Through her columns in The Sunday Star Times and Canvas, journalist Megan Nicol Reed built a reputation for ‘gently skewering’ Aotearoa’s middle classes, a focus – and skill – displayed in her first novel, One of Those Mothers.
The story unfolds from the point of view of Bridget, mother of 12-year-old Jackson and Abigail, age nine. Bridget grew up in ‘lovely, leafy Point Heed’ and now raises her family in this (fictional) neighbourhood of middle-class, predominately white families. The financial status of Point Heed is exemplified by some of its mothers:
Considering what it cost to buy a house on the Point these days, it never ceased to amaze Bridget how many women could afford not to work. Of course there were plenty who held down full-time jobs, but they were the ones who double-parked on the yellow lines in front of the school gate, already pulling back into the traffic before their offspring had even shut the door.
Bridget is not one of those mothers. Although she too juggles work with the school routine, on school pick-ups she loiters with her children at the playground. Her problem is female friendship. At the beginning of the novel, Bridget and her best friend Lucy have fallen out. Glimpsed passing in her car, Lucy is kept at a distance, a phantom in Bridget’s present. The narrative steers back to the time of the friendship’s demise, a summer holiday nine months prior. The fractured relationship is the book’s first mystery. Did it have something to do with Bridget’s attraction to Tristan, Lucy’s husband? Or was Bridget called to task over the caustic lens she trains on Zachariah, Lucy’s son to an unknown father?
Shadowing the lost friendship is a secondary mystery. Bridget learns that a prosecuted and name-suppressed child pornographer is one of the fathers living within the community. Initially, she responds as though her respectable world has been tarnished. ‘Bridget’s throat caught. Point Heed: lovely, leafy Point Heed. Her neighbourhood’. Then after some introspection, the crime itself comes into focus. ‘Child. That was the bit that made it repugnant. The sandwiching of those two words together. Child Pornography.’.
Tensions arise, along with speculation over the identity of the perpetrator. Readers (and viewers) of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies will know this territory. Beneath the surface of female friendship lies darker truths and it is expected that both mysteries will in some way converge on Bridget.
Throughout the novel, Bridget is written as a Teflon-coated, somewhat flawed Everywoman. Her problems form the day-to-day minutiae that comprise the bulk of the narrative. The reader learns that Bridget ‘was proud of her unflinching curiosity when it came to the underbelly,’ yet the novel itself flinches from placing both characters and the reader in harm’s way. Even Bridget’s eating disorder is small-time, even ironic. An episode of bingeing is treated as a minor side-step in the school schedule.
Eventually she stopped. Not because of any physiological imperative. Not because she ran out of food. No, she was stopped, quite literally, by the bell.
This is the school bell. There is a brief moment of belly-bloat and shame, before Bridget’s attention is drawn back to the gossip circulating at her children’s school. ‘Bloody paedophile!’ she overhears. ‘ I’d skin him alive if I got the chance.’
By and large, Bridget is peripheral to the crime of child pornography, although at times she’s overcome by her children’s vulnerability: ‘The thought of something bad happening to them, someone harming them, came over her suddenly, spreading and clutching at her with ugly tentacles.’ However, the actual consequences of child sexual abuse are only dealt with in a section of backstory. Bridget’s close friend Roz, whose parents both suffered from alcohol disorder, is a victim of child sexual abuse. After Roz falls in love with husband-to-be Jono, she shares details of a sexual encounter with Bridget and Lucy. ‘They’d done it right there, on the bar. And afterwards, telling them about it, Roz had said she never thought she’d be capable of sober sex.’
The success of Moriarty’s Big Little Lies comes from challenging the reader with a multi-faceted exploration of the issue of sexual abuse through character. The internal struggle of shame, loyalty to the perpetrator, and duty to family, is made palpable in Celeste Wright’s story arc. One of those Mothers skirts around its key issue by deflecting opinion to minor characters. At the moralistic extreme is a woman, Ruth from the PTA, who is cast in an unsympathetic light. She is ‘that ghastly woman with breasts like boulders and an awful air of officiousness’ who is ‘holding court, evidently up in arms over something. Again.’
Ruth’s approach to the threat imposed by the unnamed offender, and his potential access to school children, irks Bridget:
It wasn’t that Bridget disagreed with her – after all, what parent wanted to live alongside a paedophile? – but something about Ruth’s sanctimonious way of viewing the world made Bridget feel like taking an axe to the moral high ground she’d so smugly built her nest atop.
The men weigh in with more moderation. An echo of the position that women are moral gatekeepers, one father comments, ‘if that was me and I’d been found with that stuff, I’d have expected her to have turfed me out on my ear!’ Another father, the IT dad, drops knowledge of the logistics of child pornography offending: ‘There’s no way he’ll be allowed access to the internet.’
In the final section of the novel, the children are, at last, central to the narrative. Troubled teen Zachariah becomes one of Bridget’s hotspots – a menacing character reminiscent of Kevin Khatchadourian in Lionel Shriver’s We need to talk about Kevin. Whenever Zachariah appears on the page, it is to unsettle Bridget. Reed handles this deftly and Bridget’s exaggerated reactions ensure the reader draws their own conclusions:
But there was only contrition on Zachariah’s face, and she recalled a true crime show she’d seen once; apparently the mark of a sociopath was their ability to disarm you by never behaving according to expectation.
Perceptions (and fear) of paedophilia shape the darker elements of One of Those Mothers, but Reed also directs our attention to a more widespread danger of pornography. Early in the novel, Bridget has a recollection from her childhood of adult porn consumers – presumably in the time of pre-gentrified Point Heed. These men, she recalls, were ‘Sad lonely bastards!’ But now, she realises, ‘everyone seemed to watch it.’ Included in that growing audience are children.
This isn’t alarmist fiction-writing: recent studies and investigations suggest just how far-reaching child exposure to pornographic content is becoming. In January 2023, a Guardian article reported that one in ten children in the UK ‘have watched pornography by the time they are nine’. And from Health Navigator NZ: ‘Pornography is much easier for young people to access these days, and is now a primary sex educator for young people.’
Health Navigator NZ also researches content to demonstrate exactly what children are consuming:
A 2019 content-analysis looking at 200 popular porn clips indicated that 35% of porn showed coercive behaviour and 46% had incestual themes. Aggression is almost always aimed at females, and they most often respond with pleasure. Heterosexual and same sex porn show the same types of dominance, aggression and coercion. Only 2–3% of scenes show safe sex practices like condom use, and performers often have to play into racist stereotypes.
Although stranger danger is commonly taught, right now the more significant dangers are a mouse click away. There is an urgent need for greater awareness and deep consideration of this issue and One of Those Mothers is the kind of novel – accessible and set in a fictional but plausible New Zealand suburb – that might encourage conversations among the guardians and teachers of our young people. In the words of Dame Whina Cooper, ‘Take care of our children. Take care of what they hear. Take care of what they see. For how the children grow, so will the shape of Aotearoa.’
Ultimately, the novel leaves Bridget with a dilemma, wondering if she could have been ‘more courageous’. It is easy to imagine her concerns slipping away given enough time: ‘Would she ever know the full story? Did she even really want to know? Perhaps ignorance was sweeter.’ Bridget does understand that she, like the other parents in their community, ‘were all to blame. Culpable, at the very least, of looking in all the wrong places.’
One of Those Mothers doesn’t entirely get to the heart of its real subject – pornography’s effect on children, both as victims and viewers – it does a greater service. Readers seeking ways to avoid what Bridget calls ‘morally ambiguous choices’ can find help at Health Navigator: it provides guidelines on how we can help ensure our children’s safety by educating them. A conversation with your child could begin today – as Reed frames it, ‘paying attention to your own flock’.