Thursday, February 16, 2012

Genetic Roles of Parenting and Parenting Taboo

Parenting is thrown around often in Georgia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood. Lilith and the Oankali seem to have different viewpoints to what exactly parenting stands for. The standard between the Oankali and the Humans are highly inconsistent. The Oankali’s interpretation of parenthood as imposed on Humans is beneficial solely to the Oankali and is full of half truths. The meaning of a parent is critiqued and questioned with ultimate digressions into genetics.

The Oankali like to interpret words in ways that are self-suiting. For example, when discussing Lilith’s intended job of parenting the soon-to-be ‘Awakened’ humans, Kahguyaht says, “That’s the way we think of it. To teach, to give comfort, to feed and clothe, to guide them through and interpret what will be, for them, a new and frightening world. To parent.”(Butler, 111). This definition ignores the idea of needing relations present. In theory, this is what parenting is between humans and adoptive children. However, true parenting is more than that. Parenting implies a deeper relationship between parent and child, and a connection transcends the roles or parenthood. This is something that even a dictionary definition would miss.  I believe that what they are asking of Lilith is more along the lines of a glorified mentor, with the unspoken secondary role of scapegoat. Though it is true that in our society at times a parent can play these roles it is not one that is used regularly or that plays a major role. Lilith though is being put into a position of it being an overall role rather than an infrequent or uncommon one.

Parenting is taken to another level when Lilith discovers that she has been impregnated with an interbred child. Lilith, obviously repulsed, states, “But they won’t be human… That’s what matters. You can’t understand, but that is what matters.”(Butler, 248). This is a reinforcement of her previous statements, referring to the life inside of her as “a thing” and “a monster”. This intrigues me. Despite the fact that the “thing” is half human, part of her and Joseph, she is repulsed by it. Though it is something that humans thus far are not concerned with in real life, I believe that these offspring need to be entirely biologically our own. Lilith is unable to feel ownership of this “monster” because it is not wholly of the same biological make up. Even I, a mere reader of a fictional novel am repulsed at the mere thought of it. This leads me to wonder if this is a type of taboo. Like the incest taboo we discussed in Wilson’s On Human Nature, perhaps because it is not biologically natural we are ‘programmed’ to cringe at the thought of such an act. Extrapolating on this theory, parenthood would then not simply be the offspring (or adoptive offspring) of the being, but biologically equivalent offspring.

The only issue with this extrapolation is the event of animals who adopt outside their species. This rare act baffles many, but I believe this is a logical event of nature that is reinforced by Butler. In Lilith’s Brood though Lilith and Nikanj are of entirely opposite species, they become very fond of each other, to the point of perverse interaction. It seems rational to me, given the circumstance, that this should be the case. Lilith is thrown into a stressful situation where she is without family, friends, or even her own species for many years. She then latches on to Nikanj who is kind to her, teaches her, and gives her shelter through unselfish behavior. This easily can account for the stories of cats adopting squirrels and dogs adopting piglets. Both parties are benefited by the relationship; one receives a companion, and the other receives protection. Furthermore, Jeffrey A. Tucker’s criticism of Lilith’s Brood cites Walter Benn Michaels, 'Political Science Fictions', Michaels states “Human beings of different races are forcefully reminded of the irrelevance of their phenotypical differences by the fact that they are being asked to breed with aliens who look like sea slugs with limbs and tentacles. The difference between black and white skin looks pretty insignificant compared to the difference between humans and walking mollusks. (p. 650)”(Tucker, The Human Contradiction). Typical differences in race are made entirely irrelevant in this novel, so it’s only expected that the lines would become blurred.

Further reading into Lilith’s Brood questions this assumption. After Akin’s birth we see that Lilith’s denial of her children after their metamorphosis is not the extreme I’d previously had expected. The following conversation between Nikanj and Lilith is exemplary of her struggle between genetic bonds with her children and the mental taboo of caring for non-human children.

“Shall I thank you for making him look this way – for making him seem Human so I can love him? … for a while.”
“You’ve never thanked me before”
“And I think you go on loving them even when they change.”
“They can’t help what they are… what they become.”(Butler, 255).

Lilith’s situation is so foreign even her biology and her mind are struggling with one another. She conceives a child, not strictly human, yet born in a human manner. As we know, the bond between a mother and a child she has given birth to is very strong. It is so strong that in this situation it is capable of breaking the revulsion and denies Lilith of the ability to turn her children away when they go through metamorphosis and appear physically more Oankali. It is apparent that because parenting is so genetically bound to our race that since the parent/child bond is already formed when the children change there is no reversal of the love Lilith has for them. Surely she has her reservations toward them; her words say that she does not continue to love them. However, later on we see that Lilith never denies her child once they are less than human cosmetically. The earlier mentioned rules of parenting still apply, but Lilith’s genetic bond to her children because she physically gave birth to them makes her an exception to the rule. Because her genetics are going against her knee jerk reaction of revulsion to parenting a non-human we simply know that parent/child genetic bonds are so strong that they are capable of breaking the taboo.

            What is more interesting is the parenting within the Oankali themselves. Throughout the novel Lilith insists that the Oankali seem to tell the truth without giving all information. In addition, the definitions they are applying to the Humans are not held as a standard for the Oankali. In example, the Oankali family unit is a very close unit of people. This remains throughout all three books. The Oankali are not made to give up this closeness of family ties because it is their tradition. However, the human family unit is forced into discord. The Oankali genetically arrange that male-born constructs will always be drifters, not allowed to bond with the family group because of their threat to the Oankali’s idea of a perfect society.  Akin has a strong negative reaction to his solitary confinement. “He would be small and solitary, Nikanj had said shortly after his birth. He would not want to stay in one place and be a father to his children. He would not want anything to do with other males. He could not imagine such a life.”(Butler, 445).

This works in accord with the Oankali control of other Human family traditions. Human families and lovers give solace through touch. The Oankali remove this ability from humans in order to force dependency of humans on the Oankali and more specifically the ooloi. The Oankali form of consolation and touch is through their tentacles. This is something that neither the Oankali or the constructs must surrender. The families of Oankali remain close through their touch. The Humans are denied it.

In addition, when the ooloi are denied a same sex child the reaction is  the “accidental” creation of one. The Oankali are never forced to go without their desires, both sexually and in respect to families. Humans are denied the ability of producing a child of strictly their own race. Of course, the control of Human reproduction is never a bother to the Oankali. “Of course. You controlled both animals and people by controlling their reproduction – controlling it absolutely.”(Butler 447). Controlling reproduction of an entire people group is acceptable, as long as it isn’t used against the Oankali also. Driving home this idea is the looming fact that the Oankali allow a group of their kind to continue without human contact. This hope in Mars would have been entirely denied to the Humans if Akin had not been permitted to life among them. Akin’s words resonate the Oankali’s double standard, “They would never give you Mars. I offer you Mars.” Humans may possess the Human Contradiction, but the constructs are Human enough to deny the Oankali Double-Standard.  

The major issue here is that the roles of parenting established for the Human race are not pushed onto the Oankali race. The Humans are expected to surrender their Human attributes where the Oankali are not. As stated by Erin M. Pryor Ackerman, “The molar identity that humans must begin to abandon in order to enter into a becoming is precisely the subjectivity they are least willing to surrender, and throughout her trilogy Butler demonstrates precisely how hard it is for humans to embrace this becoming.”(Ackerman, Becoming and Belonging). The humans refusal of their identity and ideals of Human parenting simply result in the either their ultimate extinction, or eventual acceptance.

Though the Oankali claim that parenting is simply raising a creature I believe they are missing major roles within this expectation. In my opinion, the true definition of parenting should be reformed to this; a deeper relationship between a biologically equivalent person and child that transcends, but still includes, the mandatory roles of parenthood. However, in respect to Lilith’s construct children the deeper roles of genetics complicate their relationships. Through parenting the reader is able to see the full double standard the Oankali hold between their race and the Humans.

Ackerman, Erin M. pryor. "Becoming and belonging: the productivity of pleasures and desires in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy." Extrapolation 49.1 (2008): 24+. Academic OneFile. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.

"Parent." Merriam-Webster. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <>.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Publication, Inc. 2009. Print.

Tucker, Jeffrey A. "'The human contradiction': identity and/as essence in Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy." Yearbook of English Studies 37.2 (2007): 164+. Academic OneFile. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.

1 comment:

  1. The first paragraph opens a general topic, or area of inquiry, but does nothing to present a specific argument, which is what i'd like to see here.

    Your initial discussion of Oankali views on parenting skips two things that I think are important. First, the Kathguyaht begins your quote: "that's the way we think of it" - making clear that there is a dimension of choice or ambivalance or something involved - this is how they think, rather than a fact. Second, you aren't giving any initial attention to either the fact that Oankali families are different, or that Oankali language is different. None of those things are necessarily crippling - but they do seem like topics which ideally outght to be addressed.

    Talking just about Lilith's repulsion made sense in the first draft - but you've read Adulthood Rites now, and you need to deal with the complex version of her feelings there, not just the simple version from *Dawn*..

    The topic of interspecies adoption seems underdeveloped to me - maybe just because I think it would be interested to read a whole essay on that topic.

    I had to read it a couple times to appreciate it, but I think your long paragraph on parent/child genetic bonds as transcending species-based taboos is good. I think it's good within the context of this essay, but I think it could (should?) have been used to reorganize the essay as a whole. Putting this idea more clearly as an argument, with an explanation of how it should influence our reading of the novel (simplistically: Butler might be obsessed with showing how love, in a strictly genetic sense, trumps hatred, also in a strictly genetic sense, maybe making it more of a novel about love than we might initially think...), could have given you a stronger essay.

    When you shift over into talking about the Oankali, you open some worthwhile topics, but how all of this material relates to the earlier material is deeply unclear to me. All of this is a consequence, at least in part, of not having a clear argument at the beginning, which everything else is organized around.

    Overall: At the end, you struggle to define parenting (awkwardly including the word parenthood as part of that definition, without defining this term - which I assume you intend to be more strictly biological?). Not only is it a problem that your definition is a little messy - it's a greater problem that you weren't clear about this stuff from the beginning. The essay is choppy, with individual paragraphs focusing on topics which often seem to barely connect. The thread of a single argument which should animate the whole essay isn't here.

    That's unfortunate, but it's worth mentioning you do explore some worthy topics, especially Lilith's internal conflict between species-level and parent-level desires. I would have liked to see a more carefully organized essay generated out of this section - it would have doubtless included some of the material of this version, but organized and focused differently.