Gather the Daughters is a haunting tale of a society where women are controlled but children are free, and a young woman on the cusp of that transition discovers something that pulls her ideological foundations out from under her. It’s perhaps not for the faint of heart, but will definitely appeal to fans of engrossing dystopian fiction that lingers in the memory.
I reached out to Ms. Melamed and asked if she’d be willing to discuss the book.* She graciously said yes.
Dabney: I was on vacation with my large extended family when I read Gather the Daughters. It was a fascinating yet challenging book to read while surrounded by my clamorous and close clan. The book is… well, let me ask you. How would you describe this book?
Jennie: Gather the Daughters is a dark dystopia with feminist overtones, about an isolated cult at the end of the world. GTD looks at the evils of slavishly following culture and tradition, and the consequences of complete societal isolation, as well as the innate joy and resilience that reside in children and the strong bonds they form with each other.
Dabney: The slice of humanity you’ve created is one predicated on the evil inherent in man. More specifically, the evil that lurks in (some?) men. What was the genesis for your premise?
Jennie: The idea came to me in college, when so many people I knew- mostly women- were coming forward about the trials they had gone in childhood, at the hands of adults. But it didn’t really blossom until I was working in children’s behavioral health as a nurse. Many of the stories I heard broke my heart, and left me furious. In graduate school, I finally gained the capacity and the resources to explore real-world situations in which scenarios similar to my book had taken place, as well as the more complicated literature about the biological and psychological effects of childhood trauma. As a psychiatric nurse practitioner, I regularly work with children suffering the aftereffects of trauma and trying to navigate growing up in its shadow- and some who are, unfortunately, still living in chaos. It’s hard not to be angry at abusers, angry at adults, and yes, angry at men- because they are most often (although by no means always!) the perpetrators of child abuse. I have seen children who suffered such horrors at the hands of men that I shudder to think of it.
And then I have seen men be the helpers that assist these children in healing afterwards. I have a father, a brother, a husband, and multiple male friends whom I love dearly, and I am far from considering all men evil. I do think, though, that almost every one of us- male or female- could commit atrocious acts, were we born into the right circumstances.
Dabney: The voices of the young girls in this novel are clear and strong. In particular, I loved Janey. How did she figure out the connection between starvation and delaying menarche?
Jennie: I think in an island completely devoid of modern medical care, there would have been enough children with chronic nutritional deficiencies for people to notice that those who were thinner or malnourished tended to hit puberty later. (Amanda is eating dirt while pregnant because she’s low on iron!) I’m sure Janey isn’t the only one who tried it, but she was able to develop a form of an eating disorder that persisted, and her parents were too gentle to do anything but try to coax her into eating more.
Dabney: Tell me about your journey as a writer. What was the first thing you ever wrote for publication?
Jennie: This! I’ve written my entire life, but Gather the Daughters is the only work I seriously tried to publish. I had no idea how complicated it would be. I spent about one and a half years being rejected by everybody I sent my manuscript to. I put Gather the Daughters on the shelf for a few months as unpublishable, before a nagging feeling made me pick it up and start trying again. I lucked out, because the agent and editor I found are incredible.
Dabney: Was this society initially a religious group who left to follow specific practices and incest gradually crept into the mix or did they leave because they wanted to practice incest?
Jennie: That’s a big question, isn’t it? I’m going to digress here, both because the back-story may become a novel of its own and because I haven’t pinned down exactly how it happened. But the question of how societies come to practice acts we consider abhorrent on children is fascinating to me, because I honestly believe that in every society, almost everyone loves their children.
I think first there needs to be a set of beliefs encoded into the society that makes abuse possible. Then there needs to be some belief that the abuse itself is either beneficial for the child or for society as a whole.
As an example, in one society I found mention of, the young boys were sexually abused. The cultural belief was that being a strong warrior was the most important quality in a man. The sexual abuse was thought to increase boys’ strength and virility, thus making them into greater warriors and benefiting both the boys themselves and their society (which I’m assuming experienced frequent conflict.)
I’m no anthropologist, but I believe with these two criteria met, the stage is set for all sorts of abuse to be inflicted on a child- and that it has been, throughout human history. I don’t think these criteria are sufficient- plenty of societies manage not to systematically abuse their children- but I think they are necessary.
A lot of people were frustrated that the women didn’t object more. As is made clear in the novel, there are quite harsh punishments for those who do speak out, but also, in our world, some of the more terrifying childhood abuses- foot-binding, female genital mutilation- are/were performed by women. It’s clear that patriarchy led to these traditions being formed, but women contribute to the continuation of the tradition (again, for the supposed good of the children involved).
Dabney: Did you think specifically about the religious symbolism of Janey and Mary? Janey as the Christ-like sacrifice and Mary as, well, Mary?
Jennie: You’re asking someone who read The Narnia Chronicles twice before a friend pointed out that there was Christian symbolism! I was raised Jewish, and so I am much more familiar with the Old Testament than the New. In fact, I didn’t read the New Testament until well into adulthood (so had the experiencing of reading the New Testament and hearkening back to literature, as opposed to vice versa.) That said, when I had Janey staked out for punishment I thought, okay, there is a little symbolism here! The thing is, I don’t think Janey died for anyone’s sins. It was the collective sins of the island that meant Janey had to die.
As for Mary’s name, it was originally Cassie, and Janey’s chapters were originally from her perspective. My agent suggested I change the name, as Cassie and Caitlin are similar. My brother’s girlfriend is named Mary, and I hadn’t used the name yet, so there it went. Perhaps there was something connecting in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t conscious.
Dabney: I’m curious about the children’ summers…was there something specific you had in mind?
Jennie: A few people compared the summers to the Amish Rumspringa, but I wasn’t thinking of that particularly. I was thinking, here’s all these children, following all these rules, suffering all these abuses, where’s their release? Then I thought, what if they were given a whole season to rebel, in a formalized manner- in a sense, as a strategy of containment? If kids are allowed to run wild enough, does that tame them during their time of restriction? I love the idea of muddy children forming their own summer society, as wild as only children could make it, while the adults are huddling inside, too prim to roll in the mud and go have fun somewhere.
Dabney: Has the national conversations about women’s reproductive autonomy shifted how you view your characters at all?
Jennie: I remember when I saw that picture of that all-male committee meeting to discuss women’s health care coverage, my blood boiled. I thought, you can’t do that without women at the table. To me, it’s just another example of men in power getting together and deciding what to do with women’s bodies. As if we don’t have anything valuable to propose, argue, or champion. It’s a common thread throughout history, and it made me sick to see our country going backwards. I think it made me see my characters as even braver, because they fought against an entrenched system, even when the odds were stacked against them, even at risk to themselves that far outweighs any risks we have for speaking out in our society. I hope I could be that brave, but I kind of doubt it.
Dabney: Is there something you hope readers carry with them after reading Gather the Daughters?
Jennie: It would probably be that even the most oppressed or abused children still have joys and hopes and desires- that they’re still children, and not just the victims of abuse. The light we all love that shines in children continues to shine. When we make them only the passive recipient of abuse, we in a sense dehumanize them. I’m not saying for an instant that abuse doesn’t massively shadow a child’s life, but it doesn’t- at least in my experience- blot that light out.
Dabney: Thanks for talking to me.
Jennie: It was a pleasure.
Jennie Melamed is is a psychiatric nurse practitioner who specializes in working with traumatized children. During her doctoral work at the University of Washington, she investigated anthropological, biological, and cultural aspects of child abuse. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three Shiba Inus.
*Kristen and a friend of mine helped to develop these questions.