What does it mean to grow up as a girl when the models for girlhood that you see in the media are dead, or maimed, or “ruined,” or abused, or endangered – and when the public’s rapt attention on these girls gives them an aura of desirability, even sexiness? I don’t know any woman or girl, however strong and educated, who hasn’t been subliminally warped by the constant narrative of girls as victims and sex objects both. For that matter, I don’t know any living human who hasn’t been warped by it. In “Little Beast” I amplify this creepiness with the creepiness inherent to any very insular society: here, an elite all-girls school.
C Pam Zhang, Contributor Note
Creepy is a good word for this story – but it’s a fine-tuned creepiness, a creepiness that creeps up on you (sorry!), and plays with the borders between intense imagery, horror, and psychosis.
Zhang is right about the societally-bestowed nobility granted to those who have suffered trauma. That’s somewhat justified; it takes a lot to survive violence. But it can have the strange effect of making violence seem desirable, at least for a vulnerable few who see no other route to grandeur.
At thirteen, I felt my body slopping. Though I sat in the middle of the nurse’s height-weight chart, though I’d memorized the textbook diagram with its cake-like cross-section of flesh (epidermis, dermis, hypodermis stippled yellow with fat), my problem went deeper than biology. Mine was a more fundamental failure. My posture was liquid and my spine nonexistent despite containing the requisite thirty-three vertebrae. I spilled into conversations and overshared the banal. My words manifested as spit on listeners’ cheeks. Even teachers wore expressions of disgust when my hand shot up—expressions blotted away by sympathy like a napkin blots grease.
Our protagonist is the young teen at the elite school Zhang sets up, a school populated by bright-eyed, shiny-haired future movers-and-shakers, daughters of current movers-and-shakers. Except for Girlie, who is the daughter of the janitor, admitted on scholarship. Her classmates aren’t Mean Girls; courtesy and respect seem to be, at least on the surface, drilled into them as much as posture and promptness. They even make occasional mild overtures of friendliness towards her. That doesn’t make it any easier.
We never learn the name of our narrator. Her father used to call her Inch, then switched to Girlie, a shift that hovers over the story until it’s resolved on the final page, but remains ambiguous. The story connects her to her father, a man as loving as he is clueless about teenage girls; and to a group of girls at the school. No, not the bright-eyed shiny-haired girls; they aren’t the ones who appeal to her. It’s the other girls that interest her.
The girls I yearned to know were the ones wrapped in silence. Even teachers didn’t bother calling on them. Not glowing but shadowed girls, skinny wraiths with bitten nails, dark circles, dry hair. An exhaustion that made them seem older and wiser. Such girls had no hobbies or sports teams that I knew of—though participation was mandatory at Alta. It was as if whatever drained them was extracurricular enough.
A bit strange, was the strongest thing I heard said about the silent girls, thanks to Alta’s rampant kindness. Mostly those girls were buffered in silence as they passed through the halls. There were maybe five of them, though the precise number was slippery; they disappeared or reappeared from class at will, reinforcing the sense that they belonged not to Alta’s world, but a different one. A world my father couldn’t see into. Under Alta’s bright lights, these girls’ lashes drew vertical bars over their eyes. More than anything, I wanted to know what inside them needed caging.
I can understand that. She would always be an outsider with the Sweet Valley High set (I’ve been reading Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, and this story kept coming to mind as I read her essay about her Sweet Valley obsession). She could belong to the silent girls with something caged within. Maybe. If she tried.
The methods of fitting in with this group are all self-destructive. Anorexia. Cutting. The cutting was more or less an accident with celery, but she’d already discovered “even these girls weren’t born with nothing behind their eyes. They had ways of inviting it in.” The celery served as an admission ticket. It also implies that no one is born with a beast within; it must be acquired, and some of us are better at rejecting it than others.
The cutting is noticed by a teacher who sends her to some kind of support group with the misfit girls, because if we’ve got a school of perfect future senators and a couple of weirdos, by all means let’s put the weirdos in a room where they can learn from each other. It’s more of a classroom for Girlie than where she learns Biology.
A strange room, down a half-flight of stairs I’d never seen. Subterranean light, the ceiling dusty and low. One barred window. A cage.
It was run by a woman who resembled a mouse, whose trembling voice bid the others to welcome me. Into our fold, the mouse said, as if they were four sheep instead of something else. The four ignored her—half a mouthful of a woman, not worth the effort. It was me they watched.
Seen up close, their differences became clear. A tall, dark one with shivering pupils. A freckled one with sunken cheeks and fat ankles. An elfin one with unwashed hair and skin, emitting a faint mushroomy smell. And the one who’d taken my wrist, who armored herself with a too-big uniform, who wasn’t beautiful but sat as if she were.
I’m struck again by the imagery of animals and cages. And here’s where I may be undervaluing the power of this description: I’d assumed it was imagery, the product of an adolescent mind turning everything up to eleven, tiptoeing right up to a horror story. It wasn’t until I read an excellent post about the story on Life As A Shorty (link below) that I considered this was delusion, psychosis, on top of the other mental illness symptoms. The story keeps it vague enough that the reader can decide, and can privilege one reading over another depending on their past experience and preference.
Girlie’s relationship with the pack (hey, if we’re doing animal imagery, I’m gonna get into it) falls into jeopardy when they catch her faking cuts, so she pulls out all the stops. And runs over her father – loving, clueless – in the process. Horror doesn’t have to include the supernatural, or the physically dangerous. Sometimes a camera and a lie is all it takes.
This moment unlocks her memory of the moment, when she was eight, that her father started calling her Girlie, and, I think, the moment the beast was born in her: not of rage or violence, but of fear. I’m perplexed by the actions that took place, why her cutting up her father’s favorite book led to him giving her the sole bedroom in the house, instead of the couch. But the emotions come through loud and clear: “It wasn’t triumph I’d felt when the door to the bedroom clicked closed five years ago. It was despair.”
And there we end, back at despair all over again.
This is another of Ward’s “young people” story. I’m impressed by the control Zhang shows in this story. It’s open, mysterious, fluid, and elusive. But it’s anchored by a few rock solids, like a father who loves his kid, and doesn’t get that she’s about to sacrifice him for the pack.
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Complete story online at BOMB magazine
Jake Weber holds another Literary Court – and showed me something I’d completely missed in my read.
Story commentary by Keith Lesmeister at LifeAsAShorty