April 24, 1972
My dearest Josephine,
I’ve just taken a call from President Nixon, who asked me to pass on his fondest birthday regards to you. Right now, I’m in my hotel room in New York City. (The Pierre, can you imagine? Last time I was in the city, I stayed in a closet and counted roaches scuttling across the ceiling.) Strangers have stopped me on the sidewalk to ask that I wish you a happy first birthday. Yet all I want right now is to be with you, little one. Back in Vermont, surrounded by wilderness, the two of us picking wild marigolds and watching the clouds.
Every proud papa believes his child is singular and astonishing, but in my case, it’s the truth. Your birthday will forever be remembered as the anniversary of humanity’s greatest scientific breakthrough. I’m ever so sorry to miss our big day, but I hope you will instead accept this letter, scribbled on this beautiful hotel stationery in my clumsy handwriting. So many words will be written about the two of us over the years, by so many people, but today I want you to have something private. Just for you.
Tonight, I will dine with the very men of science who used to snub me, and they will toast me. Us. One day, you’ll understand just how bitterly I fought for your mere existence. But no words of praise can ever be as sweet to me as the sight of you. Ten fingers and ten toes, each one miraculous. Happy Birthday, Girl One.
Your loving father always,
April 15, 1994
I learned about my mother’s disappearance from the evening news. I looked up from my textbook when I overheard my surname and recognized the exact cypress tree that grew outside my bedroom window. From that point on, my life turned into a stream of simple equations. How long my mother had been missing (one day). How long since I’d had an actual conversation with her (just over a year). The cost of a bus ticket back to Coeur du Lac, my adopted hometown ($15). The amount left in my bank account after spending fifteen dollars ($110.67). How doomed I would be if I abandoned Chicago for longer than three nights (very: I had four exams looming within the next few weeks).
For a while I lost myself in these calculations and the illusion of stability they offered. This was my standard coping mechanism: turn everything into problems on a checklist to be neatly solved, then filed away. If I pulled it off just right, I could focus on the question of how many pairs of jeans to pack (three) and keep my growing panic at bay.
But when I arrived back in Coeur du Lac, Illinois—Heart of the Lake, with no lake and no discernible heart—I stood in front of the shell of my childhood home in the balmy twilight and everything in me crumpled. Something bad had happened here. Something bad had happened again, and this time it involved my mother.
The footage on the news and the photos in the papers hadn’t prepared me. The wreaths of yellow caution tape around the porch railings looked weirdly festive, like an interrupted birthday party. The porch still stood, but a narrow gash through the living room wall exposed blackened brick, hanging guts of insulation, snaky wires. The rest of the house looked more or less the same. That was almost worse: the untouched parts. I took a deep, shuddering breath.
The house felt both totally vulnerable and like a fortress. Thanks to my mother’s long-standing paranoia, there was no spare key hidden near my home. I went around to the side door and tried the knob. Locked, of course. A small window was set into the door. My mother kept the glass panes covered with a frilly gingham curtain, more for the privacy than for any kind of aesthetic value. She’d hated that window, always eyeballing the distance between the pane and the doorknob, forever imagining a fist smashed through the glass, a hand reaching for the lock. I’d dutifully shared the fear as a little kid, but as a teenager I’d finally snapped. “Who even wants to get in here, Margaret?” I’d demanded, world-weary, contemptuous. “There’s never anything going on in this house.”
I stepped back now and examined the wilderness at the sides of the house, looking for a likely candidate, my pulse already surging with what I was about to do. Everything was weedy and overgrown, thistles blooming to calf-height. I grabbed a large rock, tested its weight in my palm with a few quick bounces. Good enough. Feeling wild, like I was inside a dream, I brought the rock hard against the glass: once, twice, watching the glass splinter into a spiderweb of cracks. The glass was cheap and brittle, hadn’t been replaced since we’d moved in seventeen years ago. It shattered with a satisfying clatter. Then I sobered up, looking around. The block was dark and empty in the rapidly spreading dusk. Our street had always been lonely, occupied by a steady stream of short-term renters, our two-person household the only stubborn fixture.
I snaked my arm through the hole, avoiding the jagged crust at the edges. For a second the realization that I was vandalizing my own house hit me with a lurch of guilt. I was doing exactly what my mother had worried about, all those years. But screw it. The whole house was so ravaged that this broken pane didn’t matter. I’d replace it for my mother myself. I’d replace every window in the house if I just found her safe.
Grappling for the doorknob, I felt the familiar wedge of the lock and twisted it. So many times I’d clicked that lock into place before bedtime, double-checking it to quell my mother’s nervousness. Withdrawing my arm, I stepped into my house, glass crunching under my soles.
* * *
I’d wasted too much money on newspapers at the bus station, driven by both a need for the facts and my growing dread, snatching everything from tabloids to the Chicago Tribune. My mother stared up at me, over and over again. Several shots from her Homestead days, hair waist-length and eyebrows unplucked. One candid shot had been snapped on the last day I’d seen her in person, taken just as I was about to drive away, heading into my bright new future without her. Both our smiles were uncomfortable, obviously fake. I remembered the exact blouse my mother was wearing, even the precise depth of the dark circles under her eyes. She hadn’t been sleeping much back then, the tension in our house so thick that it was hard to relax. The months between that day and this one collapsed as I hunched over the newspaper, worrying a fingernail, barely caring how I looked to the other bus passengers.
From the papers, I pieced together more of the story. The fire had started overnight. It was three in the morning before the bright shadow of the flames finally woke the closest neighbors, so a quarter of my childhood home had burned before the fire department made an appearance. Afterward, the police searched the dark, dripping rooms, unable to find any real trace of my mother. Her purse left behind. Her car still there.
The tiny details stung the most. The fact that none of the neighbors could comment on her whereabouts because my mother had been even more of a hermit than usual. Mail piling up, the lawn piebald with brown patches, the windows darkened at all hours. She’d apparently quit her job at the library a month ago.
It was that last fact that nearly made me rip up the paper, as if destroying the words could make them untrue. My mother had loved her job. The public library had been her only refuge when the two of us came blowing into town in 1977, fear-struck, hair singed, unable to sleep at night without the flames chasing us in our dreams. Nobody else had wanted anything to do with a couple of cult escapees, our faces plastered all over newspapers beneath doomy headlines. My mother thanked the librarians who took a chance on her by efficiently working her way from reshelving books to the circulation desk, the farthest she could go without a degree. And now I tried to imagine my mother confined at home, shuffling, unwashed, vacant and alone.
I’d done that to her. I’d left my mother, and she’d become exactly who I worried she’d be without me.
Most of the newspapers jumped at the chance to resurrect the whole grim tale of the Homestead. It was like a game of telephone: every time our story reappeared, another name was misspelled or a date was off by a week, another false bit of gossip was recycled (this time, the claim that our mothers had hosted pill-fueled orgies). One paper included a list of the surviving members, all eight mother-daughter pairs arranged by birth order. It was the original taxonomy that we’d fall into forever, giving each other context though we hadn’t been together in years.
The New York Times ran a full-color photograph of me and my mother in January 1973. It was a photo I’d seen a thousand times, reprinted so often it should’ve been faded by all the eyes on it. My mother stood next to Dr. Bellanger with me propped on her hip, Bellanger’s arm around her. Toddler-me craned my neck to look at him, chubby-cheeked and beaming. The quintessential family portrait. My father (in a way). My mother (in every way). And me. I was the oldest Girl by a full two years, often selected for photographs and interviews, so the three of us—Bellanger, my mother, and me—had become a trio. Set apart in a way the others weren’t.
Sitting on the bus this morning, I hadn’t been prepared to see that photo again; I experienced the quick throb of grief and love I felt whenever I saw Bellanger’s face. Usually, when I looked at this photo, my mother barely stood out. When I was a kid, her face in this photo was just a younger version of the one I saw as she tucked me into bed every night. As I grew up, it become an older version of the face I saw in the mirror. So totally familiar it was uninteresting. Now she grabbed my gaze with a stab of worry. I pressed a finger over Bellanger’s face, then over my mother’s, until I was the only one left.
* * *
Each year of my life revolved around two particular dates, an emotional arc as fixed in my head as the rotation of the earth around the sun. The first came on April 24, the anniversary of one of the most controversial scientific breakthroughs in the twentieth century: my birthday. A date that’d become a question in Trivial Pursuit and the title of a little-known song by the Clash.
The second date landed in June. The anniversary of the fire that’d taken everything from me. Together, those two formed the simple punch line of my origin story: it might’ve been birth that put us on the map, but it was death that kept us there.
Since first grade, I could recite my personal history on command, and often did for anybody who’d listen. In the year 1970, the shiny start of a new decade, a visionary named Joseph Bellanger put out the call for young women to become part of a risky reproductive experiment. Between 1971 and 1975, nine women gave birth to baby girls. There were no fathers. Not genetically, not biologically. Only eggs dividing, impossibly, without the influence of spermatozoa.
The nine of us, swiftly dubbed the “Miracle Babies,” launched Bellanger from crackpot obscurity to global fame. For six bright years, there were photo shoots, interviews, limited-edition baby dolls; conference presentations, sponsorships, endless editorials. Bellanger stayed with us at the Homestead as much as possible, doing his best to protect us from both the shine of the spotlight and the inevitable darkness that collected at its edges.
By my sixth birthday, the darkness started to overwhelm the shine. The people who opposed our very existence got louder, more aggressive. Our most prominent critic was a man named Ricky Peters, an ersatz preacher whose fame grew alongside ours. But Ricky wasn’t the only one. Politicians publicly promised that, if elected, they’d make parthenogenesis illegal. Ministers and priests took to the pulpits to remind the world that we were born pre-damned. Petri dish abominations, our eternal souls only half formed when we were conceived without fathers.
In 1977, everything fell apart, one disaster after another. Lily-Anne, Mother Nine, the last to give birth, was the first to die. She left her two-year-old daughter, Fiona, orphaned in every sense of the word. Doctors around the globe snagged TV appearances and front-page spots to argue that Bellanger’s methods were clearly dangerous, illicit, and untested. Some Mothers fled the Homestead, taking their Miracle Babies with them. Our makeshift family fractured and scattered until barely any of us were left. And then—then the fire.
On June 22, 1977, a fire blazed overnight at the Homestead. When the smoke cleared, two bodies were among the wreckage, barely recognizable. One was Fiona, Girl Nine, always fatherless and newly motherless. The other was Dr. Joseph Bellanger. The secrets of parthenogenesis went with him, his research consumed in the flames.
For most people, the story ended with the fire. In 1978, after a well-publicized trial, Ricky Peters was found guilty of arson and two counts of first-degree murder, sentenced to life in prison without parole. The surviving Mothers and Girls sank into an uneasy infamy, becoming Jeopardy clues and textbook footnotes.
For me, though, the fire was only the beginning. My story began when my mother transplanted us to Illinois and tried to forge a quiet life out of the ashes, as if we could just disappear into normalcy. It became painfully obvious that wasn’t an option for me when a group of seventh-grade boys surrounded me, asking if I even had a pussy or if my crotch was as smooth and blank as a Barbie’s. My mother devoted herself to pretending our history never happened, forcing me to patch together the story on my own. I memorized each of the precious letters that Bellanger had written for me. Six of them, one for each of my birthdays before he’d died. I’d returned again and again to the line where Bellanger called me his first and favorite daughter and felt that love and protection still surrounding me, glowing in my DNA.
Of all the Girls, you’re the most like me, Josephine. You have that same spark in you. That same curiosity. You see the world through my eyes.
In high school biology, I cut into a frog’s slick, pale belly and a flood of memories returned. Helping Bellanger in his lab at the Homestead. The way it felt to sit with him for hours, being so patient, barely moving, watching him work. Handing him his instruments. In that muggy high school lab, I was the first of my classmates to identify the ovaries, the oviduct, those delicate, springy coils. Looking around, I knew it was different for me. I was drawn to this secret, interior world, brimming over with the potential to change everything.
That initial spark grew and grew until I appreciated what it actually meant: That I should be the one to pick up the loose thread that had started with my conception. Who better than me, Girl One, born with Bellanger’s curious eyes and hungry brain? Before his death, Bellanger had described a world where any woman could achieve parthenogenesis with his help. I was tired of sitting by and watching his legacy shrink a little more every year, my birth becoming a weird hiccup in the timeline of human reproduction instead of a bold turning point.
Copyright © 2021 by Sara Flannery Murphy