Tuesday, August 31, 2010
My beautiful son
Nathaniel Rhys Whitfield Thomas. Born 28 August at 2.55 am, weighing 8 pounds and 1 ounce, in perfect health.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Look at this: I've been shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award. Or rather, In Great Waters has. Isn't that amazing?
Wow. I feel like I should say something articulate about this, but between being astonished and being scheduled for an induction tomorrow (I am, for the benefit of newcomers - hello and welcome - nearly 42 weeks pregnant right now), I fear I might just babble. I'll stick to saying a big thank you to all the people involved in getting me on that shortlist, and good luck to all the other shortlistees!
And also, since I've already had one journalist contact me - the excellent Alison Flood of the Guardian - I feel I should mention that to any other journalists that, while I'll try to keep an eye on my e-mail, I might be a bit hard to get the usual amount of copy out of over the next, um, however long it takes to deal with a birth and then a newborn baby. So in the interests of being helpful, a few posts that might be relevant: Why I write made-up beasties, On writing using archaic language, The problems of Secondbookitis, A description of the little demon that I identified while writing the book, The embarrassing truth about what a scatty writer I am,
... and a couple of posts that happened during the process: the time I invited my readers to help me work out what might go wrong with the premise, and the competition where readers got to guess what the book's first sentence might be (and the results here).
Friday, August 20, 2010
What I do when I'm stuck
I make shadow puppets.
I'm no draftsman, and the designs are very much created to stay within the limits of my abilities. Technically they're far from accomplished. But I don't really care. I rather like 'em.
Artistically it's often a good idea to try your hand at something that doesn't play to your best strengths. Knowing that there's a limit to what can be expected of you can free you to have fun and fool around, and that's very good for your imagination. I came up with a whole new plot solution after a particularly blocked week where I gave up writing - seriously, I was that stuck - and just made puppets. Then I had a whole series of ideas that got me out of a horrible impasse.
It's a curious thing as well to see what kind of energy comes out in your alternative projects. My puppets are rather dark and intense, which is not unlike my writing. This is through no particular intention; the puppets look the way they do because I can't seem to make them look any other way.
I bring this up now, I guess, because I'm overdue-pregnant and in something of a holding pattern, so artistic holding patterns seem like a relevant idea. Anyone else do alternative art projects in different forms when they stick on their main ones?
Sunday, August 15, 2010
On a previous post - ages ago now, no thanks to you, Blogger mutter mutter - Mary commented the following:
Well, far be it me to ignore such an interesting question, and I do believe I promised a reply, so let's get to it. Finally.
To anyone who hasn't already seen Rosemary's Baby, be advised that I'm going to be talking about the plot in detail, including giving plenty of things away. There's a lot to say, and I'll be breaking it down into sections for ease of navigation...
What do I think of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby? I think, whatever you can say about Polanski himself - and you can say a lot (check out the links too), and even I have in the past - I think it's a very good film that's interestingly accurate at giving a female perspective, my favourite film by a director whose work, if not whose character, I have admired since adolescence. Since female perspective will be at issue here, I'll be talking about my own experiences of pregnancy as a major part of the post, and I'm going to be fairly detailed; anyone who doesn't want to read about that, you've been warned.
I haven't heard the feminist critiques of it, but I can take a guess. Rosemary's Baby stars a housewife whose main aim in life is motherhood, who is resolutely against abortion, and who, on discovering she's been duped into bearing the spawn of Satan, is so overcome by her maternal insticts that she ends up nurturing him, to the presumable doom of mankind. On the face of it, that sounds pretty bad, but I think I'll mount a brief defence before moving on to discuss why I like the movie.
First, the film doesn't present housewife-aiming-at-motherhood as the only virtuous state; in fact it's pretty clear that Rosemary is vulnerable precisely because her stay-at-home status makes it easy for bad people to isolate her from help. Because she has no money of her own, when she finds herself the patient of a doctor she doesn't trust she's unable to go to another doctor for a second opinion without telling her husband, who flatly refuses to pay for it ('It's out of the question. Uh-uh, uh-uh,' he says, waving a threatening finger). Because she's at home all the time, it's hard to avoid her intrusive neighbours - who can descend on her and distract her with hostess duties while the Satanists next door prime her husband to sacrifice her, who can insist that she takes the medications they prepare, who can break into her home without difficulty. Being a housewife-mother makes Rosemary easy prey, not a virtuous icon, and in fact the film has us cheering her on when she finally tries to stand up for herself. There's nothing inherently wrong with being a housewife-mother as long as you don't judge it the only appropriate state for a woman, and Rosemary's Baby is straightforward on the fact that it's only a safe condition if people respect it, which the people around Rosemary don't.
Rosemary's determination not to have an abortion despite the pain of her first trimester? Well, some women don't want abortions, and if they don't want them, that's what choice is about. Her mothering of the spawn of Hell? That's a more complicated question, and one I'll address in more detail later.
Here's one thing immediately striking, from the point of view of a woman late in the second trimester of her first pregnancy: of all the movies I've seen, Rosemary's Baby is the most blunt and the most detailed about the actual state of pregnancy. It's rare to see a film that takes any interest beyond the traditional cycle of throwing up, big stomach and groaning childbirth sequence.
The plot makes an interesting decision, spending a lot of time on the preliminaries to conception and the first trimester, skipping most of the second and moving straight on to near-term. From what I've experienced so far, that's refreshing, because one of the strongest experiences I've had is this: the first trimester is the invisible trimester. It puts you through massive and sometimes frightening upheavals, but it's not something that the representative world is terribly interested in. That's not what pregnancy looks like in the public consciousness. Pregnancy is a woman with a big stomach. But in fact, the big stomach only appears more than halfway through, and till then - well, there's a reason why I bought a badge that read 'I'm not fat, I'm pregnant' to wear on public transport. For most of your pregnancy you look like a normal woman, even when what's going on inside your body and inside your experience is - well, it's the most natural thing in the world, of course, but it ain't normal from a non-pregnant point of view.
Here's what happened in my first trimester. My husband and I decided to try for a baby and took out the IUS with advice from the doctor that it would probably take a few months for my fertility to return, and that it's normal to take six months to a year to conceive. Within a month of trying, in a supposedly infertile period: boom, pregnant. Instant conception. At that point - well, I sort of hoped I might be pregnant and was excited at the thought, but rationally speaking I was trying to talk myself down because knew it wasn't that likely. Then I found myself pregnant at the point where we were still debating whether it was worth peeing on the stick because they're pretty expensive and there's no point wasting one. My first reaction when the little window flashed up 'Pregnant' was a gasp, not a cheer, and my second, after a bit of wild jigging, was to say, 'Let's try the other one, it could be a mistake.' (And then go drink a lot of water, my first encounter with how extremely physical pregnancy is.) Lo and behold, yep, still pregnant ... and suddenly terror hit me.
The idea had been exciting when it was just a possibility; I'd privately been doing little dances at the thought I might be pregnant. But now it wasn't a question of 'might', it was a question of certainty - although it was still hard to believe. I went to the doctor and told her I'd done two ClearBlue tests, and she smiled and said, 'Well, those things don't lie,' and logged me as pregnant without doing any further tests, and until the sonogram, it seemed like I might be imagining things. (My first experience of something Rosemary's Baby features: however independent you are, pregnancy makes you want reassurance from your doctors.) Having confirmed I was pregnant, the next thought hit me: a lot of pregnancies miscarry, especially in the first trimester.
I'm no anti-abortionist; I support every woman's right to have a safe and legal termination. But I'd always known I didn't want one myself. To me, a pregnancy was a child, even if it was only a millimetre long. Now I had my millimetre baby - and there was a chance I might lose it. The letter from the hospital booking me in for my twelve-week scan (the first time the NHS actually treats you as pregnant, since you can easily miscarry before then, a thought that didn't help at all) sent me into a frenzy of anxiety: the warning that 3% of embryos are discovered to have died made me cry. And I'm not a crier. Or at least, I wasn't. After I got pregnant, that changed: make the least suggestion to me that something might possibly go wrong with the baby, and I'd go somewhere quiet and break down.
Part of this was emotional, and no doubt part of it was hormonal. But part of it was physical. When I took the pregnancy test I was expecting a negative for a simple reason: my breasts were tender and I had mild stomach cramps. I felt like I was getting my period. Nobody had told me, because people don't tend to talk about the first trimester, that this was how I was going to feel for the whole of the next three months. Your body floods with hormones and your breasts start their upward journey through the bra sizes; your uterus is liable to be sore because it's starting to expand. It's actually completely normal - but my body had never been pregnant before, and it had no way to process these signals except as 'You're going to get your period soon.' Which, knowing I was pregnant, my brain heard as 'Your baby is going to die soon.' When I first visited my midwives my blood pressure concerned them a bit, and has read much lower ever since, simply because of stress. Some women, I'm sure, deal with the first trimester more easily, but I, who'd always thought of myself as a coper, pretty much fell apart.
Something might happen to my baby. Maybe even worse, something might be wrong with my baby. The twelve-week scan looks for, among other things, Downs syndrome, and the panic I had over that thought was so intense I don't even have the heart to recount it; all I'll say is that once the scan revealed odds of about one in nine thousand, my relief was so great that it marked an actual physical transition from the sickness of the first trimester to the relative comfort of the second. What I'd have done if the news was bad I have no idea, but the very thought was enough to flood me with enough stress hormones I should probably apologise to my son for making him bathe in them too, and which will provide plenty of opportunities for maternal guilt on that score if he seems inclined to nervousness in later life. (I should stress I have no desire to disrespect those who have Downs syndrome, or their families. Downs in no way prevents you from being a fine and admirable person, and families who support someone with the syndrome are beyond praise. I'm simply describing a panic; wanting my child to be capable of achieving full independence from me one day, and achieve it with relative ease, is both altruistic and selfish, which is imperfect motherhood for you in a nutshell.)
But to sum all this up: having gone through a first trimester, I get where Rosemary is coming from. And for a film directed by a man, based on a book written by a man, it's interestingly accurate.
Rosemary's experience of early pregnancy is a moment of delight - followed by a lot of trauma. She suffers a constant pain which frightens her terribly, despite her doctor's assurances that it's normal. Her appetite deranges, eating raw liver one moment and then vomiting in disgust when she realises what she's doing. (And that was familiar. My main craving was for citrus fruit, the one thing to which I'm allergic, but there were moments when I succumbed and started eating the lemon slices in people's drinks. Unsweetened lemon. And I wanted them enough to risk an allergic reaction. That's passing over the day I had to fight the urge to suck the damp brick walls around our neighbours' gardens. Pregnancy, whatever the comedies say, doesn't stop you from being a rational person, but it does give you a body that inserts new and strange factors into your decision-making.) She ends up 'not going out any more', drained of energy. (Ask me how much time I spent asleep, and I may lie from sheer embarrassment.) She lets herself be talked into changing doctors by her scheming neighbours, obedient in the face of apparent expertise, yet can't resist reading worrying pamphlets about ectopic pregnancies despite his mandate that she should read nothing. (This is because he's malign, but actually I found my blood pressure improved dramatically when I stopped reading about all the things that could go wrong, so it's not as if it's advice only a fool would take. Reading about what could go wrong can be like prodding at a sore tooth.) Rosemary wants a baby, but her experience of early pregnancy is awful.
And when she finally breaks down, this is what she says: 'It hurts so much. I'm so afraid the baby's going to die.'
From the outside, this seems like exactly the kind of self-sacrifice feminists bitterly protest at women being expected to make. And they're right. We shouldn't have to think that way. All I can says is: sometimes we do. It doesn't even feel unselfish.
The problem comes when people take advantage of that.
Here's another part of female experience Rosemary's Baby speaks to: the fear of losing control.
What happens to Rosemary when she finds she's pregnant? The Castevets from next door descend, changing her doctor for her, preparing a daily vitamin drink, pestering her up hill and down dale. The reason for this, of course, is that it is, in some sense, their baby: they've arranged the Satanic conception, they've been waiting for this birth a long time. Rosemary is a vessel: they actually quite like her, it seems, but she's not really the point. They act, in short, like nightmare in-laws who fuss and fuss over their prospective grandchild (and it's Rosemary's husband Guy to whom the Castevets are the 'parent' figures), and for whom the daughter-in-law in a mere carrying case, worth keeping sweet enough to control her but fundamentally not the point.
I'm lucky enough to have in-laws who are both respectful and supportive, so this phenomenon isn't familiar from personal experience, but not every woman is so fortunate. And I can testify to this: once you become pregnant, there are certainly people who want to tell you what to do. People like to share their own experiences, and that's helpful, but there are also people (and websites) that seem to take a delicious pleasure in wagging their fingers at pregnant women - 'You can eat a bit more, but not too much!' and the like, as if addressing naughty children. People also seem to take an odd pleasure in telling stories where a woman's plans for birth had to be overturned, or in telling you that boys/girls are like X, and saying 'Oh, you'll see!' if you express any disagreement; in short, certain people take a peculiar satisfaction in contemplating the idea of a new mother being proved wrong. Rosemary finds herself shuttled into a new community, the Castevets and their friends; finds herself managed. Not for her own sake, but for the sake of who she's carrying. That's a fear every pregnant woman knows at some point.
In the process, because she's a trusting person, she finds herself thoroughly isolated. One of the most understated performances is the film is also one of the strongest: John Cassavetes as Rosemary's husband Guy. An ambitious actor who never quite seems to get a break until the Castevets promise him the world, Guy sells Rosemary's body and heart in exchange for success - a contemptible move that even he seems ashamed of, though not nearly as ashamed as he should be. 'They promised me you would be hurt - and you haven't been, not really,' he attempts at the end, an amazing flourish of moral blindness that Rosemary appropriately ends by spitting in his face. What's also notable, when watching closely, is how dislikeable Guy is from the beginning. Handsome and fluent - if a little edgy - Guy seems charming enough, but we need to listen to what he says. He never says anything nice, about anybody or anything. The closest he comes is making some kind of joking dig at someone, usually behind their back. Modest Rosemary doesn't seem to realise it, but 'their' friends are her friends: in their original, benign social circle, nobody seems to like Guy very much. Hutch, Rosemary's old mentor, makes his excuses and leaves the apartment when Guy comes home. When Rosemary asserts herself to throw a party for their non-Castevet friends, the apartment fills with dozens of people - attractive and fashionable, agreeable and affectionate, all enthusiastically fond of Rosemary and none with anything much to say to Guy, who winds up talking to the hired bartender, skulking at the edges and worrying what 'those bitches' will be saying to his wife. (And in fact what they're saying is kindly, common-sense advice: if you don't trust your doctor, get a second opinion.) Guy, in short, is profoundly negative: always uncomfortable, unable to enjoy his contemporaries, competitive for Rosemary's attention, hungry for applause but misanthropic and only responsive to those who flatter him and promise things. Rosemary is set up to be abused long before the drug-rape and control begin.
And in this, I think, we can see the feminist defence of the film. (No, it doesn't reflect my experience; my husband's nice, and his behaviour throughout the pregnancy deserves a medal. Just to be clear.) Polanski himself had plenty of problems with women, but he was also a talented director, too talented to make much misogyny of material so inherently feminist. Because the film was based on Ira Levin's book of the same name, and the comparison is interesting.
Ira Levin was the author of numerous thrillers, of which Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives are probably the most famous - so famous they've entered common parlance even to those who haven't read them. He's a good writer. He's a good plain writer: no stylistic flourishes, no over-elaborate dwelling upon character, just honed, tight, strong story driving to its shocking conclusions. Polanski's adaptation of Rosemary's Baby is rather an interesting study: the dialogue is all pretty much lifted verbatim, as is the structure; a few incidents are cut, but all in all it's one of the most faithful adaptations I've ever seen. Yet it's also a much greater work of art. Levin's straightforward dialogue, layered against Polanksi's carefully-chosen backgrounds (note, for instance, the visual differences between the Woodhouses, harmonising in their simple yellows and blues, and the Castevets, a riot of pastels and visual mess), canny camera shots (a cinematographer once described Polanski insisting on his framing a shot so that Minnie Castevet [Ruth Gordon] is shown making the fateful phone call to set up Rosemary with the Satanist Dr Sapirstein with her body half blocked by a doorway; at the time he had doubts but did what he was told - only to see, to his delight, a whole cinema of people lean sideways to try and see round the doorway once the film was screened), chilling music (that haunting mixture of wistful melodies and musical stings) and fine cast ... all add up to a film where the unspoken threatens us from every side and the most mundane details of everyday life can whisper of danger. It's in this that the stresses of first trimester can express themselves in Mia Farrow's performance as Rosemary. Polanski may have had his issues, but he was too good a director not to present the material well, and Mia Farrow was far too good an actress not to counterbalance the maleness of the origins with a convincingly female, intelligent, subtle performance.
And the material Levin gave him was good stuff. In his collection of essays Stranger Than Fiction, Chuck Palahniuk writes in praise of Levin, calling his work 'not so much horror stories as cautionary fables' - and pointing out that these fables often addressed feminist concerns: the Feminine Mystique nightmare of The Stepford Wives, the surveillance dread of Sliver, the battle for control of a woman's body that is Rosemary's Baby. I have an issue with any male writer who waxes enthusiastic about how a man is a better feminist than most women, and who calls a feminist's work 'strident' and berates it for lacking 'charm', which Palahniuk does with Susan Faludi's Backlash - a big issue, actually - but his point about Levin is correct: Levin was a prescient writer who managed to see, in the environments and mores that surround modern women, new versions of the Big Bad Wolf. Rosemary, far from foolish and eventually driven to fight for herself, finds disturbingly perky seniors cropping up like goblins, finally holding her down on a bed and drugging her into unconsciousness.
Of course, until it's too late, Rosemary doesn't realise the real threat. She believes that there are Satanists next door (correct) and that they want her baby for a blood sacrifice - incorrect, but the most reasonable conclusion under the circumstances. All along, she's driven to protect her baby ... and that drive eventually undoes her.
Which gets us into the thorny issue: what to make of the bleak ending where Rosemary succumbs to biology, rocking her demon-child in his cradle?
Levin gives us some kind of mediation about this: Rosemary takes some control, insisting on the right to choose her son's name and telling herself that maybe she might be a good influence on him ... but in the world of images that is film, all we have is Rosemary walking to the crib and beginning to rock.
Do we have to condemn this as anti-feminist? I don't know; ask me when I've had the baby. (Several months after for preference, as boy am I going to be tired.) But considering the number of women who care for disturbed children, developmentally challenged children, children who, through no fault of their own, really do make their lives Hell ... well, I come back to what I said about Rosemary's refusal of an abortion (which nobody even suggested). We shouldn't have to think this way, but a lot of the time, we do.
My little boy proved difficult to scan for heart defects, for example. To check the aorta, the sonographer needed a clear view of it, and this couldn't be done with a baby facing my spine. The sonographer prodded and poked, but my son wouldn't roll over. I sang him a little song - Tom Waits sometimes got him moving, for some reason - but he remained ensconced. They sent me out for a walk and told me to drink something sugary, presumably with the aim of provoking a frenzy of energy in the baby; he prodded and poked again, but no dice. They sent me out and told me to eat some chocolate. I came back, and the sonographer prodded and poked, clearly fed up and wanting to go home - it was nine in the evening by then - but my son refused; my husband, watching the monitor, swears he saw the little guy pulling an unhappy face. A week later we returned, the bruises on my stomach pretty much healed: the sonogram began ... only to find a baby still facing my spine and refusing to roll. Out I went for some sugar and walking; back I came, with my son still hunching away from the probe. Finally the sonographer had to dig in her fingers and roll him over, which worked after several tries. Of course, after all this fuss, his aorta was fine. But interestingly, word seemed to have spread about my little non-cooperator: another doctor walked into the room and said, 'So, this is the naughtiest baby in the hospital, right?'
And I wasn't pleased. I was pretty thoroughly tired of being prodded and poked, and I'd been doing my best with sugar and singing and everything I could think of to make him move - but the poor little guy just didn't want people poking him in the face, and I felt a flicker of annoyance that was probably an early stirring of the mother-tiger instinct. I made a joke of it, saying in a parody-mother voice, 'He's not naughty, he's gifted!' - but as I heard myself say it, I had to wonder whether some day I might say something equivalent, and say it with deadly seriousness. I got into a debate online in which a lot of people were talking with some passion about how they didn't want children and found children could be tiresome in public spaces, and while I actually agree parents should try to teach their children public manners, I again felt a flare of protectiveness towards children that was, perhaps, influenced by circumstances.
And as the time goes on, this is what I'm finding: my relationship with my child does not begin at birth. I've had a relationship with him for months. To begin with it was a notional relationship, a relationship to my own fears and the upheaval in my body ... but since he started to kick, I've been aware of him as another person. Some days it's hard to believe, even though we have the pictures to prove it, but unborn, he remains a vital presence. We even have a picture of him framed on the dining table, the anticipated guest. I stopped sleeping on my stomach after two nights of his squirming, and I had a strong sense of disapproval in that squirming, as if he were muttering about being squashed. He has days when he just stirs sleepily and days when he's a one-boy conga line; moments when he rests quietly and moments when he somehow manages to double his body weight while I'm out walking. If, God forbid, anything bad happened to him now, or had done in the past months, it wouldn't be losing a pregnancy. It would be losing my son. Guy's assumption that losing the baby at birth isn't 'really' hurting Rosemary is an assumption that could only ever be made by someone who hasn't carried a baby. You carry the child for the best part of a year, and by the time they're born they've been making their presence felt for a long, long time. A baby may become a legal citizen at the moment of birth, and there are sound medical reasons for that - but a wanted baby, an anticipated baby, is a member of your family long before that happens.
So I don't know. It's a good, dramatic ending, and could be read as a dire feminist warning: get out of this situation before it's too late. Whether it's accurate about how somebody can be caught by maternal love as in a trap - well, ask me later. And possibly imagine my answer, as I suspect blogging and a newborn baby do not comfortably mix. I might not even know, because my son is obviously not going to be the spawn of Hell, or indeed someone that it's irrational to love. I'm under the pretty strong impression that loving him will make perfect sense, and indeed may be the obvious, reasonable, objective thing to do. Trust me; I'm a mother.
Rosemary's Baby is an interesting movie because it's a story by, basically, two men, but all about female experience. What musn't be overlooked, of course, is the superb performance of Mia Farrow, without which the film simply wouldn't work; a lesser actress would produce a far weaker movie. If we're looking at it as a portrait of pregnancy I'd say that it's a little rosy about the third trimester - if I had to run all over the city to protect my baby as Rosemary does, I'd grit my teeth and do it, but the comfort of the second trimester (relative comfort, as it's still less comfortable than not-pregnant-at-all) does not last, and right now I'm pretty much off my feet entirely and can barely make it to the end of the road. Every pregnancy is different, of course, and perhaps we should suppose that unlike me, Rosemary does not have round ligament pain, but at least to my eyes she seems a little energetic for someone that close to delivery.
But that's a side-issue. The question that finally occurs to me is this: what about the whole child-of-Satan idea itself?
As an idea, it's relatively hokey, though the elegance of Polanski's presentation makes the hokum seem fresh and naturalistic. It's also, more disturbingly, associated with the blood libel: the books Rosemary consults describe cannibalism and abuse of children of the kind that kicked off the fantasies and miscarriages of justice of the Satanic Panic, a disaster that left adults imprisoned and children traumatised. In its defence, the books turn out to be wrong, and the film as a whole makes no claim to accuracy (unlike some); it's more or less a straightforward fantasy with a parable undertow, so it seems a little excessive to take it to task on that score: fiction that doesn't pretend to be anything other than fiction is seldom a problem.
There's also, though, a point raised in Generations by Neil Howe and William Strauss (a book I know largely through second-hand accounts and am a little sceptical of, but the idea seems relevant): Rosemary's Baby is a Boomer movie, made in an era where the idea that children were diabolical was rather in the air. The Omen and The Exorcist are other examples, but Rosemary's Baby is in a way the purest: Adrian, Rosemary's son, is an incarnation of evil before he ever has the chance to do anything. Rather than compel suicides in childhood or spit bile, the little fellow is identified as embodied evil while he's still burbling in his cradle: his very infancy is imbued with the curse of the AntiChrist.
Now, as a Generation X-er myself (though actually the child of parents born just before the Baby Boom, and born in England and Ireland rather than America), I'm fairly familiar with the generation above us calling us rotten to the core before we'd had much of a chance to do anything, and I'm not a fan. (Calling us politically apathetic before we'd reached the age they themselves determined entitled us to vote, for example, always pissed me off. I wanted to vote, they wouldn't let me; how was this my fault?) And while I'm sympathetic to the horrors-of-pregnancy idea, despite all my complaints I don't think it's fair to blame it on the baby: any teenager who points out that they didn't ask to be born is absolutely right. Human pregnancy by its nature pushes the body to its absolute limits, to the extent that it actually pits the mother and baby's interests against each other - it is, for instance, in the mother's interests to have the baby as soon as possible and get the strain off her system, while it's in the baby's interests to stay in there as long as possible to maximise development, and the resulting nine-month compromise is a hairline balance: the baby is born utterly helpless just before the mother's body packs in entirely, and a few weeks either side represents genuine physical danger to one or other of you. Actually having the baby balances tearing the mother's tissues against compressing the baby's head so hard that the bones slide over each other. Birth is a pretty brutal miracle, there's no two ways about it, but this doesn't reflect any ill on the baby - who, after all, is going to have to put up with that whole skull-getting-squished business, poor thing, so it's not as if they have it all their own way - and it's simply in the nature of pregnancy that it's physically taxing. Evolution wants you to pass on your genes; it doesn't particularly care if you're comfortable while you do it. So casting the baby as diabolical seems very unfair on that score.
Similarly I can sympathise with the horror of responsibility, which is another possible root for the children-as-demons motif. If we're honest, I don't think there can be many parents who haven't had a moment or two of oh-my-goodness-what-have-we-done panic at the thought of having a child, even one they planned and want. Neither do I think that's a bad thing; having a child is a big responsibility, and the occasional panic about whether you're up to it is a sign that you take it seriously; it's the parents too unrealistic to have the occasional gape of alarm at what they've committed themselves to that I'd worry about. Being scared doesn't make you a bad parent; really, nothing except being a bad parent makes you a bad parent. But once again, it doesn't mean the baby is scary, not in real life. Babies are really quite small.
So Rosemary's Baby, its internal qualities aside, has been cast by at least certain observers as part of a trend that led to my generation getting a pretty substantial amount of insults. Should that affect its interpretation?
Well, this is only a personal analysis written because somebody asked for a pregnant woman's opinion, so my own view is all I can really offer. (Possibly I might have a dazzling insight some other day, but the other thing about pregnancy is that it apparently reduces your IQ by a measurable margin - I've heard as much as 10% - because the baby is eating your vitamins and waking you up, so let that be an excuse for any posts that have failed to please in recent months...) As works of art, the three films are all different, and I'd call Rosemary's Baby the best by a wide margin. It lacks the spurious 'true storyness' of The Exorcist, with all the moral problems that brings; it achieves its chills with a deftness quite beyond the splashy shocks of The Omen; it takes an interest in evil working through the ordinary vices and schemes of real people rather than rotating heads and falling spikes; it creates character drama that's subtler than a racing narrative drive but no less engrossing. I just think it's, y'know, a better film.
And if it does demonise babyhood, it at least takes a look at the real issues of motherhood - physical trauma, increased vulnerability, social disempowerment - rather than calling down wild environments. In a way, you could say that all the problems Rosemary goes through aren't Adrian's fault at all; none of us choose our fathers, after all, and its the lies and manipulations of Rosemary's husband, the intrusions and power-plays of her neighbours, the deceit and exploitation of the adults around her, that make up the drama of the film. Like any uncomfortably-carried baby, we might say that Adrian is just innocently minding his own business. He causes Rosemary pain which eerily stops the minute she insists on consulting a trustworthy doctor, so some kind of diabolical intervention seems to be going on there, but whether it comes from father or son remains unclear, and we might give Adrian the benefit of the doubt. Certainly in terms of behaviour, he seems the least culpable character.
So, what's my pregnant perspective on Rosemary's Baby? A long and complicated one, and I suspect by now Mary may be sorry she asked. I started writing this post in my second trimester, and it turned out to be a surprisingly intense and difficult question to answer. I'm finishing it less than a week before my due date, still with no very clear conclusion. As I say, pregnancy hasn't done my intelligence a world of good, which might have something to do with it, but in the end I think it's more than that. Motherhood I have yet to experience, but pregnancy is a period of mixed feelings, of passionate ambivalence, that doesn't lend itself to easy answers. Which is probably as it should be; the people with easy answers are the ones most likely to end up trying to control women. And that, at least, we can all agree is a bad thing.
It probably says something, though, that when I think about Rosemary's Baby enough, my response to the spawn of Satan is to think, 'Poor little guy.'
Monday, August 09, 2010
Watching horror when you're pregnant
I've mentioned before that I'm fond of horror. Here's an interesting fact: being about to have a child changes your perspective on it.
My husband and I were re-watching The Shining recently, a movie I've mentioned my admiration for before - but something started to become clear. While my basic interpretation of the movie hadn't changed, the way I reacted to it had intensified. Danny, the little boy dragged to the haunted hotel by his unstable, abusive father (rather a striking fictional portrait of depression in many ways), had always seemed me the hero of the movie - but watching it over, I wasn't so much scared by the shocks as I was horrified, appalled by the position of the poor little boy. My reactions had gone into mother-mode, and were intensely disturbed.
The first time we see Danny, he's sitting at a kitchen table with his mother eating a sandwich. His father is interviewing for a job at the fatal Overlook hotel, and Danny, possessed of psychic powers and the child of a man who, it's heavily implied, broke his arm three years ago in an 'accidental' fit of temper, sits quietly eating while his mother sits with her back to him, ready to answer his questions but not particularly involved. It's a placid, domestic little scene - and my heart ached. It was in the framing and the performances: Danny, maybe six years old, munches stoically away at his sandwich staring straight ahead of him. Despite her disengagement, he doesn't make lively bids for his mother's attention, he neither enjoys his food nor protests against it, he doesn't bounce on his chair: he stares into space and eats what's in front of him and does without any kind of stimulation at all. Happy children that age are firecrackers, full of energy and opinions and questions and desires of their own; Danny, obedient and subdued, looks utterly and terribly cowed. He sits in the stance of a child who's afraid that any notice will bring trouble, and who can only hope to fade into safe obscurity.
It's a theme that runs through the film. Taking a child that age to five months of isolation in a snowbound hotel is a terrible thing to do, even without the rivers of blood and walking corpses. Children need to develop, and they stimulate each other: five months with no playmates is dealing a severe blow to Danny's potential development. He's resignedly aware of the loneliness in advance, saying only that it's all right because there's nobody much to play with in the neighbourhood anyway; once there, he accepts the deprivation submissively, playing with his cars on the bright carpets or trundling endlessly around on a little pedal-bike. Self-sufficient and uncomplaining, Danny behaves himself impeccably under completely unreasonable conditions, just about the most trouble-free child ever recorded in fiction.
And yet everything about him seems to irritate his father nonetheless. 'I love the little son of a bitch. I'd do anything for him, any fucking thing,' says Jack Torrance, unable to speak of loving his son without swearing and insults. Every line Torrance says about him - delivered with iconic malevolence by Jack Nicholson - bespeaks annoyance: 'See? It's okay? He saw it on the television,' he snarls when Danny declares himself unbothered by Jack's tales of cannibalism because he's already heard of it; even to third parties, lines like 'My son's discovered the games room' have an air of impatience. (Danny has indeed discovered the games room, where he quietly plays darts, bothering no one, until two ghosts come in to menace him. For a small boy who's just endured an extremely long car ride without any misbehaviour, a little fun in the games room hardly seems an undeserved reward. Again, his endurance of boredom is stoical enough to suggest a habit of fear.)
And Danny clearly is afraid of his Torrance, even before the end begins: his ability to withstand solitude so peacefully suggests a child who actually feels safer away from his parents than with them, for instance, which is a terrible state for a child to be in. By the time things really start to break down, Danny has an air of utter intimidation: when Jack sets Danny on his lap, Danny sits there still and unresisting, clearly unhappy at being so near his frightening father but too afraid to express his protest in anything stronger than limp non-responsiveness. Jack's slide into madness is marked by irritable grandiosity - he drags his family into bleak isolation in the name of writing a book he never settles down to, and is still quick to blame them for the mundanity of his life - and the most tragic symptom, at least to pregnant eyes, is the way it's sucked all the spirit out of his boy.
Interestingly, a single line now leaps out at me as the saddest, bleakest moment of the film. Discussing the problem of his son with a ghostly, murderous butler, Torrance describes Danny as 'a very wilful boy.' He is indeed, replies the butler. 'A very wilful boy. A rather ... naughty boy, if I might say so.' Of all the terrible things Torrance does, this is the one that stood out to me as the worst. Poor Danny is nothing of the kind: Danny is a good boy. Not because he's possessed of psychic gifts, not even for the exceptional courage and intelligence he eventually shows when his father finally decends into rampage, but just by ordinary, everyday parenting standards. Danny, given every reason to resent his father, never, ever misbehaves. He just quietly gets on with being no trouble and staying out of sight. The sheer injustice of it is heartbreaking.
On a different note, my response to the character of Dick Hallorann, the psychic cook of the Overlook who gives Danny some advice before departure, also changed. Halloran is a bit complicated as a character - King has been accused of using the Magic Negro character in the past, and Hallorann's final role in the story, to be the black guy who dies saving the white people, is a trope we could all do with a lot less of.
At the same time, Kubrick's direction and Scatman Crothers's performance create a degree of complexity. It's notable, for instance, that around white adults, Hallorann wears the relentlessly upbeat, mildly clownish mask much associated with African Americans in a racist society who want to keep their jobs and know that a less-than-cheerful demeanour will threaten that (a good example of the switch from self-respecting adult to jolly servant and back again is portrayed in Spike Lee's Malcolm X). He wears the mask even around adults like Wendy Torrance, who addresses him politely as 'Mr Hallorann' and shows towards him the same lonely, awkward hunger for conversation that she shows towards white men. It's only with little Danny that Hallorann drops this persona, moving from unthreatening comic to grave, authoritative adult, an extremely drastic shift of mood.
And the fact that he genuinely does assume an adult role puts him in sharp contrast to Torrance, who seems to resent the existence of his family for making it harder for him to act like a single man with no ties. (Not that they actually stop him.) Hallorann communicates with Danny psychically with a very carefully-chosen message: 'How would you like some ice cream, Doc?' It's the message of an intelligent, responsible man, friendly and nurturing, aware that he's probably doing something that will startle the boy and determined not to frighten him. Hallorann's ability to act unthreatening, which comes across as both submissive and professional (an unfortunately required combination in some situations, it would seem) when directed towards white adults, becomes kind and strong-minded when directed towards a white child. Similarly we can see, as he tries to discuss 'shining' with Danny and tell him about the haunted Overlook, just how hard he's thinking about how to handle the situation: the boy needs a clear warning or else he's going to be in danger, but Hallorann, again, doesn't want to frighten him, and his efforts to explain things at a level Danny can understand are well conveyed in Crothers's performance. How Hallorann acts around non-white people is something we don't see, and, particularly in America with its history of slavery, the idea of a black person doing a white parent's job at least raises questions ... but viewing Hallorann's conversation with Danny on a purely adult-to-child basis, I found my pregnant mind absolutely filled with respect and admiration. The ability to forge a relationship with a strange child under, at best, complicated conditions; the willingness to assume responsibility and mentorship; the tact and sensitivity with which he handles the little boy: these are all things Danny desperately lacks. His mother does her best by him, and eventually comes through, but it takes a while for her to emerge from under the pressure of Torrance's malignity. Danny needs an adult he can trust, and Hallorann's willingness to be that adult leaped out at me. It might be magic negro, but at least Crothers manages to invest the role with genuine intelligence rather than folksy 'wisdom'. (Though obviously I'm a white viewer, so I really don't get to declare a portrait of a black character non-racist.)
All of this was clear to me before, but pregnancy has cast in a new, stark light. Within the week, if I hit my due date (which I probably won't, first babies often being a little later than predicted), I'll be the mother of a son myself. I don't know yet what he'll be like, but I know my job is to try and listen when he tells me, and then love him for being that person. All I can hope is that he never feels that afraid in his own home.
Here's another example. A while ago I spotted a poster for the movie Orphan and commented to my husband that it had an excellent strapline - 'There's something wrong with Esther. You'll never guess her secret.' Finding it badly reviewed, I didn't go to see it, but I did think a good copywriter had been at work on the poster; the slogan is admirable in its shameless appeal to curiosity, its punchy succinctness, its trochaic emphasis (the two sentences even echo each other rhythmically), its willingness to throw us straight into the story and appeal to us as if we already knew who Esther was, as if we were already involved in her situation. It wasn't enough to make me spend too much money sitting in a cinema with people yakking over the film left and right, which is what seems to happen when you go to the movies these days, but it was enough to make me look up the plot on Wikipedia, so the copywriter's attempts to get me interested in Esther's 'secret' were undoubtedly successful to that extent. Really, it was one of the best straplines I'd seen in ages.
Well, kindly enough, my husband remembered I'd been interested in the poster and hired the DVD when it came out. He watched some of it with me before giving up, I persisted to the end ... and oh dear.
Oh dear oh dear. Unlike The Shining, a beautifully made film of parental irresponsibility that places the blame squarely on the adult, Orphan is a trashy film of parental irresponsibility that positively endorses that irresponsible attitude. Its notion of virtue strikes me as less homey family values than callous, horrific entitlement.
Be warned I'm going to talk about the 'secret', so anyone who doesn't want to be spoiled, heads up, but honestly, I think the movie deserves spoiling. So here we go: Esther isn't a child at all, she's an adult woman with proportional dwarfism who, for reasons best known to herself and unknown to logic, inveigles her way into families, tries to seduce the father and then kills everyone when, astonishingly, her attempts fail. Because non-paedophilic men do not, apparently, feel much interest in sex with their adoptive daughters; who knew? Esther, escapee from a 'mental hospital' (because yes, apparently we still call them that), is supposedly a sociopathic genius, though whether you can infer much intelligence from her ideas of a good romantic strategy, I leave to the reader to decide. (Honestly. A pretty woman in her thirties who happens to be physically small thinks she'll improve her chances with most men by pretending to be nine years old? And this is an evil genius? Wow.)
Anyway, the low intelligence of our criminal mastermind aside, the really notable thing - and completely natural thing - is that the film created a storm of protest among the adoption community. (I don't know if it created a similar storm from people with growth disorders, but if it didn't, it probably should have. Physically-nonstandard-as-evil is not a very nice trope, even allowing for the fact that Esther's disorder, described as hypopituitarism, really doesn't look like a medical condition in the film - she suffers no health complications from it at all - and is probably better described as 'witchiness', a medical disorder known only to Hollywood.)
The complaints to make about the portrait of adoption are obvious. The story is this: following the stillbirth of their third child, an improbably wealthy-looking American couple wander into an orphanage, pick out the apparently flawless and gifted little Russian orphan Esther much as you'd pick a puppy from a litter, take her home three weeks later and discover, to their horror, that the puppy isn't quite as housebroken as she looks.
Which is where the parental entitlement begins to show its seams.
As the plot eventually reveals, of course, Esther isn't an orphaned child at all, but the family's horror of her doesn't come from any such suspicion. Here are some of the sins that send them into a tailspin: she euthanises a pigeon with ruthless dispatch after the son of the house fatally wounds it with his paintball gun (on purpose, making him a much more disturbing child to this viewer) and is too squeamish, and too busy whimpering in self-pity, to put it out of its misery himself. She locks the door when she's having a bath, which provokes the mother to the rebuke, 'We don't lock doors in this house,' raising the question of why they have locks, and also the question of why on earth you shouldn't lock the door when you're in the tub, children having the right to expect a degree of privacy if they're ever going to learn independence. She accidentally witnesses the parents making love in the kitchen, and when the mother tries to discuss it with her, reveals that she already knows both the facts of life and the F-word, shocking the mother by her ability to say it calmly as if 'she didn't even expect to get in trouble for it.' She accepts a piano lesson from the mother and makes some mistakes in her piece, despite the later-discovered fact that she actually already plays very well, and when challenged on this explains that she thought it would please the mother to give her a lesson.
All of these are treated as signs of latent evil. What stands out is that it occurs to no one in the family to assume that a child who'd suffered the loss of her parents and then time in a care system that couldn't possibly provide her with the attention she needed might, just possibly, be carrying some emotional damage that they ought to take responsibility for supporting, given that they'd adopted her and all. Imagine: a nine-year-old girl with history of loss and living in an institution with too high a child-to-adult ratio turns out to be unsentimental, protective of her privacy, unsheltered, and prepared to fib a bit if it gets her the attention and approval of people she depends on! Really, who'd have expected it? 'Faults' that should, in people who actually understand what parenting is supposed to be, should elicit compassion and empathy - or even respect: a child tough enough to put a bird out of its pain is actually doing the right thing; a child who tells a white lie in an attempt to bond is, at the very least, a child with a desire to connect and a degree of social insight, both of which are good qualities; for goodness sake, a child who seems sexually precocious is a child whose past you might want to wonder about with a view to considering if extra care is called for - get treated, not just as worrying, but as somehow unfair, as if it's a terrible burden on the poor family that they should have to live with such diabolical intelligence and self-sufficiency. The girl has a developed personality that doesn't always and immediately harmonise with her adopted family ... oh, those poor parents.
(Their response to her sexual precocity, in particular, seems pretty clueless. One would hope that the modern adoptive and childcare system has managed to stamp out the paedophilia that used to plague it, and in fact most sexual abuse happens within families, but still, sexually disturbing behaviour from a new adoptee should surely invoke concern on her behalf rather than your own. There's a later scene where Esther, having sneakily hospitalised the mother, dresses up fancy and makes a bid to seduce the sorrowing father; he repels her in dismay and sends her to bed, but not for a minute does he ask himself where on earth a little girl - which is what he thinks she is - would get the idea that this is what men want from her. A man with any sense would, you'd think, conclude that this was a girl who'd been exploited in the past and was making a bid to seduce him either because she was frightened that he'd set upon her without the mother's protection and was trying to minimise the anticipated trauma by exercising at least a degree of control over how it happened, or because she'd somehow learned that men only want one thing and was frightened that if she didn't please him in the only way she knew how, the family crisis of the mother's illness would end with her being kicked out. The fact that the father shows no awareness at all that Esther might be displaying vulnerability rather than Svengalism is, again, far more disturbing than Esther herself.)
Meanwhile, the family themselves are a responsibility-free zone: they show zero empathy, and yet we're expected to pity them from the get-go. First and most appalling is the fact that they adopt a child to get over the grief of losing one in the first place. I'm not saying that if you lose a child you should never adopt one - I'm sure some people do, and make excellent parents - but the adoption in Orphan is a clear case of substitition, and if you're adopting a child to make yourself feel better rather than to make her life better, you have no business adopting a child. And that's not the last of the family's problems: the mother is only recently recovered from alcoholism, the father's infidelity is still a fraught issue in the marriage; all in all, they're in an emotional mess that's no place for a child who's already been through quite enough - which is what everyone has good reason to assume Esther is. All of them seem to suffer from a failure of impulse control, and a dismay at having to live with the consequences of that. The son is appalled to learn that if you shoot a pigeon, you'll probably injure it, though what else he expected I couldn't say. The parents are deeply concerned that Esther isn't utterly ignorant when it comes to sex, but it doesn't stop them fucking in the kitchen. (Parental tip: if you want your children's ignorance preserved, don't fuck in the public rooms of the house. You have a bedroom, the bedroom has a door. You might even want to reconsider the whole no-locks policy; locks serve a purpose, I'm just sayin.) And, to return to the main point, they adopt a child they're entirely unequipped to care for and make no efforts to get equipped. The idea of having to accommodate any unusual needs or difficulties she shows appals them. They don't consider that this is a minimum requirement if you take a child in.
What we're looking at is a family who adopt a child for self-centred reasons as if they were making a purchase. Esther is picked out because she seems valuable - a talented artist with precocious manners. They adopt her at all because they want to heal their own pain (though how they got through any kind of screening process boggles the mind), a kind of familial retail therapy. The horror of Orphan is the horror of buyer's remorse: the pain of being stuck with a costly impulse buy that you can't return. And we're expected to sympathise with this more than with all the adoptees in the world who are being associated with freakish evil by this movie.
Again, I suspect I wouldn't have liked the movie's attitude had I watched it not-pregnant. But watching it pregnant was a different experience: I found myself far angrier with the parents than I otherwise might have been. I'm fully aware that parenting can be demanding, tiring and difficult (a fact people seem to take an odd pleasure in reminding a pregnant woman of at every turn), and any functional family has to have some limits on what is and isn't, as Supernanny would say, acceptable behaviour (otherwise they might grow up to be pigeon-murdering little prats, among other things) - but I've heard my son's small heart beating, and the idea that parents would expect a child to heal their pain is an idea I find, not just morally wrong, but morally outrageous, disgusting on a visceral level that simply wasn't there before.
Parents are imperfect, of course, and maybe some day my son will read this post and cry in outrage, 'But Mum did exactly that thing she's complaining about, the hypocrite!' I wish it may not be so and will do my best, but it's possible, in which case, all I can really say is, Sorry hon, and I hope your life is full enough of good things that they make amends for my failings; I hope you'll forgive me, but you have the right not to, so I just hope you choose whatever's best for you. It's a curious thing about pregnancy; part of me wants to write a love-letter to my unborn son, but not knowing him yet, another part of me feels like a general in-advance apology would be more appropriate. Parents have far too much power over their children, more power than any human being should have over another, and in such a relationship any malignity or incompetence on the part of the parent is going to be horribly magnified. (All four grandparents have been given carte blanche to tell the kid, 'Yeah he/she's always been like that' if he feels the need to complain about us, and I hope they take it. Someone to take your side against your parents seems like a necessity of life.) Which, to return to the theme of this post - just at this moment in my life, I'm struggling to think about anything other than my son - is possibly one reason why parent-child relationships are such a source of drama. Jack Torrance outrages because he abuses his power over his son; Orphan outrages because it refuses to acknowledge the power parents have over a child and portrays them as the victims instead.
Critical responses are always influenced by the influence of the critic. The Shining is a film I first saw in my teens, while Orphan is a new one on me, but my response is interestingly changed by the massive change in me that imminent motherhood presents. When I first watched The Shining I could identify with Danny as a child, a character inhabiting a state I had recently left; his fears and vulnerabilities were the issue. (And the corridor scenes where he pedals around are particularly brilliant; how vividly I remember that childhood sense that you never know when the world might be about to turn threatening.) Watching it as a pregnant adult, it's outrage that seems to be the main issue, because Danny has become, not a character I identify with, but a character that, were he real, I'd feel responsible for. It takes a village and all that, and what I see now is not his vulnerabilities, but his needs. And, as with Esther (or at least, as with Esther were she a child, and emotionally speaking I simply didn't buy the she's-really-an-adult twist; whatever the aim of the film, the experience of watching it felt like the experience of seeing a needy child neglected), those needs were being cruelly ignored and resented. It makes for painful rather than frightening viewing.
Life changes can do funny things to your head, in short. If I can stop fiddling with it, the next post will continue on this theme and address the thorny issue of a pregnant perspective on Rosemary's Baby...
Thursday, August 05, 2010
Late pregnancy Mikalogue
Kit: Mika, honey?
Mika: Yawn. What?
Kit: We owe some nice people more Mikalogues, you know?
Mika: Owes nothing. Mikaness is already greatest gift. World owes Mika.
Kit: No, we really do. They donated to charity relief in Haiti and commissioned some Mikalogues. We should get on with them.
Mika: But is tired...
Kit: Tired? You're not the one carrying around a full-grown person in your stomach!
Mika: Mika knows. But is fignant.
Kit: Fignant? Do you mean pregnant? Because I know you're not that. You were spayed as a kitten.
Mika: We has agreed not to discuss that in interests of forgiveness. But does not mean pregnant. Talkin Mika is figment of Kit's imagination. Kit is pregnant. Is so pregnant is gettin stupid.
Kit: Hey! ... Well, actually, yeah, kind of...
Mika: So, see? Gettin stupid, imagination slows down. Figment of imagination gets tired. Has less to say. Yawn. Goway, wanna sleep.
Kit: But we need to write what we promised!
Mika: We will. But is tired. Goway.
Kit: Mika? Mika!
Mika: Yawn. Whaaaat?
Kit: Mika, we have subjects to address. Whether you've been interacting with other cats, and what you think of the baby, and Mika versus poetry!
Mika: Bahhh. If do it, will you let sleep?
Kit: All right.
Mika. Okay. In the garden of Mika the Mighty,
There is trespassin cats gettin fighty.
Run back home with a thump,
Kneads, for comfort, your bump,
But you's pregnant. Is tired. Nighty-nighty.
(Editor's note: I will, when I get my brain back, try to address the subjects more fully in between babycare. But that could be a while, so I felt I owed everyone some kind of acknowledgement for their generosity at least.)
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