"We live in a world...where the decisive deed may invite the holocaust." --John Updike
An interesting question that emerges while reading The Good Mother is: Why did Anna let it happen? Of course, this question must be included among many others, most of which elicit ambiguous answers: What really happened? Was there fault to be assigned? If so, who was at fault? What is a good mother? Can a woman be a good lover and a good mother? Where must sexual boundaries be drawn between children and couples in a household?
Regardless of what it is, the answer to the question Why did Anna let it happen is that she was rendered almost powerless by her gender, class, and social and family background to do anything but let it happen. She spent her life letting things happen.
Anna Dunlap, recently freed from a boring marriage and involved in a sexual awakening with an unconventional man, probably thought of herself as liberated in a very literal way before and during her affair with Leo Cutter. "I had a sense, a drunken irresponsible sense, of being about to begin my life, of moving beyond the claims of my own family, of Brian, into a passionate experiment, a claim on myself." (p. 10) As events played out, however, it became obvious that Anna had not escaped her history and that her "liberation" was just an illusion.
Anna grew up in the shadow of her wealthy, domineering grandfather, her emotionally absent father and her cold, achievement-oriented mother. Her mother ran her life, pushing Anna to practice piano in the hopes she would become a professional musician one day. Anna was learning that she was not in control of her life; she was forced to let life (through her mother's ambitions for her) happen to her.
When she visited her grandparents' summer home in Maine, Anna witnessed her grandfather's overwhelming dominance and saw her grandmother, mother and aunts engaged in interesting but meaningless (in Anna's view) "women's" conversations. When Anna was fourteen, her mother, realizing Anna was not a musical genius, loosened her grip on her daughter and, in fact, ceased to praise her for anything. As Anna's body changed and she became attractive to boys, she tried to define herself through sex, which she found empty and unsatisfying. Once again, Anna was not in control; she let it happen.
Babe, Anna's young aunt, provided Anna with an example of someone who had freed herself -- at a great price -- from the shackles of her family. Babe got pregnant at age sixteen. She was sent to Europe, where she had her baby and gave it up for adoption. (Of course this was not spoken of back home.) Babe became estranged from her family, executed a shaky reconciliation, and developed into an alcoholic. She drowned, drunk, at her grandparents' fifty-fifth anniversary party. To Anna, Babe began to seem "less a role model...than a cautionary tale." (p. 44)
Each time whatever Anna had "let happen" ended, her life took an almost opposite turn and she held on for the ride. When her mother relinquished control over Anna's life and Anna changed from a isolated music student to a "popular," semi-promiscuous high school coed, the new role ultimately proved demoralizing. "I didn't know what to do, and so did nothing (my emphasis) while a whole series of boys ground groaning against me, their eyes shut against seeing me, their hands on my breasts, and finally in my blouse, up my skirt." (p. 52) So Anna persuaded her parents to send her to a girls' school. In college there was another period of joyless sexual activity. It continued after she met Brian. "As soon as we'd slept together he began talking about fidelity, loyalty, marriage. In that context I became more responsive to him. I liked him, understood him. He was as stern, as judgmental with himself as I was with myself." (p. 129) They married, and Anna spent the next seven years sitting out the sexual revolution, "practicing the piano and