I just finished teaching Daniel Defoe's 1722 novel, Moll Flanders, about a heroine who “Was Twelve Year a Whore, Five Times a Wife [Whereof Once To Her Own Brother], Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon In Virginia, At Last Grew Rich, Liv'd Honest, and Died a Penitent." The novel's frank depiction of criminality shocked 18th century readers, but my students are most appalled by the fact that Moll gives up her many children: the first, to her in-laws, and others to a paid surrogate family. We discuss the lack of sentimental language used to describe these separations. Does this mean that she had no maternal feelings, and that she only cared about her own survival? Is it the fault of a male author writing in the voice of a female character? Did mothers care less about their children because so many of them died? Or perhaps Moll's grief and loss are silent? I'm not sure we answered these questions to anyone's satisfaction, but it's certain that this question was more troubling to my students than whether or not Moll really did sincerely repent of her crimes.
A 1996 film version of the novel (starring the talented but ill-cast Robin Wright), paints Moll as a devoted mother who in the end finally reunites with one of her children. I prefer the BBC version starring Alex Kingston, which (with the exception of its addition of a lesbian sex scene) is much more faithful to the original text. Yet it’s telling that Hollywood filmmakers felt that the novel’s lack of maternal devotion was unrepresentable.
I was thinking of Moll Flanders last Sunday when my daughter and I watched the season premier of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. My six year old daughter and I often watch this schmaltzy show, in which one lucky impoverished and/or tragic family is given a brand new house, nay, an opulent McMansion, which is magically built in just seven days. The show is a tribute to the American family, and glorifies the struggles parents go through to provide their children with safe, intact homes. Of course, with the resources that the show uses, it could easily provide 10 perfectly acceptable homes for 10 equally needy families. I also oppose the political philosophy that asks us to glorify this kind of haphazard philanthropy instead of working for real social change that might provide all families with decent, safe housing. Still, I admit to a vicarious thrill when the gleaming new kitchen is revealed and my six-year old daughter loves the dazzling, toy-filled rooms. I also routinely tear up when parents are given free college tuition for their children, partly because I know how much college --more than a sub zero fridge or sunken bath tub -- changes lives, and partly because of the look of stunned relief on the parents' faces.
Last Sunday, instead of building a single-family house, the show made an enormous, gorgeous group home for seven black teenage girls from inner city Baltimore, part of a national program, Boys Hope Girls Hope. These girls are selected based on their academic promise and are given education mentoring, and more. In order to do this, they are taken from their families, away from their poor, crime-infested neighborhoods, and are housed with "live-in, round-the-clock professional Residential Counselors who provide the parenting that all children need."
In one segment of the show, these girls' mothers (no fathers were shown) tearfully expressed their gratitude that their daughters will be given chances to live better lives. Their ravaged faces beamed with love, but also looked impossibly sad. While a member of the show enthused admiration for these mothers, there seemed little acknowledgement that the giant celebration meant that these daughters were leaving their mothers in the same intolerable, unsafe situations from which they themselves were being rescued.
Yes, I too think these mothers are heroic. And certainly this program is admirable and makes a profound difference in the lives of many young men and women. But it seems obscene to celebrate the necessity of giving up one's daughter in order to save her.