Queer Aunt Beast

“So, what are they going to call you?” a friend asks, when I announce I’m pregnant with twin boys. I’m gay, long-partnered, and facing the common dilemma of same-sex couples about to become parents–two moms can’t both be “mommy.” But neither “Mommy” nor “Mama” feels quite right. What pops into my mind instead is a name I’d long forgotten, from a book I loved as a child: Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. What they’ll call me, I decide, with an odd little rush of conviction, is “Aunt Beast.”

Don’t you remember “Aunt Beast”? She’s the strange, maternal creature who nurses Meg Murry back to health after she nearly dies escaping from the dark planet Camazotz. Meg’s brilliant but absent-minded scientist father has tried unsuccessfully to “tesser” back to Earth—to travel across space-time by “wrinkling” it. An injured Meg lands with her father and Calvin on the wrong planet, where, luckily, Aunt Beast is there to help. With four arms and more than five tentacle-like fingers on each hand, a body covered with fine hair, and soft indentations in place of eyes, nose, and ears, she is gentleness and love incarnate, Under her loving care, Meg is able to accept her mission to rescue her little brother Charles Wallace, and to return safely to earth at the novel’s end.

Despite her pivotal role in the book, you won’t find Aunt Beast in Ava Du Vernay’s filmic adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. According to the screenwriter, the character gives away the “answer” too early for the exigencies of filmic storytelling, so she was cut from the final version. Storm Reid’s steely and vulnerable Meg has to realize her mission, and her inner strength, largely on her own.

Yet there’s something else, I think, that led to Aunt Beast’s omission from the film. Aunt Beast isn’t really a “she,” or, at least, we can’t be sure. Calvin mumbles uncertainly “How do you do, sir—ma’am—“? at their first meeting, and the narrator refers to Aunt Beast later as “it” and “the beast.” And when Meg begins to recover and asks “What should I call you, please?,” Aunt Beast telepathically searches Meg’s mind for an appropriate phrase, one adequate to the child’s feelings for her. She rejects both “mother” and “father” (as well as “funny” “hard” words like acquaintance, and “horrid” ones such as monster). Finally, she settles on “Aunt Beast” as the closest approximation.

Yet Aunt Beast is every inch a mother, as most people would describe one. “You must be as an infant again,” she tells Meg, as she sings indescribably beautiful songs to her, feeds her delicious food, and bathes, dresses and wraps her in the softest clothes. Later, as Meg’s physical strength returns, Aunt Beast helps her to gain emotional strength, as movingly demonstrated in the scene where Meg accepts her mission, after “beating at Aunt Beast like a small child having a tantrum.”

Like a mother who responds calmly to a toddler’s public meltdown, Aunt Beast can withstand Meg’s aggression, helping her to acquire what Mrs. Whatsit calls “grace.” L’Engle means us to hear the Christian resonance—God’s love and mercy—but she clearly also means us to understand “grace” in a secular way. “Grace” might be described, here, as the child’s ability to separate, and the mother’s to let go, with warmth rather than rejection and hurt feelings. “Grace” is to stand in a loving relationship to oneself and others.

Meg’s need for this substitute mother who can withstand her assaults and help her to separate and grow might raise some questions about her own mother.  Was Mrs. Murray not “good enough,” in the Winnicottian phrase, or, given the early sixties’ associations of mothering and working women, was she cold and withholding?  Nope. Not the least of L’Engle’s achievements in the novel is to make Mrs. Murray a scientist who is every bit as loving and warm as Meg needs her to be, although a bit distracted by the disappearance of her husband. L’Engle wants to show that being a woman, a mother, and a scientist are fully compatible.

Aunt Beast is something else. Not a substitute mother, exactly, but a supplement, something for which there is no name, and for which all existing names are approximations. She seems to live underground, moving about in shadowy halls, in groups rather than couples; her gender is incoherent, so much so that she doesn’t seem to see gender in others. Think of your pre-Stonewall aunt and her “roommate” at Thanksgiving dinner, or the Stonewall itself, and other dimly-lit, yet warm and welcoming queer spaces circa 1962  Think also of the near non-human status ascribed to those aunts and queer revelers by the outside, surface world, and sometimes by their own families, to whom they seemed to inhabit another planet. Think, finally, of the way that Aunt Beast seems to be all fingers and waving tentacles, and how, when she first reaches out to touch Meg’s face, the latter feels initially only “utter loathing and revulsion,” but, then, a “soft, tingling warmth” that goes all through her.

Aunt Beast is queer.

This is not to say that she is gay, or Meg is. But it is also not to say that Meg or anyone else in the book isn’t gay. In emphasizing the Meg-Calvin romance so extensively, perhaps L’Engle protests too much. Meg tells her father that “mother was always pushing me out in the world,” urging her, perhaps, to gravitate towards him, and we all know where that can get you. The precocious Charles Wallace has grown up without a father and seems to have the opposite problem–he’s now too close to his mother. And as to Mrs. Whatsit, what is she exactly?

The queerness of Aunt Beast lies less in the name that we give her, than in the way she provides a brief, passing moment out of linear time and out of Meg’s epic journey into adulthood. She suggests another, more meandering path. Think of the way that the queer aunt or uncle provides a “wrinkle” in the time of heterosexual generation, a model of how one might, with grace, skip over the externally imposed, and often wholly inadequate, milestones supposed to mark a child’s growing identity and sense of self–like boyhood and girlhood, marriage and children.

But let’s remember, too, that Aunt Beast’s gift is to help Meg decide what to call her, rather than imposing a definition of what a father or a mother are onto her. In this, she redresses a deeper problem than heterosexism or homophobia–or, more specifically, she redresses both at their root, at the moment we are “pushed” out into the world in a more literal sense. Birth creates psychic dangers, including what the child does later on with their deep knowledge of this early, infantile helplessness and vulnerability, which is the state that Meg explicitly returns to when she lands in the arms of Aunt Beast. Feelings of danger are often met with assertions of hardened defense: for example in the pernicious weapon of binary gender difference. By allowing her the creative impulse to name her own world, Aunt Beast teaches Meg that gender is a creative act that we perform together, not out of fear, but out of love.

When she was around Meg’s age, my partner met L’Engle, who signed her copy of A Wrinkle in Time with the dedication “Tesser well.” Wrinkle time, skip the milestones, let your children go slower or faster as needed, let them be a boy or a girl, or neither, or both. Let them name the world. This is what she seems, now, to be saying to both of us. Just do it well, which means, do it with love–and grace. It’s good advice for all parents, whatever they are called.

In the end, I went with “Mommy.”

–Katherine Biers is Visiting Associate Professor of English at NYU