When I was a kid, I liked watching weird, gory television shows, mostly to see whether my tolerance for creepiness and guts could match that of my older brother. Children’s entertainment seems to frequently include a monster narrative. For centuries, we’ve introduced our children to themes of morality, good versus evil, heroism and heritage through the lens of monster tales. Ugly, unseen, and unexplained, they are the perfect metaphors for our worst traits. When I had nightmares, my father always calmed me by saying, “Remember, no matter what you see in your dreams, monsters are not real.” But aren’t they?
We were both in elementary school when my parents decided to teach my brother and I about “stranger danger.” My father grew up in a small, rural town in central California. Him and my mother moved to San Francisco, where he discovered his wholesome roots made him a gullible victim to street hustlers. They then moved to Los Angeles, until someone in their neighborhood was stabbed and they decided it was time to return home where it would be easier to raise children. My father was armed with a decade of lessons about the habits of “wolves and sheep.” He led us through fake scenarios to teach us lessons, from the infamous man with candy to a woman looking for her lost dog. I’d see on the news and milk cartons photos of missing children and, occasionally, a story about a “monster.” I learned that monsters were, in fact, real, but they did not live under my bed. They did not have red eyes, fangs, or claws. They were people.
Women are bombarded by the media and society at large with images of perfection.
I have spent the majority of my medical training in low-income neighborhoods, and most recently have started working as an obstetrician-gynecologist at a women’s prison. Many of my patients have been called monsters — by their communities, by our staff, by the system. It seems that of all healthcare fields, moral extremism seems to have a particularly cozy home in women’s health. When it comes to pregnancy, childbirth, and the well-being of babies and children, there is little attention toward an individual’s story outside of being a mother, a princess, a heroine, or a delinquent, an abuser, a monster. Women are bombarded by the media and society at large with images of perfection. Mothers are saintly, strong, and committed 100% to their child-bearing duties. Any deviation from this image is an unforgiveable abomination.
[The monsters’] stories are not our stories, so they don’t matter.
The problem with “monster” as a concept is that it completely lacks dimension. The monster story is always told from the perspective of the victim, or the angry mob, everyone else except the monster itself. When an individual becomes a monster, they are no longer human. Once they are a monster, their motives, cognition, and rights no longer matter, for their heinous behavior is simply who they are. The dismissal of an individual’s history — the fact that each person has had a childhood, parents, experiences, dreams, traumas — and denial of humanity is similar to use of the word “predator.” It stands to reason that monsters and predators cannot be rehabilitated, and should be removed from society. Thus, as we grow up, we learn that monsters were never really hiding in our closets but, more frighteningly, walk among us. However, thanks to our justice system, there is ample opportunity to lock them up. Their stories are not our stories, so they don’t matter. We are safe.
The vast majority of women I see at the prison are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Most, if not all, have had significant traumatic experiences from their childhood years through adolescence. Childhood neglect being the most benign, many experienced serial physical and sexual abuse from their guardians, have been victims of sex trafficking, were forced to take illicit substances from their abusers, or coerced into criminal activity with threats to their safety or the safety of their children. Many states still prosecute pregnant women with criminal charges if they seek treatment for substance use disorders, adding further barriers to safety. Lacking prior intervention within the community, they end up relying on the safety net of the carceral system.
She is exactly where she should be.
Most people don’t know their stories. One might see a woman with a large, pregnant belly, vomiting as she withdraws from opiates in a jail cell, or a juvenile being escorted onto Labor and Delivery by correctional officers, cuffed, sweating, cursing at medical staff for pain relief, and one might think, “monster,” or that she exactly where she should be. I have heard similar comments from correctional and medical staff, suggesting either that evil can be suffered out of someone once good, or that the world is truly as simple as our childhood folktales, that the bad should be punished indefinitely.
My beliefs have circled back to what my father told me when I was a child: monsters are not real. They are metaphors for what we fear, what we don’t understand, and today, what we produce. We made the mistake of assuming it would be less of a burden to incarcerate millions of people rather than to be responsible for them. There is no evidence that our society is becoming healthier, as disparities in education, health and employment continue to plague us while the carceral and child protection industrial complexes thrive. It is true that individuals are capable of committing heinous, unspeakable crimes. Our tendency to spend more resources on the sentence rather than the source, however, is as short-sighted as it is dangerous.