ‘make it new,’ quite literally. They are a renewal of the parent even as they are a reminder of physical decline. And they point to supplies within the corporeal body of erotic energy, to which the parent-poet has immediate access. Furthermore, because they invoke the incest taboo, images of the child’s body supply an immediate, obvious motivation for limited meaning.”

Carlson spends a fair amount of time talking about the “incest taboo” and the moves a poet needs to make to remove that concern—from implied future heterosexual relationships to giving that daughter the opportunity to take pleasure in one’s own female body. Is the gaze towards a photograph different from the gaze towards a poem?

Rita Dove’s sensuality is present in her poem “After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bedwhere her daughter spends moments exploring her own body: “My daughter spreads her legs / to find her vagina.” This is language “a stranger cannot touch / without her yelling. She demands / to see mine” and Dove shows her, “my prodigious scallops / exposed to her neat cameo.”

Here we’re in territory I’m completely familiar with. My own daughter, two, looking at the triangled tuft of hair after I get out of the shower. “Whazat?” She has few words now, and this feminist mother stumbled: what do I call it? “What it is,” my husband answers. A year later, she tells me, “I wish I had fur like you, Mommy.” I tell her someday she probably will, and I write a poem that examines the words we give our children, the language they can have to face difficult subjects like the privacy of our parts, like living and dying.

It works, for me as a poet, because it’s always my gaze as a mother. I don’t and won’t tell their stories, except with myself as observer. I probably should say haven’t and probably won’t instead because one never knows. And I write my poems out of love—even the ones where I peel back my skin and am Bad Mother. They become written as natural acts—this is a part of motherhood, this is a part of being four, or two, or a baby gnawing away inside me. Exceptional unexceptions. These are the lines I draw for myself, and already, as they get older, I can feel myself pulling away, averting my gaze, realizing they are beginning to need privacy and it should be theirs. But I also hope I can raise them to know what I’m doing is important—giving voice to experiences that are universal and that have reached women. Are my children willing to give this gift too? Their stories are theirs, or so I believe. Will it depend on if it—the telling, the art—is any good at all? I can’t say that. All I can say is I set out to give voice to this sticky, complicated, harrowing place of motherhood.

[i] Olds, Sharon. The Wellspring. Knopf: 2012.

[iii] Zucker, Rachel. The Pedestrians. Wave Books: 2014.

[v] Zucker, Rachel. MOTHERs. Counterpath Press: 2013.

[vii] Carlson, Celia. "Lyric Image as Sensuous Thought." Journal of Modern Literature 35, no. 3 (2012): 158-82. doi:10.2979/jmodelite.35.3.158.

[viii] Goldthwaite, Melissa A. "Confessionals." College English 66, no. 1 (2003): 55-73. doi:10.2307/3594234.

[ix] Olds, Sharon. The Dead and the Living. Knopf: 1984.