Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Rebecca Curtis’s “The Christmas Miracle” was originally published in the December 23 & 30, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
“The Christmas Miracle,” by Rebecca Curtis, is not for the squeamish. She says as much to K, to whom the story is addressed as a letter. This long story involves, among other things, thousands of silverfish in the trash compactor and animal eyeballs rolling around on the floor. What does this have to do with Christmas, you say?
That is the problem. The disjunct between the title and the first page creates so much vertigo I could hardly get through it. Regardless of faith, the reader assumes that a charming fable of selfless love will follow, perhaps à la O. Henry, perhaps à la Miracle on 34th Street, but the story that does follow is everything but charming.
Instead, it is hallucinatory, wild, confused, and garbled, and in parts, it is revolting. This appears to be Curtis’s intent, and I found it difficult to take. The seriousness of her subject, however, may justify her means.
The opening line is “Cats were dying.” Aunt D, the narrator, lurches crazily from concern for her sister’s five cats, to her own failed life, to an obsession she has with her three tick-borne diseases, to a conviction her hunger is due to the Bartonella bacteria. She details her sister’s annual Christmas party, something that involves eight pecan pies, forty dozen home-made cookies, and a gingerbread mansion. She tells how the family is trying to save their cats from the coyotes that have recently arrived in the neighborhood. She abruptly reveals two secrets: an in-law is failing to get pregnant, and the pater-familias is a pedophile. Aunt D herself had discovered him the Christmas before in a dark, empty room, “rubbing the butt” of the seven year old niece. This terrible revelation is followed almost immediately by the loony claim:
Everybody in our family meant well and wanted to be a family.
What?! Wait a minute! Wait just a minute! Hold the phone!
In a way, Aunt D does pause. She devotes a paragraph to saying that the two little nieces are “beautiful, talented and privileged girls” and the uncle is “just” sick. She concludes, “bear in mind it could be worse.”
You begin to see why I had trouble getting through the first page, and the vertigo only multiplies. Because Aunt D and her sister are so damaged, they can barely pick their way through their lives, and they can barely do their jobs as mother and god-mother.
The only way to discuss this story fairly is to discuss what it’s really talking about beneath its Lenny Bruce-like assault on the reader. So what follows here is spoiler city. (I don’t want to dissuade you from the story. It is weird and requires a lot of puzzling, but its central subject is serious. It is probably the most memorable story I have read on this subject.)
Incest is a word not spoken in this “Christmas” story, but incest is obviously its topic. It is the secret that no one can mention, even when the evidence is obvious. When uncle-the-pedophile arranges to repeatedly get down on the floor so he can look up under the dress of the six year old, everyone sees it, but no one is able to name it, call it, stop it, or act on behalf of the child. Aunt D and her sister go to such dysfunctional lengths to ignore what they see that the reader deduces that they have their own incestuous history with this uncle as well.
When Aunt D’s father died, this rich uncle took his sister-in-law and four children and promised to pay for their education. The mother played the role of housewife. Aunt D’s loony mal-adjustment to life, her hallucinations, and her hunger points to her being the object of her uncle’s attentions in the past. Her sister’s ineffectual attempts to take control (like trying to save five cats or give a huge Christmas party) indicate her own damage as well. Most damning is the sister’s loony idea that sexual abuse or pedophilia should never be mentioned to the children.
The real tip-off to the incest of Aunt D and her sister is their mother, a woman who prayed an hour every afternoon in their childhood and went to church twice a week — thus absenting herself from having to protect her children. The fact that the older sister insists on denying that the uncle preyed on her daughter is further confusion.
Money is a means of persuasion in this family. The uncle having first promised to pay for four educations, Aunt D now uses awkward promises of money to try to get Adira, her niece, to fight back. That Adira knows how to bargain is frightening, but what is the most frightening is that for the past year, since the assault of the previous Christmas, seven year old Adira has taken to dressing in gray track pants and her Sponge-Bob tee shirt. Her mother, the one of the perfect gingerbread mansion, has taken no notice.
So, this story is not really about miracles, or Christmas, or cats, or illness, or hunger. This story is about a familial pattern of incest, as well as a familial pattern of denial, and the inevitable result: identity confusion and dysfunction. Aunt D’s adult illnesses, hunger, hallucinations, and lack of job success make more sense, once you realize that she was probably sexually used by the uncle in her childhood, part of the price of the money the uncle provided. “I knew I shouldn’t cause trouble,” she says.
Aunt D believes she loves the nieces but she isn’t able to describe them in as much detail as she describes all five of the cats. This invisibility is part of the little girls’ vulnerability. The fact that their mother is obsessed with the big house, the big party, and the big role as cat-savior also puts her little invisible girls at risk. That she would even let the uncle in the house after Aunt D’s report of abuse is unbelievable. But that is, in fact, what families do.
The grandmother exemplifies the neglect, silence, and deafness that typify an incestuous family. Against orders, the grandmother lets one of the cats out. The cat is killed right in front of the window. “But I was right there,” she says stubbornly. This stubborn denial of responsibility is also typical of mothers in incestuous families. The abuser is the meal-ticket, and mothers cling stubbornly to a meal-ticket even if they know the meal-ticket is abusing a child. In the case of this story, the uncle has been an oil-well of meal-tickets.
The emphasis on the narrator’s hunger, the coyote’s hunger, and the sister’s hunger is a natural effect of the neglect and insufficiency of care.
Names are a problem in this family and a problem for the reader as well. The cats all have real names that don’t shift. The other characters do not seem to have stable names, and Aunt D is liberal with her abusive nicknames for her niece — “smellface” and “tardface.” (I can hardly bear her use of the latter.) The story is addressed to someone named K, who of course reminds us of Kafka, but Aunt D says K is Russian — more identity instability. While much more could be said, suffice it here to say that the instability of names is an interesting device that underscores the author’s probable point: that incest destroys the formation of a stable self.
This instability of self is echoed in the narrator’s sense of hearing her bacterial infection speak to her. The infection’s voice is, in fact, an alternative Self which she calls Bartonella. Bartonella speaks truth to power. In contrast, Aunt D has a “rational me” that decides it’s okay if the uncle looks up the little girl’s dress, and at the same time, she has a crazy self that thinks she “wants to kill something” because she allowed the uncle to look up the little girl’s dress.
I mention the deafness I hear in this family, but Curtis makes a point of blindness. The last cat standing is Crow, and she has a habit of presenting “my sister” with mice whose eyes have been gouged out. It’s as if the cat is a sign from another world, signifying that it was time for “my sister” to open her own eyes. The grandmother tells a story about Jesus spitting into the eyes of a blind man to restore his sight. In a way, I see Curtis spitting into the blindness of her readers in order to restore our sight.
Finally, the hallucinations that the narrator experiences are related to the out-of-body experience that sexual assault victims use to survive an assault. The narrator describes seeing that very look on the six year old’s face when the uncle was assaulting the little girl.
In the Page-Turner interview (here), editor Willing Davidson describes the story telling style as “anarchic,” as if the author is turning the tables on conventional modes of storytelling. Actually, the style reminds me of Poe, in that the author uses mental instability as her method of storytelling. In Poe’s case, it is a variety of paranoia directing the story telling, while with Curtis, the mental instability is directly related to the effects of incest. Incest is the force that creates the anarchy in this story.
But let’s get back to where we started: the title, “The Christmas Miracle.” The story’s miracle is that one of the cats fights back and survives. She has lost all of one hind leg and half of the other, but she survives. At story’s end, Aunt D says of that moment in the vet’s office: “It was a miracle she was alive.”
Okay, don’t get lost here — we’re still talking about the title. Ordinarily, I would consider the Christmas miracle to be something having to do with a message of peace, love and acceptance. In this story, the miracle is not acceptance, but the necessity to use our native animal urge to fight for our lives. Really fight.
In her Page-Turner interview, Curtis says that the ultimate turn in the story, when the sister orders Uncle Pedophile out of the house, was suggested by her writers’ group. It is hard to understand why Curtis herself did not write this part, as it seems to be the real miracle. Without the sister finding the courage to turn the uncle out, there would be no miracle. I almost wonder if Curtis knew this had to be the ending, but needed her readers to engage in writing the story — much as I am doing here.)
The problem with this story is not so much that it is revolting, which it is in places, or a revolting take on Christmas, which it is in places, but that it is so gelatinous in form. There are so many shifts, so many layers, so many hallucinations, and so many instabilities that the story is hard to keep straight. Nonetheless, it may be the most memorable story I have read on the topic of incest, twinning as it does, the desire for a Christmas card family with the invisible self that incest creates.
What you come away with is this: incest is a double lock, an open secret welded to stubborn denial. That kind of double lock makes mothers, daughters, and godmothers crazy deaf, crazy blind, and just plain crazy.