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Just Like Mother coverHorror is a genre of survival. The main character succeeds when she lives through the last page. In reality, though the story ends, the survival process persists. Some never move beyond it. Survival brings with it a bespoke mix of depression, anger, suspicion, guilt, and anxiety, among other emotions. The act of living post-trauma requires a strength nonsurvivors can’t comprehend. In extreme cases, dealing with the repercussions is a lifelong journey. Horror stories, however, rarely continue on past surviving the threat to see the day-to-day requirements of living with trauma. In Just Like Mother, Anne Heltzel explores a survivor’s life.

The novel follows Maeve, who escaped a cult of motherhood as a child. Postcult Maeve made a life for herself, but it is pretty sparse. She’s an editor who works too much for a publishing company in New York City. Her most intimate relationship is with her hookup, and even that is strictly physical. Her closest friend is her boss, but they only hang out at work events. Maeve does, though, have an obsession: she uses her free time to search out her cousin, who was her best friend in the cult. Upon being rescued, however, Maeve and her cousin, Andrea, were split up: Maeve was adopted by a nice couple, and Andrea entered the nation’s foster system. Though she went on to live a very minimalist life, Maeve never gave up hope that she’d find Andrea again one day. Maeve’s adoptive parents don’t like her dwelling on her past, and Andrea doesn’t contact her. During high school and on into college, then, Maeve searches alone for her cousin. Thanks to a genetics website, she finds Andrea. Maeve is ecstatic.

It turns out that Andrea lives only a few hours from New York City, having recently moved from the West Coast to the Catskills. Andrea seems to have flourished. She’s rich, a successful life coach, and starting a new company that uses ultrarealistic baby dolls to help grieving or expectant mothers. Andrea and her husband made their wealth in the fertility industry. She seems to have put her past behind her, and she won’t discuss their childhood, no matter how much Maeve wants, or maybe needs, to.

Despite this, and having finally found her cousin, life seems to be heading in the right direction for Maeve. She’s on the brink of happiness. Soon, though, her world begins to turn upside down. She loses her job. Her hookup dies. Since she’s kept everyone in her life at a distance, she has no one but Andrea to turn to for help. Maeve comes to rely more and more on Andrea’s hospitality to cope as the life she’s built crumbles. But she’s about to learn that things can still get worse.

Just Like Mother takes place during Maeve’s adult life with occasional flashbacks to her time in the cult and with her adoptive family afterwards. Throughout, she possesses a caring naiveté. During her time as part of the cult of motherhood, for instance, she alone acknowledged the male child among them. She sneaked this feral, naked boy food and cake. Without her, he’d have starved to death. The Mothers ignored him; the other children acted like he didn’t exist. But because of who she is, Maeve cared for this child whom no one else in the cult would. It’s this strength of character that propels Maeve forward.

Still, as the book progresses, readers see Maeve in a largely passive role in her life. Again, she’s simply existing. Maeve’s life seems stuck in survival mode. She’s living but not thriving. Maeve is a unique woman, though. She charts her own course through life. In the moments when Maeve does stand up for herself, she’s powerful. These scenes reveal a strength that is buried underneath all the trauma. It’s the strength that let her bring down the motherhood cult and that lets her stand strong in the face of Andrea’s attempts to guilt her. Maeve isn’t immediately likeable, but she grows on the reader.

Andrea, on the other hand, is a dynamic character. Maeve keeps everyone at a distance, which means as her life falls apart, she has no one to ask for help; Andrea, then, becomes a lifeline for Maeve. Who else but her energetic cousin can understand why Maeve is the way she is? Maybe together they will have a chance to process what they went through. However, Andrea refuses to acknowledge the horrors of their childhood. For Maeve, spending time with Andrea brings back memories that she’s repressed. Like many CEOs, Andrea is used to having her way. She says something and expects people to do as she says. In particular, she made her fortune in the fertility industry, which is ironic considering that her genetics mean any child she births is unlikely to survive—indeed, on one of her earlier visits, Maeve discovers that Andrea and her husband have lost their child to a genetic disorder. Andrea’s ability to compartmentalize the pain of losing a child from the creative process of building a company is impressive.

It’s because of her pain that Andrea has developed an artificial baby that helps her and others through the grieving process. Andrea’s business associate, Emily, idolizes her. In many ways, it seems as if Emily is in love with Andrea. To both of them, there is no higher calling than being a mother. Because of her trauma, Maeve chooses not to be a mother. Working in the fertility industry as they do, Andrea and Emily disagree strongly with Maeve’s choice. Choosing not to have children is something a lot of people don’t know how to handle. For Andrea and Emily, Maeve’s choice is unfathomable, and they aren’t shy about sharing their thoughts. They both place a lot of guilt on her for this choice. Their efforts mimic the pressures that wider society places on women to have kids, but Emily and Andrea’s pressure tactics cross the line from uncomfortable societal pressure into bullying.

Having been raised in a cult of motherhood, characters in the book have a binary view of the sexes. Women give birth; they’re Mothers. Men are just the vessels they use to achieve motherhood. Maeve realizes late in the story that the motherhood cult excluded trans people. In the cult’s view, humans are divided between those who give birth and those who don’t. The existence of trans individuals doesn’t fit into such a simplistic thought process. The cult’s reductive binary view is yet another way that it keeps control; cults depend on the binary of the “in-crowd” versus “the other” to recruit and retain members. Female-presenting people who give birth are the in crowd and, therefore, superior to all else. Even women incapable of giving birth are grouped with the other. Sadly, this reflects real life, in which Missouri senator Josh Hawley has only recently sought to define women as those who give birth. Under this simplistic biological essentialism, people who are infertile or past childbearing age or simply choose not to have kids are not women. It also gives individuals the cult denotes as “women” a power that “non-birthers” do not have. Making someone feel special and unique is, of course, another tactic of cults to recruit and retain members. Andrea and Emily use this kind of thinking to bully Maeve long after the cult has been disbanded. When it is revealed that Emily is not just Andrea’s business partner, but one of her former clients, the ethics of Andrea’s practice are brought only further into question.

Though Andrea and Emily work in the fertility industry, Just Like Mother doesn’t comment on it directly. The novel isn’t about the fertility process, but Andrea and Emily hint at the darker side of this industry. For many, fertility treatments are their only hope to have the family they want. Struggling to have a child is an emotional rollercoaster, and there are definitely crooks preying on desperate people. Realistically, no answer works for every person, and anyone claiming that they have The Answer is a scam artist. Andrea being a “life coach” for people struggling with fertility seems like a hint towards the shadier side of the fertility industry. While lifestyle changes like exercise and diet can affect fertility, that type of advice should come from a doctor. From what the reader knows, Andrea is not a doctor, and Emily doesn’t have a medical background. So, their only expertise is the fact that they are mothers themselves.

Just Like Mother slowly builds to an unexpected ending that makes the reader rethink what they know about Maeve’s world. Heltzel’s writing keeps the reader glued to the page, wondering how Maeve is going to turn her life around. Written before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Just Like Mother nevertheless has Andrea and Emily exhibit the same attitudes about birth and the choice to be a mother as the conservative court. Where the court’s decision cares little for women, Andrea and Emily elevate the woman to the peak of humanity because of her biological ability to give birth. But neither respect a woman’s choice. Whether by disrespecting or elevating, they treat the woman as if she’s simply a machine for procreation. Maeve’s decision to control her own reproductive capabilities is equally as subversive in the story as it is in the real world now and equally as needed. In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Just Like Mother has become more relevant than Anne Heltzel intended.

Eric Primm is an engineer in the US Midwest. He makes sure the wings stay attached to the airplane. When not reading or writing SFF, he’s learning to bake bread and speak French, occasionally at the same time. Eric reviews SFF, horror, history, and political books on his blog
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