The School for Good Mothers: A Novel
by Jessamine Chan
Paperback- $17.99

Longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel
Longlisted for the 2023 Carnegie Medal for Excellence
Shortlisted for The Center ...

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  "A worldview that I hope is never realized!" by thewanderingjew (see profile) 01/14/22

The School For Good Mothers, Jessamine Chan, author; Catherine Ho, narrator
In an unspecified time, in America, there is a grotesque school for quasi wayward parents who have been convicted of some kind of child abuse, often just the result of a normal kind of accident that children are heir to, but sometimes due to actual neglect or abuse; it is a place for the retraining of those parents judged unfit to remain with their children. Our main character, Frida, has been sent there because after three months of supervised visits with her daughter, she was deemed still unfit to parent her 18-month-old child, Harriet. She must go away for a year, having no physical contact with her at all, and at the end of the year, after being reeducated, if she passes, she will be returned to society and allowed to care for her child, followed up, of course, by supervision. If she does not pass, and is deemed unfit, she is forbidden to see or communicate with her child, unless at the time the child reaches the legal age of 18, she herself decides to search for her mother. Even the grandparents are forbidden from seeing the child since it is conceivable that they would remind the child of her mother and make it harder for her to adjust to her loss. There is no appeal after final judgment is handed down.
For Frida, the reason for her incarceration is an egregious error in judgment, Faced with work deadlines she could not meet and a lack of sleep, coupled with the emotional deprivation and desolation surrounding her marriage break-up, she became overwhelmed and could not bear staying in her house any longer. She simply walked out, leaving her daughter Harriet alone in her ExerSaucer, and she lost track of time. She did not return as quickly as she had planned, but leaving for even a short time would have been a horrendous lapse of good parenting. When the child, Harriet, began to cry, and persisted for a very long time, it caught the attention of a neighbor who called the police. They then called Child Protective Services.
Frida had joint custody with her ex-husband Gust, so he was given full custody temporarily, while appropriate action was decided. When, Frida was deemed unfit, even after the supervised visits, she was given a choice by the judge to give up her parental rights, never seeing her child again, or to go to a school to be retrained as a good mother. She opted for that, unwilling to give up her child, or to face the prospect of living without her. She prepared to leave for one year. The care of Harriet was remanded to Gust and his paramour, Susanna for that period of time.
Frida’s parents were originally from China. Her father’s mama, her ahma, had suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Her parents met in America, while both were studying at graduate school. They married and arranged for many relatives to come to America, too. Frida was born in America. She met her husband, a white man, at a party in Brooklyn, New York. They married and she agreed to move with him to Philadelphia. There, she felt like a fish out of water and had few friends. In her late 30’s, she conceived a child. She believed that her life with her husband would be forever, so she was quite overwhelmed when she discovered that while she was pregnant, he began having an affair. Soon, thereafter, her husband left her for his lover, Susanna. Oddly, they were both deemed to be fit parents in this novel, although, unbeknownst to the authorities, Susanna actually sent pornographic texts and pictures to Gust, while Frida was pregnant, and Susanna was a willing participant in the break-up of Frida and Gust’s marriage.
In this prison “school”, although the aims seemed to be rehabilitation and reform, the methods seemed more apt to encourage recidivism than redemption. When mothers arrived at the campus, without any luggage as instructed, they were stripped of all personal belongings and given nondescript, unflattering pink uniforms, plus a few basic needs like a toothbrush and soap. The aim was to remove all distractions from their lives to enable them to concentrate only on being the parent who deserved a child. Each woman was given a lifelike “robot” doll, that she had to care for and bond with as if it was her real child. The classes were geared to teaching them to be good mothers, always putting the child first, as they learned to ignore distractions and their own personal needs. They were forced to repeat a mantra about their bad mothering and narcissism which, it was agreed, was the reason for their poor judgment and choices. They were sometimes forced to inflict harm upon the robot child, that felt pain and cried, in order to teach the child, and themselves, the proper emotional responses to stress and the real world. The instruction seemed barbaric and cold. The lab coated counselor/instructors gave the place the air of an experimental laboratory. They were totally unemotional in their approach to every situation, and they seemed calculating and cold. The judgments of the success or failure of each mother, by the social workers and counselors, could not be questioned. They were rarely supportive, rather they just kept encouraging the mothers to do as they were told, and to do it well. They competed with each other for first place. It was a contest determining who among them was the best mother. There was a great deal of emotional stress, sometimes leading to dreadful consequences. The judgment of the mother’s performances, as in the courtroom by the judges, left no room for error or redress. The campus of this “school”, was surrounded by an electrified fence. If they tried to leave, it would be suicide. If they were expelled or if they failed to pass the program, they would lose parental rights forever.
Frida always felt as if she was the one blamed, unfairly, but she quickly learned to submerge her feelings and to show gratitude for whatever she received, hoping to be judged a fit mother. She learned to speak appropriately to a child, making every moment a teaching, loving moment, as she also learned how much love was acceptable and how much was perceived as coddling and harmful. The demands seemed a bit unrealistic for actual life. She learned about her own past and how it influenced her own reactions, and was encouraged to do better.
There were fathers in the program. They lived on a different part of the campus. Their training did not seem as extreme. They were not punished as often and did not lose privileges or experience frequent changes in their schedules and/or rules, almost haphazardly. The fear of unexpected changes and inadvertent rule breaking did not cause tremendous tension or fear in them, as it did in the mothers. Unlike our society today, where the men are considered toxic, it seemed the women were considered more harmful, and were not to be trusted or believed by either men or women.
In the novel, there was a lot of emphasis on sexual need, and a good deal of filthy language. The society of women separated along racial lines, similar to life outside. Although some of the training seemed meaningful, most of the approach to motherhood seemed absurd and almost misogynous.
Did the program work? Would she learn to care about how her poor judgment not only hurt her child but others? Would she feel real remorse? Does she truly understand what love is, and if not, why not? What makes a good parent? Is parenting different for men and women, and therefore, do they have to be trained differently? Is one parent more important than the other? If both mother and father make the same mistake, are they judged in the same way, punished in the same way? Should they be? Is rehabilitation or redemption even possible? Will a troubled parent always be a troubled parent, repeating the same mistakes even after reeducation? One can’t help recall that Frida’s ahma was abused during the Cultural Revolution, when the elite and educated had to be reeducated. Was Frida the abuser or was she abused? Was America experiencing its own cultural revolution? What caused the need for so radical a social climate of judgment?
The narrator was superb. She could easily have over emoted or made herself a character, but instead, she chose just the right amount of tone and stress in each situation as she read, emphasizing the atmosphere in each given moment, appropriately. The book is a very interesting read that is perfect for book groups as it will encourage broad discussion of our values and behavior and the direction in which our own society may be heading.

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