The Alienated Woman

A woman’s intuition is a concept most people understand. It’s often the subject of both praise and mockery, and it creates clear lines between the masculine and the feminine. But what about a woman’s alienation? Is the exploration of alienation in literature reserved for men, or for women who are young and single? Maya Sinha’s debut novel, The City Mother, goes against the grain, offering a new take on womanhood, motherhood, and existential angst. 

The novel tells the story of Cara Nielsen, a young woman reporter, who has plenty of big ambitions when it comes to her career. Cara meets Tim, another reporter with big dreams about the big city. Both Cara and Tim wanted to leave the small-town existence behind and become cultural representations of city writers and intellectuals. That wish and image suited them well until they arrived in the city. Then, everything changed. 

Evil or Therapy?

Sinha opens her novel with Cara as a patient in a psychiatric institution. It’s clear that something happened to Cara in order to deserve such treatment. As we move back and forth between the mental hospital and her past, we realize that Cara eventually snapped, or had a nervous breakdown that required a separation from her family. Describing Cara’s time in the mental institution, Sinha writes, “There is a desk in here. Writing gives me something to fill the empty hours—unbelievable, that I should suddenly have so much free time. Plucked from my real life, I can finally hear myself think.”

But think about what? The ambiguous darkness that has been enveloping her for years, the darkness that she can’t really explain, wondering if she is mentally ill or “simply” seeing demons. Is there a difference? 

Cara struggles with all of this. In one instance, she tries to explain this feeling to her therapist, Janine. Talking about medieval churches and their open displays of demons, Cara wonders whether we have lost something by denying the power of evil and darkness. “Gargoyles,” she says to her therapist, “They were right there, out in the open. On the rain gutters. Over the door. Sticking their tongues out, leering at you with fangs, mooning you, up there in full view. Hand-carved and cast in stone … and why? To represent that side of life! To let you know you weren’t going crazy!” 

Cara’s therapist misses the point completely. She thinks that Cara is talking about the lack of ornamentation in modern architecture. Once again, Cara feels misunderstood because her society is incapable of comprehending the concepts that point to a more complex life—it has slipped so far into secularism and atheism that any mystical power (be it good or evil) is only described in terms of psychology, biology, and mental illness. “Everything is so clean—so fun and nice and pleasant!” Cara observes. “iPad! Wi-Fi! Vente Latte! Baby Gap!” This cleanliness has a dark side, however. Through its mediocrity, it denies evil and creates complacency. The more abundant life is in superficial matters, the less vision and hope humanity has. 

It would be a mistake to see Cara as a prophet without an audience. Yet, she does perceive the incoherence of the world and wants to do something about it. Everything appears to be working against her. Everyone is gaslighting her, or else, she is the one who is sane while those she is in contact with are not. The darkness that she “sees” is not of the ghostly variety. Rather, we witness the slow descent of her spirit in relation to her children and husband. Like the protagonist, Mabel Longhetti in John Cassavetes’ 1974 film, A Woman Under the Influence, Cara is a woman (mother, wife) who is unable to get a grip on reality. The world around her is crumbling and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who will listen, let alone understand.

Sinha’s main character has a lot in common with Cassavetes’ vision of womanhood and motherhood, namely that Cara is lost. She is a good person but there doesn’t seem to be any exit out of the darkness. She is lonely too, and her husband, Tim, is constantly dismissing her efforts as a mother. Naturally, this makes Cara sink deeper into alienation. Suddenly, it’s not just the city that is instilling creepy fears, but also her marriage, which is beginning to look like a sham as days go by. 

Wherever she goes, Cara experiences rejection. For her, it’s easy to assume and accept that maybe a woman is an island unto herself. This is not necessarily by her own choosing. Cara’s husband is too involved in work; her mother is just another academic intellectual who sees things purely rationally, yet keeps her own emotions on the side; her female friend has drifted away simply because she does not have any children, and the two women who were once friends now don’t have much to say to each other.

Whether it’s freeways, heights, or even mountain biking, Cara is filled with dread that something will go terribly wrong.

It seems that there is no exit for Cara, but exit out of what? Just like Cassavetes’ Mabel Longhetti, Cara knows that something is off balance. She is beside herself psychologically, as if she is living someone else’s life. Yet there she is—stuck in a world that doesn’t recognize the nuance of being a woman.

Even with this exploration of gender roles, Sinha does not fall into the trap of feminism. She’s not interested in having ideology as the primary means of expression or subjugating art under the rubric of feminist ideology. This is not a modern take-down of manhood. On the contrary, Sinha’s efforts are always geared toward the humanization of her characters. Although The City Mother is reminiscent of certain themes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Sinha is not interested in representing women through a feminist lens, nor interpreting women’s roles in such a way. Instead, it’s the fear that Cara palpably feels, which becomes a central occupation of our heroine. 

Fear of Fear

In Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s 1975 film, Fear of Fear, we witness Margot, a woman whose life is falling apart at the seams. She has one child and is pregnant with another. Instead of feeling joy, she is empty, but most of all, she is afraid. She’s not really sure what exactly scares her: A new baby on the way? A neglectful husband? An annoying mother-in-law? Even the people on the street are occasions for fear. Margot is alienated, yet she’s unable to even express this alienation—as if she is trying to scream yet no sound is heard. She is only left with chaotic silence in her mind.

Sinha explores this exact fear in The City Mother. As months go by, Cara is experiencing fear of anything that may come her way and harm her children. Cara admits that she is “not a physically brave person—quite the opposite.” Whether it’s freeways, heights, or even mountain biking, Cara is filled with dread that something will go terribly wrong. She may have had tendencies of giving into darkness in the past, but something strange has happened since she became “the city mother.”

Whatever good and perfect life she was desiring, even the possibility of it seemed gone. “But our lives did not feel like a family movie,” narrates Cara. “Across the mildest scene—trips to the beach, or Charles arcing through the air in a baby swing—a shadow fell. Some underlying tension refused to resolve. It merely receded for a while before coming back, stronger.” 

Cara tries to comprehend and arrest this fear. She is a rational woman yet she doesn’t know whether she is being controlled by her hysteria, hormones, or horrific demons. During her stay at a mental institution, Cara attempts to have a conversation with another patient, whose name is Flee. The conversation is stilted and bizarre since Flee doesn’t speak in full sentences, and keeps muttering things about “the Devil.” 

Cara refuses to believe in such things, but she is searching. In a moment of clarity, Flee asks Cara, “What do you believe in that scares you?” Cara doesn’t pause because she knows the certainty of darkness that has descended upon her. She answers Flee: “It doesn’t have a name. It’s like a mist or a … force field, you can feel it sometimes. It’s very dark. That’s all I know.”

It is the ambiguity of her spiritual life, or lack thereof, that rendered Cara an incomplete person. Her unwillingness to accept that there are aspects of human existence that cannot be fully comprehended, or that some need precise definitions (such as good and evil), is what’s keeping her in a constant state of separation and alienation. In some ways, Cara is simply a “product” of her environment and times, something she clearly could not choose. But faith is something that leads us into paths of choices and most of all, important discernments. Everyone has to make a decision, be it small or big. 

God’s Mercies

Cara found herself to be a character in a horror movie—a psychological mess of a person waiting to be put out of her misery. But she kept going. She knew that she had to be strong for her children, no matter what. Even her time in a mental hospital was brief because she could not bring herself to neglect her children in any way. But where is the exit out of darkness? Where does it lead? Should it be taken?

The conclusion of the book may be disappointing to some readers, but not because of Sinha’s choices. Rather, Cara realizes that she has to give something up. She comes to understand that through her entire strange journey, from small town to big city to suburbia (which could not save her from the fundamental problems of human alienation and anger), has not really been about her, but about acceptance of evil. 

The moment of imperfectly human wisdom for Cara is when she realizes that evil exists and that suffering is inevitable. 

Evil existed,” narrates Cara. “A two-word lesson I could feel in my own body. It took convenient forms—despair, indifference, cruelty—whatever was at hand. It was not semantic or even situational, but real. … Evil was real, and I could sometimes perceive it like a shadow cast across the sunlit path. But it was not the only thing, or—ultimately—anything at all. My children’s faces were infinitely more real; their peals of laughter contained more truth than the foulest of depravities.”

Sinha singles out the theology of our daily existence that we usually don’t pay attention to or are not even aware of. Cara is the vehicle of those implications as well as ways of connection with the rest of humanity. The plain truth is that we don’t live in a vacuum and to participate in an encounter and a connection that bears the fruit of an encounter is our responsibility as human beings. 

Sinha’s Cara Nielsen tries to make sense of everything that has happened to her. Even to the end, she continues to carry the burden of being different. Sinha writes, “I [Cara] was different. Another world wanted to talk to me, was always tugging at me for attention. It was weirder than this world and not quite of it. … I had a foot in each: the mundane and the numinous, the intertwined domains—as [Simone] Weil might say—of gravity and grace.” 

That is precisely the center of Sinha’s novel. Cara is constantly trying to find that balance, to figure out what grace truly is, and whether it’s a gift or something you have to work for. Maybe the very fact that Cara was trying to reach a balance and moderation paradoxically led her away from any semblance of a balanced life. She could not hold the center anymore because she couldn’t conceive of what this center might even look like. The moment of imperfectly human wisdom for Cara is when she realizes that evil exists and that suffering is inevitable. 

This is not a book about how “mommy needs a vodka,” to use the clumsy and narcissistic internet proliferation of faux motherhood. Rather, Sinha’s main character is an enfleshed and embodied human being trying to find her way through the labyrinth of her life, and as a woman who is trying to “only connect,” to use E. M. Forster’s words in his novel, Howards End. Sinha’s prose moves swiftly but also gently, as if her words themselves are small reflections of Cara’s life. 

One part of Cara’s journey did end, but “an unspoken sadness” remained. Who can take that sadness and dissatisfaction away? She remembers “Saint Augustine—that wayward son of a determined mother—who counsels us to entrust the past to the mercy of God.” Cara continues to find a better way with God’s help because she knows that the only thing that moves us through the messy life is mercy bestowed upon us by God. Such matters are beyond our control, and this alone ought to be enough to escape the plague of alienation. 


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