Exploring a Cultish Culture: the behind-the-book story of Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed
At Seattle Children’s Hospital, I heard a talk by a Somali cultural navigator. He mentioned that, as a child, his mother had beaten him so badly that he still carried the scars on his back. Surprisingly to me, he endured no lingering trauma or resentment; he said that in his community in Somalia, this was how children were punished. He had misbehaved, and so he had been chastised- according to his cultural norms- in an appropriate manner.
Later on, in graduate school, I read an anthropological paper on corporal discipline in different societies. The theory of the paper was that warlike societies punished children violently, and this in itself made them both more violent and more suited to a life where physical combat was probable. What I considered child abuse was in fact preparation for a life I could barely imagine.
This fascinated me, this idea that something our society might consider abhorrent would be considered normal, and even necessary, in another culture. I happened upon another, older article describing how young boys in an African tribe were expected to sexually service the older boys, and that this was considered beneficial for both. My professor discussed a South Pacific society where fathers were expected to have intercourse with their daughters, to “prepare them for their husbands.”
I began wondering what it would be like to grow up experiencing culturally sanctioned abuse. What would the children be like? How would they tolerate this abuse, especially given the fact that all of their peers were tolerating it too? What reactions are so ingrained in our consciousness — that no matter our cultural upbringing — that a certain type of adverse childhood experience would lead to similar human responses?
What happens when the unthinkable becomes the everyday?
The below is an excerpt from Jennie Melamed’s debut novel, Gather the Daughters (on sale July 25, 2017).
At night, Caitlin has trouble finding a comfortable place to rest. The summer bruises are fading but still sore, and the autumn bruises — finger-sized, handprints, straight-out blows — are blossoming like rot- ten ivy across her body. She knows Father doesn’t really beat her, he’s just getting rid of all the tension that built up over the summer, but she wishes he’d let her sleep more. Mother gives him a double serving of pungent mash-wine every night at dinner, and Caitlin knows she’s trying to make him slumber through the night. A small part of her glows at this exhibition of love.
She’s dozing off after an exhausting evening when she hears tap- ping on her window. Jerking awake, Caitlin thinks for a moment that it’s spring, almost summer, and Rosie is tossing pebbles at her window. She blinks, and it’s autumn again and she has no clue why anyone out- side would want her, but the thought of Father waking fills her with panic. Rushing to the window, Caitlin opens it quietly. There’s Rosie, perched on her roof.
Caitlin scoots down toward her across the dry, flaking shingle. “Rosie. What is it?”
“We’re all supposed to meet at the church.”
Caitlin stares at her, trying to decide if she’s dreaming. She looks upward to a clear, cold sky striped with alabaster stars.
“Well?” says Rosie. “Do you want to go together?”
“Why would we go to the church?” asks Caitlin carefully, as if Rosie is raving.
Rosie shrugs. “Linda told me about it. Janey wants us all there at midnight.”
“Who’s us?” “The girls. The older ones, anyway.” “Why?” “Do I look like Mary? I don’t know why Janey does what she does.” “Well, I don’t have a clock in my room. The only one is
downstairs.” Rosie rolls her eyes. “Go watch it, then. I’ll watch mine too. I’ll
wait for you a little before midnight.” “Do you know what time it is now?” “About eleven.” “Okay,” says Caitlin slowly. “Are you playing a trick on me?” Rosie’s face darkens. “That would be a stupid trick!” Caitlin can’t
tell if Rosie is offended at being accused of lying or of playing an infe- rior prank.
“Well, I’ll try to get downstairs. If Mother or Father wakes up, I won’t be able to go.”
“I was scared your father was in there with you. He’s so scary. Lots of girls won’t be able to go. Make sure he doesn’t come to your room and find you missing.”
“How do I do that?” Caitlin asks.
“I don’t know. I don’t know everything. Why don’t you just sit there and count out fifty minutes by seconds.”
And so Caitlin goes back into her bedroom, kneels on her scratchy bed, and does just that. She counts too fast; when she creeps down- stairs to look at the clock, it’s only eleven thirty-five. She sits, ner- vously staring at the clock, watching the hand slowly creep toward midnight, worried that Father forgot to wind it and she’ll miss the whole thing. Eventually she can’t take it anymore, and she rushes out- side. Rosie is waiting in the cold, shifting her weight from foot to foot on the frosty ground. It’s a full moon, and Caitlin can see the outline of Rosie’s thin body through her illuminated nightgown.
“You’re late,” says Rosie. “We have to hurry.” She reaches out and grabs Caitlin’s hand. Surprised and pleased by the strong hand grip- ping hers, Caitlin starts running with Rosie beside her. Their panting breath fogs, and Caitlin giggles at how cold her feet are on the stiff mud and wet, shining grass. Rosie remembered shoes, but they’re too big, and she keeps losing one and then rushing back to claim it.
They hear other footsteps and slow down to see three girls jogging toward them.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Natalie Saul hisses. “I heard Janey wants us in the church.”
“I don’t know,” says Rosie, and Caitlin shrugs in agreement.
“This is all a trick,” says Linda Gideon as they hurry along together. “There’s going to be a bunch of boys there, and they’re going to laugh at us.”
“I don’t think so,” says Alma Joseph. “Janey would find out and beat them up.”
When they arrive at the church, there’s a small group of girls gath- ered around the entrance who hail the newcomers with relief, hoping vainly for further intelligence.
“I’m not going into that dark church,” says Letty firmly. “Me either,” says Rosie. “Something might be in there.” “What if there’s something waiting to eat us?” pipes up Joanne
Balthazar, who’s only five. Her sister brought her along. “We’re not going into the dark,” says Rosie decisively. “We can
wait here for a while and then leave if nothing happens.” “My toes feel like they’re going to fall off,” says Violet Balthazar. “We can throw them down the stairs for the monster,” giggles
Letty, and the rest of the group laughs nervously. “Look,” says Ophelia Adam, pointing, but they all see it at the
same time. There’s a faint tawny glow coming from inside the church, illuminating the windows and seeping out through the door.
“There’s somebody in there,” says Linda.
“Or something,” replies Natalie. The glow grows brighter. There are more girls gathered around the doorway now.
“Someone’s lighting candles,” says Nina Joseph. “I can see them through that window.”
Rosie pokes Caitlin in the side. “You go first.” Caitlin shakes her head rapidly, backing up a little in case Rosie decides to push her down the stairs.
“I’ll go,” says Vanessa Adam, looking annoyed. Playing with the end of her braid, she peers into the doorway and then takes a few hes- itant steps down. “It’s all right. It’s Mary and Janey,” she calls back. “Nina’s right. They’re lighting candles.”
Confident that Janey and Mary wouldn’t be lighting candles if they were fighting a monster, the girls tumble down the steps and into the church. Empty and shadowed, it looks cavernous compared to its famil- iar state, replete with worshippers and dim daylight. The orange glow of the candles lends light to the room, if not warmth. Mary is sitting calmly next to the altar, her shimmering dark hair loose around her shoulders. At her feet is Janey, looking impatient and twisting her fingers together.
“What is it?” cries Gina Abraham excitedly. “What are we doing?”
“I wanted to talk about…important things,” Janey says. “Forbid- den things. I didn’t know how else to get us together without some adult looking on.”
The girls glance around at one another as the silence lengthens and they wait for her to say more. Then Mary says, “Go on, get behind the altar.”
Janey rolls her eyes. “I’m not Pastor Saul,” she says.
“What?” calls a girl from the back, and then more softly, “What did she say?”
“See,” says Mary. “We’ll hear you better if you’re higher up.” “But it’s stupid,” says Janey. “If you have something to say,” says Vanessa, “and you want us all to hear it…”
Janey unfolds her spindly body and walks up to the altar, almost as tall as the pastor but slender as a blade of grass. When she speaks from behind the podium, her faint voice is suddenly strong and echo- ing. With a start, Caitlin wonders if Pastor Saul’s sermons are really deep and thundering, his voice driven by otherworldly power, or if it’s simply a result of the way the church is structured. Janey coughs. “I . . . thank you for coming here. I just wanted to — I was talking with someone before she died. And she was talking about leaving the is- land. Maybe going to the wastelands, but I thought, maybe there’s another island. Another island to go to.”
A voice whispers, “What does she mean?”
“What I mean is what if we’re not the only one? If you can go on an island and avoid the scourge, surely others did too.”
Caitlin thinks of another island, perhaps with a similar church, perhaps with a red-haired girl admonishing the others at midnight.
“I mean, the world is big, right?” Janey asks. Caitlin sees Vanessa, who knows all about the world, nodding.
“Mr. Abraham showed us on a map,” says Letty. “He said the is- land wasn’t on it, but told us where we were.”
“And for all we know, there’s more world, not even on that map.”
There’s silence as everyone ponders this uncharted world. The lit- tlest girls, already bored, have started a game to see who can jump the farthest. Cheers and whoops carry from one corner of the room, pro- viding a jarring score to Janey’s words.
“But Pastor Saul says that everyone else got stuck in the war,” pipes up Wendy Balthazar.
“Well, what if he doesn’t know everything about the entire world?” snaps Janey. “He’s a pastor, not an ancestor. Or God.”
Wendy shakes her head at her sister to indicate her disapproval of Janey’s comment.
“Why would we be the only ones to escape the war?” Janey con- tinues. “What’s so special about us?”
“The ancestors,” Nina says. “They had foresight.”
“Well, maybe other people’s ancestors had foresight.”
There’s a collective gasp, and then a mutter. The ancestors aren’t just ancestors, they’re the ancestors, chosen by God to start a new so- ciety. Janey slams her fist into the altar so hard that Caitlin wonders if she’s dented it. “Are you seriously saying it couldn’t ever happen anywhere else?” she asks. “That it’s impossible anyone else might have survived?”
“She’s right,” says Vanessa. The others quiet and turn to her. “There must be pockets of people somewhere, on islands, in valleys…places where the scourge didn’t reach, or didn’t reach as badly. I mean, we can’t be sure, but it wouldn’t make sense for us to be the only ones.” Caitlin isn’t sure what a valley is, but she trusts Vanessa.
“It doesn’t have to make sense,” says Paula Abraham nastily. “It’s the ancestors. And God.”
“Other islands,” continues Vanessa as if Paula hadn’t spoken, “and they might be completely different.”
“What do you mean?” asks Fiona. “Different how?”
“However you like,” says Vanessa thoughtfully. “It depends on where they are. Different plants and animals and weather. Hotter, colder. Different trees, or no trees.”
“What do they carve out of, then?” demands Paula.
“I don’t know, I don’t live there,” Vanessa replies, and everyone laughs.
“What if on that island, it never gets warm enough for a summer?” asks Letty, and someone else says, “What if there aren’t any dogs or cats?”
“What if women wear pants and men wear dresses?” says Fiona, and everyone laughs louder.
“What if nobody ever gets married, or knows who their father is?” says Millie Abraham.
“What if there aren’t any men at all?” says Wendy. “Then there’d be no babies,” answers another voice. “What if,” says Lana Aaron, who is only six but more alert than her shrieking, tumbling counterparts, “what if the children are head of the family, and the parents have to do what they say?”
“What if they’re all defectives, and they all live in one big defective family?”
“This isn’t time for storytelling,” insists Janey, although the ideas keep whizzing through the air, each girl eager to add her own. “This is a time to ask serious questions.” Her voice becomes louder. “If there are other islands, where things are done differently, can we go there? Or can we change things here?”
There is a blank silence. “Change what?” ventures Nina.
“Change anything. Not just dogs and dresses. Change things that matter.”
Another silence, and then a few girls turn to mutter to one an- other. “Like what?” asks Nina again.
Janey sighs. “If you could change anything about the island, what would it be?”
There’s a pause. “More cookies,” someone whispers, and a trail of giggles blows through the group like wind on grass.
“Think about it,” says Janey, slamming her hand into the altar again. “What if we didn’t have to get married? What if we didn’t have to obey our fathers?” A spark in her eyes. “What if we could make it like summer all the time? Wouldn’t you like that?”
The silence this time is full of doubt. “But,” says Fiona, “what about the ancestors?” “What about them?” demands Janey. “Well,” says Fiona, as if explaining something to a very small child,
“we live this way because the ancestors tell us to. So we don’t fall to the darkness below.”
“But then,” says Vanessa, over another girl who is trying to speak, “what’s the use of thinking about it? What if we didn’t have to obey our fathers? That would be nice, but the truth is that we have fathers and they make us obey them — with their fists if they need to.” Caitlin can feel everyone’s eyes on her and wishes she would shrink into the ground.
This excerpt is provided by Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2017 by Jennie Melamed. All rights reserved.