In this important essay, Belle Boggs throws open the door to subjects once considered taboo, interweaving teaching, infertility, and the depiction of childlessness in literature, all with characteristic empathy and wisdom. Though “Imaginary Children” wasn’t her first essay to capture my attention (that distinction belongs to the title essay from her lauded recent collection The Art of Waiting), it’s the one through which I came to know and trust the clear, resonant voice that distinguishes her nonfiction: scrupulous attention to the details and patterns of lives both human and animal, thoughtfully layered interviews and research, deft melding of journalism and cultural history, luminous sentences. Lucky for us, she applies that same degree of precision and fearlessness to her own story—to the shades and depths of longing—which translates on the page to an essay brimming with warmth, intimacy, authenticity.
It’s ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning in December, and I’m waiting to see a matinee performance of that holiday classic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with twelve of my AP English students. The drama teacher is next to me; she has brought her class also. The kids sit one row in front of us, but we don’t have to monitor them too closely. From where we sit, on steep risers, we can see the tops of their heads as they lean together to talk.
I’ve taught at a small charter school in a rural North Carolina county for three years; though the school has since grown, when I started there were barely ten students in most of my classes. Our principal has warned us against getting too involved in their lives, but the very structure of the school makes it tempting to feel like the students are our own children—we drive them on field trips in our cars, eat lunch with them, counsel them about boyfriends, girlfriends, problems at home. The same principal, in years past, prepared Thanksgiving dinner for the whole school and their families. The students have our cell phone numbers; they know where we live and call some of us by our first names. They can get emotional, fighting with us over grades, attendance, wardrobe choices. Once a student called me a bitch for criticizing a project he was proud of; I sent him out of the room and he cried for an hour, truly remorseful, in the guidance counselor’s office. We know the things that motivate or upset them, and if they imagine that their teachers talk about them when we gather for casual chats, they’re right. Like parents, we constantly strategize about how to strike the correct balance between what they want and what they need. Today I’m worried about an earnest, religious girl who last year recused herself from several reading assignments because of instances of sex or strong language (when we read Huck Finn, another student helpfully blacked out the offending words in her copy of the book). I wonder if she’ll walk out on this performance, what I’ll say when I follow her.
I have loved this play since I first read it as a sophomore in college, though it means something different to me now. Back then, it was about the shock of George and Martha’s dysfunction—you make me puke—and how they made their way back, after all the fighting, the rounds of “get the guest,” to something approaching love. I suspect that is what interests my students—the verbal histrionics, the cruelty—but I realize that they must also recognize, from the literature we’ve read together, a familiar idea within this story of a childless, miserable couple: Failing to have children has a socially distorting, morally corrosive effect on people’s lives, especially on the lives of women. Four years into my own experience with infertility, I can admit that I once saw this play through the same lens. Now I’m attuned to another part of the narrative: the missing child, and what they do to survive his absence.
A couple of months ago, I left these same students to drive twenty miles to the hospital in Chapel Hill where I’d been receiving fertility treatments for almost a year. No one knew where I was going—who would I tell?—only that I’d be back by lunchtime. I remember feeling hopeful and excited in the clear, crisp light of early fall, a time of year that reminds me always of childhood and fresh starts. This was to be my fourth intrauterine insemination, or IUI, as I’d learned they are called; after days of testing my urine in the school bathroom using an ovulation-predictor kit, I’d finally achieved the digital smiley-face that indicated I was about to ovulate, and made my appointment. My husband had already been to the hospital, early that morning, to provide his sample of sperm, which would be washed in a special machine that left only the most capable swimmers. Our chances for conception were slim, perhaps 5 percent, but the procedure was relatively affordable and easy to manage. Both financially and in terms of time, scheduling an IUI was like getting a new set of tires—even if sometimes every month; in vitro fertilization, our next step, would be like buying a new car, or several new cars. No one I know has attempted IUIs expecting them to work the first, or even the second, time; because our clinics were not required to keep data on IUI success rates, we had only the stories of cumulative success or failure shared on message boards or around the hospital conference room where we meet with our support group each month. Three failed attempts were nothing—I knew women who had been successful after five, six, or seven IUIs. Eventually, I hoped, we’d be successful too.
When the doctor led me not into the dim room with the familiar examination table and stirrups, but into a separate, brightly lit conference room, with only chairs and a table, I knew that my hope had been foolish. I barely looked at the numbers he circled on my chart as he explained the futility of trying the procedure again.
“I think it’s time,” he said, “to move on to something else.”
I knew we weren’t ready—financially, emotionally—for IVF. For now, we were done. I took a handful of tissues and drove back to school. It was lunchtime, warm enough for the students to eat outside. I walked to my room without speaking to anyone, closed and locked the door. I don’t remember if anyone tried to come in, but I do know that none of my high school students has ever asked me why I don’t have any children. Perhaps they think they are enough.
It did not occur to me, when I first read Albee’s play, to wonder why George and Martha could not have children. I was nineteen years old, and the mechanics of reproduction had little meaning in my life aside from the birth-control pills I took daily. I suppose I realized that Martha, in her early fifties, was beyond her fertile years, but that fact is never discussed directly. In act 3, when their childlessness is laid bare to their guests, George and Martha express themselves with uncharacteristic reserve. Nick asks George, quietly, “You couldn’t have . . . any?” “We couldn’t,” says George. “We couldn’t,” Martha echoes, with “a hint of communion,” according to the stage directions.
George and Martha are past the crisis point of infertility—childbirth is a ship that long ago sailed—and we are not invited to wonder why they did not have children, or what they might have done to treat their condition. Instead, the couple represent an idea about what the rest of a childless marriage looks like—the subversion of the traditional heterosexual relationship, the one that progresses, as the schoolyard chant goes, from kissing to love to marriage to baby carriage. They are a dangerous couple because they lack the anchoring affect of family. They are inappropriate, vitriolic, unfaithful, lewd, alcoholic. They are thwarted—George in his career, Martha in the expectations she had for George’s career—and in their unhappiness, they bring out the worst in their guests, Nick and Honey. They get the guest because they are so unanchored.
“Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf,” sings George, near the end of the second act. Honey joins him.
“STOP IT!” screams Martha.
Honey leaves the room to vomit.
The house lights come up at intermission, and our students turn to us, blinking and smiling, a little exhausted. Though the actors in this university production lack a certain sex appeal—Martha is too thin and angular, and George is short, bald, and narrow-shouldered—I can tell our kids are enjoying the production. They laughed when George mocked Nick; they gasped when Martha came on to him. I am too busy monitoring their responses to pay much attention to my own. You okay? I mouth to my wary student. She nods, then leaves with a friend for the concession booth.
Literature often asks us to imagine the way childlessness affects its protagonists. By the time my AP English class gets to George and Martha, they have already read several accounts of childless women and couples, each of them reinforcing this unanchored, subversive quality. Though we have no textbooks, I choose their reading based on suggestions from our state curriculum, availability of opportunities (like the chance to see this production), and my sense of what these students—these stand-in children—will like. It’s a selfish move, at its core; I want to see the students claim the characters I love so much as their own, but I also want to be the teacher who introduced them. I was thrilled when a girl who does not always do her reading sauntered into class one morning, gleefully impersonating Dickens’s shriveled, rejected-at-the-altar Miss Havisham—cruelly exhorting her stand-in daughter, Estella, to break Pip’s heart.
And we talked for days about Lady Macbeth, another appealing villain. The Macbeths are presumably not past their childbearing years, and they imagine the children they might have with a kind of perverse and violent pillow talk. Lady Macbeth tells her husband that, if they did have a child and he’d asked her to kill it, she’d “have pluck’d [her] nipple from his boneless gums” and dashed its brains out. Macbeth responds by fondly telling her she should “bring forth men-children only.” They are childless all the same, and plagued by it, surrounded as they are by happier, more virtuous families. Macbeth, heirless, sees Banquo’s line of kingly succession as an affront to his own happiness and success. And what does he get up to, spurred by his own ambition and the goading of his childless wife? Murder of Duncan, murder of Banquo, murder of Macduff’s whole family—all his “pretty ones.” As with George and Martha, as with the brooding Miss Havisham, what the Macbeths lack makes them dangerous.
Sitting in the darkened theater, considering my own state of childlessness, it occurs to me how many of the female characters we have talked about most—Hester Prynne, Miss Havisham, Sethe—have been defined by their relationship to children, a subtle reinforcement, for my students, that who they are is at the center of someone else’s life, their very identity. In reality, this is both true and not-true; some have doting parents, while others have parents who have disappeared into work, addiction, or other relationships. Still, even the most neglected cannot seem to imagine a life that does not involve parenthood as a milestone. At seventeen or eighteen years old, they already know the number of children they would like to have and the age they’d like to be when they have them, and most of their plans replicate the family structures they were born into. Those with one sibling think they’d like to have two children, while those from large families imagine the same for themselves. Even the most romantically inexperienced among them are certain that they will one day have a family.
Until a few years ago, I saw my life the same way. Like my parents, my husband and I would live in a little house in the country. We’d have two children (a boy and a girl). I imagined taking them on long walks to the river, or to visit the horses and goats on nearby farms. I knew the books I would read to them—Frog and Toad along with Eloise, Owl at Home, and Mouse Soup—because they were the same books my mother read to me.
My husband Richard and I have the little house in the country, but instead of two children, we have two cats (a boy and a girl). We take the long walks to the river or to feed apples to our neighbors’ horses by ourselves. I used to read those books to my first-graders, and I have been known to read Toni Morrison and Charles Dickens to my high-school students. But the afternoons and evenings, the weekends, can be long. I wonder sometimes, how do we fill our time? Richard writes songs about our cats and works too much; I read too much, go out too little, and am alternately anxious, accepting, and despairing.
We are both thirty-six; we have been married for ten years. We met in high school, at a summer camp for the verbally talented (one could imagine George and Martha, despite their age difference, meeting under similar circumstances). We were among the first in our social group to marry, and for years we didn’t feel in any rush to have children. There was always some element of imaginary parenting in our life together, though—when we first lived together, in Los Angeles, we had a collection of small stuffed animals that began with a scarf-wearing bear who came, inexplicably, with my engagement ring. To keep the bear company we added a toy panda, two stuffed hamsters, and a rabbit dressed in pirate costume, and we invented personalities for each of them, bringing them out on holidays for family-style celebrations. We made them tacos on Cinco de Mayo and bought them lottery tickets for Christmas, and we never felt strange about it—it was just something we did—though we never told anyone either.
Now that we are older and disappointed by our childlessness, we are painfully aware of the way our rituals and traditions might appear to other people, continuously reminded that our life together does not resemble the lives of our parents at this age, or any of our aunts, uncles, or cousins. Increasingly, our life is less and less like the lives of our married friends, who have entered a new and somewhat exclusive world of play dates and birthday parties and bedtimes. Because we still want children, and are trying expensive and time-consuming medical interventions to have them, our life does not resemble our single or childless friends’ lives either. We live in a constant state of waiting: for the next cycle, the next appointment, the next support-group meeting. We don’t travel far; we save and save. We calculate—if this treatment is successful, we will be this far along in June, this far in August.
Sometimes I catch us talking about our imaginary children. It’s not something we did before we started trying, or even before we started failing. We didn’t have a list of baby names; we never mentioned children or trying to other people. But now I find myself saying “What if she . . . ” or “What if he . . . ” How old would she have to be to kayak with us? How much would it cost to build a skate ramp in the woods? Then I’ll get my period—it always arrives, if not exactly like clockwork—and we’re back to where we started.
We count on literature to prepare us, to console us, but I am shocked by how little consolation there is for the infertile, or even for those who are childless by choice and trying to live in a world that is largely fertile and family-driven. Old ideas and prejudices persist—a woman without a child is less feminine, less nurturing. She is defined by what she does not have, and she confronts, again and again, a culture that reinforces the wrongness of her circumstances, which may be biological or social, temporary or permanent, something she treats or something she accepts.
For the infertile-but-trying woman, even the way she chooses to treat her condition is subject to literary commentary, literary example. Think of the Biblical Sarah, barren to the age of ninety, who endured and even blessed Abraham’s procreation with the maid before God finally gave her a child. The allegorical message of her story is that by accepting God’s will with patience and faith, Sarah was rewarded with the birth of Isaac, long after it should have been biologically possible. Though Abraham’s wife had little other choice than to wait, the act of waiting transformed her—from Sarai to Sarah, from childless and grieving to the mother of nations.
The myth of Sarah infects our literature and our thinking, and it offers insight into what makes the spectacle of Albee’s Martha, who responds to her childlessness by inventing a son, so pitiable and grotesque. Conception is transformative but also mysterious, endowed by God rather than planned by the woman. To interfere is to be unnatural, greedy, grasping.
Looking back on my first book of short stories, I see how thoroughly the myth was part of my own thinking. I did not anticipate trouble becoming pregnant when I wrote the stories, but motherhood, that long-expected stage of life, must have been on my mind. I include three characters who happen to be infertile, and one character who is accidentally pregnant.
It’s interesting to me now how thoroughly those characters replicate received wisdom about fertility. Loretta is a nurse who is saving for a boat, the Mattaponi Queen, to enjoy in her retirement. Though she and her late husband had no children, she accepts her infertility stoically. Accompanying her elderly patient, Cutie, to the Dairy Queen, she remembers going out for soft serve with her husband on Friday nights: “We would sit on the cement benches and eat our cones like a dating couple, never mentioning that it would have been more fun if we had children with us.” Though a few readers have told me that they find Loretta prickly or dishonest, she is as close to a hero as the collection has, and the stories in which she appears honor the way she accepts her condition, mourns it privately, and focuses her energy on other kinds of care-taking. Of course there is nothing wrong with Loretta’s acceptance and privacy, or with finding her emotional strength and resourcefulness admirable. Her story becomes problematic for me in the context of a minor character who appears in another of my stories.
Jessica is the infertile daughter of Melinda, whose husband, Jonas, is in the process of gender reassignment. Writing the story, I worried a lot about portraying Jonas’s and Melinda’s experience accurately; I did extensive research about middle-aged couples like them, and about the hormone therapy and surgeries in Jonas’s future. In contrast, I hardly remember researching Jessica’s condition and treatment at all; I suppose I thought I knew enough.
Jessica is only twenty-two; while not impossible, it’s rare for someone her age to be infertile. She takes fertility pills for six months, then has a “half-dozen fertilized eggs . . . implanted in her womb” and—in Melinda’s words—“lies on her side all day and gives herself injections in the butt.” I’m not sure how I came up with this course of treatment, but I now know it to be inaccurate. More damning is my portrayal of Jessica; she is narrow-minded, desperate, and emotionally unavailable to her family, and her pursuit of infertility treatment is directly linked to these characteristics. “Stress is the enemy of conception,” she warns her mother before hanging up on her, right after Melinda delivers the news about Jonas’s sex change. The treatment has not only isolated her, but has also made her less attractive and feminine in the eyes of Melinda, who laments to her sister that Jessica “wears sweatpants to the grocery story and goes out without her hair done.”
If Loretta is like the Biblical Sarah, patient and accepting and stoic, then Jessica represents a newer stereotype that has accompanied medically sophisticated infertility treatment: the desperate, uptight woman who blindly pursues conception at all costs, destroying her relationships and her dignity in the process. If I could go back and rewrite her, I would. Though I’d still want her character to provide a contrast to her open-minded mother, I would not choose to make IVF the means of expressing Jessica’s selfishness. At the very least, I would get the details of her treatment right.
Why didn’t I concern myself with portraying Jessica’s treatment accurately? I suppose the answer may be because popular culture has provided us with so many consistent portrayals of the IVF patient—needy, self-focused, materialistic, unnatural—that I assumed they must be accurate. But I think that there is an even more compelling, and more troubling reason, that connects back to George and Martha, back to the Macbeths, and back to Sarah.
As a culture, we in the Western world have imagined human conception as mysterious, even magical. We can hope or pray for a child, but it is nature or God who will ultimately decide whether that child is conceived and born. This way of thinking has a positive social effect; it makes mothers and fathers feel chosen and special, and may help soothe the burden of unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. But think about the infertile couple: Despite their prayers, hopes, or wishes, they have not been selected by God or nature to have a child. There is something wrong with them—biologically, maybe morally. They are broken, unsuitable for parenting. Perhaps their love is not strong enough, or perhaps they want different things. Perhaps they are too concerned with witchcraft and regicide, like the Macbeths. Maybe they are too old, like George and Martha. Maybe they fight too much.
And if they choose to intervene, are they defying God? Defying nature? In 1962, the year that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered, scientists were still more than a decade away from the first successful in vitro fertilization treatment, yet the specter of the test-tube baby is present in George’s debates with Nick. “You people are going to make them in test tubes, aren’t you? You biologists,” George accuses. More recently, Catholic teaching, which regularly addresses questions of bioethics and medicine, has opposed many forms of assisted reproduction, including IVF, staunchly and consistently. The wide-ranging objections raised by Catholic bishops and bioethicists to IVF include the creation and destruction of unviable or unwanted embryos; the genetic screening and selection of embryos; the profiteering of doctors; the use of donor eggs or sperm; the temptation of human cloning; and the idea that it is all too technical and artificial. Even Jesus, according to the Nicene Creed, was “begotten, not made.” The root objection, however, appears to be the way that assisted reproduction interferes with natural conception, which is seen as a gift from God. In 1987, Pope John Paul II issued the Donum Vitae (full title: Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation), which asserted that IVF deprived procreation “of its proper perfection.” In 2012 Pope Benedict XVI, who cowrote the Donum Vitae, expanded on this idea in an address to two hundred scientists and members of the Pontifical Academy for Life at a conference on “the diagnosis and treatment of infertility.” He likened IVF treatment to “taking the Creator’s place” and encouraged infertile couples to “find a response that fully respects their dignity as persons and spouses.”
I am not Catholic, or even religious, but I notice that my state-provided health-insurance coverage for infertility matches recommendations in the Donum Vitae: Hormonal and surgical treatment of my body is okay, but “any means of attempting pregnancy that does not involve normal coitus” is not. Further, before experiencing infertility myself, I can see that I had somehow taken on this bias against assisted reproduction, which is in itself a bias against the many infertile couples who have sought treatment. It is more comforting to imagine a baby who arrives (for free!) via chance or grace or biology than one who is created, at great (and for many, prohibitive) expense, in a sterile laboratory. And it is true that many of the rituals and practices of assisted reproduction lack dignity; they are not what I imagined, anyway, when I thought about having children. It is undignified to inject yourself with hormones designed to slow or enhance ovarian production. It is undignified, also, to have your ovaries monitored by transvaginal ultrasound; to be sedated so that your eggs can be aspirated into a needle; to have your husband emerge sheepishly from a locked room with the “sample” that will be combined with your eggs under supervision of an embryologist. The grainy photo they hand you on transfer day, of your eight-celled embryo (which does not look remotely like a baby), is undignified, and so is all the waiting and despairing that follows.
But many things in life, and especially in marriage and medicine, are undignified. One could argue that certain diets lack dignity, as do going to the gym, having a colonoscopy, and performing many kinds of home repair. And when was sex ever dignified? I don’t think that when the former pope advises couples to find a more respectful response to infertility, he is concerned about a woman’s feet in stirrups or her eggs in a dish. I think the real trouble is with the unfulfilled desire—the grasping, the wanting, the circumventing. It’s the idea that she is so dissatisfied with how things are that she would turn to elective medicine (as I have) or to the imagination (as Martha did). Better to wait, like Sarah (mother of Isaac), like Hannah (mother of the prophet Samuel), like Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist).
Resistance to the things that are, particularly resistance that fails, is undignified. One of the things I love about Albee’s play is the gradual way it allows us to discern, within Martha’s rawness and apparent lack of control, an essential gravity and fortitude. When she admiringly characterizes Nick’s study of biology as “less . . . abstruse” than mathematics, George corrects her—“Abstract”—and she fires back “ABSTRUSE! In the sense of recondite,” then sticks out her tongue. She is dignified on her own terms, and it is up to the audience to catch up to her.
Initially, some playgoers and critics struggled with the details of George and Martha’s marriage, and with Martha’s character particularly. The first review heard by Albee and some members of the cast, received and transcribed via telephone, was from Robert Coleman of the Daily Mirror, who wrote “This is a sick play about sick people. They are neurotic, cruel and nasty. They really belong in a sanitarium for the mentally ill rather than on the stage.” The play was recommended, in a New York Daily News headline, for dirty-minded females only (which only served to increase ticket sales); later, calling the play “filthy” and rejecting its nomination, the 1963 Pulitzer board refused to award a prize for theater. Aside from the profanity and the vociferous, unabated arguing of George and Martha, many were troubled in particular by the presence of the imaginary son. Some argued that George and Martha represented a homosexual relationship in disguise (Albee, who is gay, rejected this idea); Richard Schechner, writing for the Tulane Drama Review, asserted that the “illusory child” was “neither philosophically, psychologically, nor poetically valid.”
This debate over the validity of the imaginary child threatened the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? too. Ernest Lehman, the producer and screenwriter, proposed dealing with critical discomfort by making George and Martha’s imaginary son real. In Lehman’s unrealized version, Jim would have hung himself in a closet at the age of sixteen. The wallpapered-over closet would have served as a crass physical representation of the question of “truth or illusion” that George and Martha spar over throughout the play.
Edward Albee, adopted as an infant by wealthy parents he later described as emotionally distant, had some reason to think about infertility and its consequences. “The whole family was barren: the end of the line,” he has said of the Albee clan. “Skidding to an awful halt. The whole lot of them.” (His father’s sister was also infertile.) Albee knew of his adoption from an early age, and he experienced his role in the family as somewhat imaginary—that is, he was meant to fill a particular role. “They bought me,” he said of his parents. “They paid $133.30.” It’s not difficult to imagine that Albee might sympathize with George and Martha as well as “sonny-Jim,” the child who does not exist, and it must have felt strange to him, the same way it does to me now, to hear a central element of his play dismissed as unrealistic or, worse, invalid.
Before the play was produced, Albee wrote to Leonard Woolf to let him know that his late wife’s name would appear in the title. Woolf wrote back with his approval, and after seeing it performed in London wrote back again, asking if Albee had read one of Virginia Woolf’s stories, “Lappin and Lapinova.” “The details are quite different but the theme is the same as that of the imaginary child in your play,” Woolf told him. The story is about a newly married couple, Ernest and Rosalind, who cope with the pressures of married life by inventing, as the story puts it, “a private world, inhabited, save for the one white hare, entirely by rabbits.” As Lappin and Lapinova, the king and queen of their imagined world, they are able to feel connected in the face of an alternately dull and threatening reality. Like George and Martha, they agree to tell no one: “that was the point of it; nobody save themselves knew that such a world existed.” But the strongest connection between Albee’s play and Woolf’s story (which Albee said he had not read) is the destruction of the imaginary world, which is also accomplished by the husband. Lapinova has been “caught in a trap,” he tells her, “killed.” Rosalind is no longer allowed to live in a fantasy world, and their marriage (unlike, we presume, George and Martha’s) is destroyed.
In their book, Infertility and the Creative Spirit, Roxane Head Dinkin and Robert J. Dinkin write that “envisioning a fantasy child is not as unusual as one might think, and fantasy children appear not only in fictional works but in the lives of actual people.” Among the writers they identify who actively imagined children are Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who invented, with her husband, the life of a daughter named Winifred; Katherine Mansfield, who fantasized with her husband about a boy named Dicky; and Dr. Seuss, who with his wife Helen had an imaginary child named Chrysanthemum-Pearl.
In Los Angeles, the stuffed-animal family Richard and I collected lived in our bedroom on a shelf made to hold CDs, like a dollhouse. Eleven years later, in North Carolina, I put the bear, the panda, the rabbit, and the hamster in a basket, along with their losing lottery tickets and old Christmas candy, and shoved the whole thing under the bed. Sometimes Richard mentions them—“We haven’t seen them for a while”—and I’ll make excuses about the lack of space, my aversion to clutter. In truth, I don’t want to think about the way our peculiar habit would look to outsiders, or contemplate the possibility that we’d still be making tacos for stuffed animals while our friends went to school plays and graduations. At our infertility support group, no one talks about imaginary children; we spend our precious two hours discussing more pressing matters, like the benefits of acupuncture and how to inject Follistim with the least amount of discomfort. We have time only for the body, never the imagination.
In the classroom, it took a while for my more literal-minded students to understand that George and Martha’s bouncing baby boy isn’t real. “What?” they said, turning back pages. “He’s dead? He’s not dead? He never existed?” But in the darkened theater, as the devastation of act 3 unfolds before them, they understand; I watch them bracing themselves as George announces, with menacing triumph, “I’ve got a surprise for you, baby.”
George and Martha’s son is a product of sorrow and disappointment, but also of imagination. They do not have enough to do; they must fill their days and nights somehow, and it’s easy for me to imagine how idle talk and speculation about the child they might have had transformed itself into a boy with a name and a twenty-first birthday. He is so real to them that, like some people’s actual children, he becomes a weapon. In front of their guests, George insinuates maternal smothering that borders on sexual abuse, while Martha suggests that in fact, he might not even be George’s son.
There is sweetness in their imagining, too—when Martha says the boy, away at college, only writes to her, George claims to have a stack of letters from his son, and Martha describes his “easy birth,” his “full head of black, fine, fine hair which, oh, later, later, became as blond as the sun.” But her most vivid imaginings are the memories she conjures of the woman she might have been—the couple they might have been—had they had the child they wanted. “He walked evenly between us,” she remembers, “a hand out to each of us for what we could offer by way of support, affection, teaching, even love.” How painful it is for me when she recounts the banana boats she made for him on Sundays, “a whole peeled banana, scooped out on top, with green grapes for the crew” and “along the sides, stuck to the boat with toothpicks, orange slices . . . SHIELDS.”
Here’s one question the play provokes: Are George and Martha the way they are because they could not have children, or are they denied children because of the way they are? It is a chicken-and-egg dilemma that goes back to the Macbeths, back to Sarah, back to the insensitive comments every infertile couple dreads.
And here is another: How are we to read George’s killing of their son, with the made-up telegram, before their stricken guests? If we read their son as a symbol of what is wrong in George and Martha’s relationship, of lies and deception and the refusal to see things for how they are, the killing is is an act of mercy. That’s how I read the play, years and years ago, and it’s how most of my students read it now.
“Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf . . . ” George sings softly.
The house lights come up. The drama teacher and I quickly wipe away tears.
“He had to do it,” our students say, on the way back to school. “He had to do it so they could face reality, so there could be some hope left, in their marriage.”
“Is there hope?” I ask. “Do you think tomorrow will be good for them?”
“Maybe not good,” they demur. “Better?”
Instinctively, my students understand Martha’s creation of an imaginary son as transgressive, intuiting the same cultural logic that former Pope Benedict relied on when he dismissed IVF as beneath human dignity. Her creation of the boy is a refusal to accept things as they are. What my students don’t understand, because they are so young, is that there are many ways to live in a marriage, and many things you must do to survive a long one. What if Jim is necessary? What if his green eyes and those banana boats are all that Martha and George have that is good? What if by killing Jim, George is killing something vital?
That’s the way my husband reads George’s killing of Jim—as violence, as cruelty. He tells me that it’s for this reason that he finds the play painful and difficult to read. The life of the imagination is more important to him than the destruction of illusions.
I agree with him, though I don’t believe Albee would. Act 3 is, after all, called “The Exorcism,” and Albee has carefully woven in admissions from Martha that there is more to sustain their marriage than cruelty and games: “There is only one man in my life who has ever . . . made me happy,” she tells the disbelieving Nick.
But then, what do you do with the play’s title, with the ghost of Virginia Woolf? I make a note to tell my students more about her: that she was brilliant, that she influenced generations of writers. I could tell them I first read her when I was their age; maybe we have time to read To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway. Maybe they already know some things about her: that she was married and had no children, that she suffered from mental illness, that she walked into the River Ouse with a heavy stone in her pocket and drowned.
(Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
For Halloween this year, I dressed for school as Miss Havisham, wearing a yellowed, lacy debutante dress and carrying a plate of spiderwebbed cake and a deck of playing cards. “Break their hearts!” I hissed at my students from beneath my veil. Most of the teachers at my school dress up for Halloween, and our choices usually reveal something about what we teach or how we perceive ourselves—the outdoor education teacher comes to school as a “canoe accident,” covered in fake blood and bruises; the vain and handsome Latin teacher comes as Superman. The year before, I was Lady Macbeth, binding my hair, coating my hands with red, and sleepwalking through the halls.
Our participation in what is essentially a childhood ritual—dressing up, pretending—delights the students, who see us as extensions of their families. They want to carpool with us and camp with us and watch episodes of Doctor Who with us at evening lock-ins. They want us taking pictures at their dances and proms. They ask to be our Facebook friends. I have had students, frustrated by the reasonable or unreasonable actions of their real parents, beg me to adopt them.
I don’t remember looking for the same kind of access to my teachers when I was their age, but I have always been close to my students, baking for them, inviting them to museums and plays. My classroom’s family atmosphere is my creation and an expression of my need, too. I know that the stories I put in front of them—and, to a lesser degree, that the stories I write—matter. They are patterns not only for how to live, but also for how to see the world. For all the variety, beauty, and brilliance of the works read in a typical high school English class, though, there is a sameness to their treatment of reproduction and reproductive choices. Maybe that sameness reflects a need to understand ourselves within the contexts of our families—we are each of us (even Macduff) born to someone—but what happens when one of them, like me, cannot have a child? What if she needs medical intervention to conceive? What if she chooses not to? What will she read then?
On Halloween, we offer the students extra credit for dressing in historic or literary costumes, and some of them annoy me (on purpose, I believe) by dressing as characters from Harry Potter or Twilight. But this year, one girl wore a long gown in a printed African cotton and painted a birthmark in the shape of a stemmed rose around her eye. I knew right away that she was Toni Morrison’s Sula, who embraces a more openly unconventional life—sexually liberated, without a husband or children or a permanent home—than any of my students has ever admitted considering for herself.
“I’m Sula, fool,” she said, when one of her classmates asked about her costume. Then, more kindly: “I love her.”
My students nodded; eventually, they had all loved Sula. But we’d struggled with that book at first. Morrison’s deeply imbedded authorial perspective, her lack of exposition, her very casualness—about sex, about drugs and death and mental illness and racism—challenged them. I’d finally broken through by sitting on the edge of a desk, as I used to when I taught younger students, and reading whole chapters aloud while they sat with their heads resting on their arms, like schoolchildren. Like my children.
“Imaginary Children” was first published in Ecotone 17, spring 2014.
Belle Boggs is the author of The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, and Mattaponi Queen, a collection of linked stories set along Virginia’s Mattaponi River. The Art of Waiting is longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay and was named a best book of 2016 by Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and O the Oprah Magazine. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Harper's, Glimmer Train, the Oxford American, Slate, Orion, Ecotone, and other publications, and she teaches in the MFA program at North Carolina State University.