They Drown Our Daughters: Grief Therapy From Beyond the Grave
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Katrina Monroe's They Drown Our Daughters is, above all things, about mothers and daughters. The relationship between generations of women within the same family, and the bonds that pass between them, for better, and for worse. The complicated legacies mothers leave their daughters from their own broken time on earth... and the lengths daughters will go to break the cycle for their own children. In this story, an entire family of women, for seven generations, have been summoned to the waves of Cape Disappointment to answer the call of the unknown creature who would lure them to their deaths. Every one of them met some version of the same fate. But what do you do when your family is haunted by the ocean? Does the curse even exist? Or is brokenness the only legacy mother passes to daughter?
I read this book at the end of August and into September of this year. When I was halfway through the book, my mother died. It was abrupt. One day she had a backache and a stubborn streak. The next, she was in the emergency room for respiratory failure.
Then they found the cancer.
Four agonizing days later, that was it. So little time for goodbyes, or forgiveness, or even to clear the air of a lifetime of complicated relationships that resulted in the CPTSD that I deal with now. Anger. Dizzying pain and grief that wrenched my gut and sent me into emotional spirals at the most random (and inconvenient) times. I turned again to Katrina Monroe's book, seeking some kind of comfort in Meredith, a woman who also had a very complicated relationship with her mom.
About that point in the book, Judith, Meredith's mother, was also killed. Meredith's journey through grief, anger, confusion and pain, the feeling that her mother had left her. The feeling that Meredith had never truly understood how much she needed Judith until she wasn't there anymore. It all crashed down on me and swept me into tears like the cape's mysterious water spirit. In the wake of all that had happened, of everyone telling me how good and great my mother was, that she was in a better place, of fake smiles and feeling lost and empty, this book made me feel the loss of my mother, because finally, someone understood. Finally, I had permission to deal with my grief my own way and not in the way that made sense to everyone else. For that alone, this book will always hold a special place for me. But let's talk about some of the other things that make this book worth reading.
Mothers and Daughters
As I said, this book is about family. It's told predominantly from Meredith's perspective, a queer woman just separated from her wife, bringing her daughter, Alice, to her childhood home to escape from the shambles of her marriage. The book, however, begins with a family tree titled "The Drowning Girls of Cape Disappointment," and various chapters are told from the perspectives of other women in that family: Regina (who began the curse), Grace, Beth, Diana, and Judith. Each woman has a unique story tainted by their relationship between themselves and their mothers, each one determined not to meet the same fate. Each one sadly failed. What draws them to the water, none of them are quite sure, but it lures them like a siren's call, and none of them can resist it. Over time, more drownings and deaths accrue, and the legend of the curse grows. By the time we get to Meredith, her mother Judith has fought against the curse for decades, and is a firm believer in what lurks below -- she lives in so much fear that she keeps Meredith from the water, and keeps the red light of their family lighthouse lit at all times, believing that will lure this spirit away. She keeps Thalias -- a significant symbol in this book -- in the bathroom sink so she always has some handy petals to ward off evil.
Meredith, for her part, shuns this, thinking her mother is full of superstitious nonsense. She longs for a better relationship with her mom, but they're two very different people, and whenever they come together, things just fall apart. (A sentiment to which I can relate.) She is infinitely gentle with her own daughter, Alice, because she, like the women before her, wants to break the cycle of her family. In her mind, however, it isn't so much a curse as a cycle of damaged, broken relationships from which she wants to spare her daughter.
Through the course of the book, we see Meredith's relationship with her mother change as she comes to grips with what really killed Judith, and realizing that she and Alice are next if something isn't done. From there on, she works to solve the mystery of the Drowning Girls of Cape Disappointment before it's too late, and they're both taken below the waves.
In the back of the book, there's an updated family tree. Something to look forward to, but I won't say how it changes. Spoilers, and all that.
This is somewhat related to the first point, but I wouldn't be doing the book justice if I didn't talk about the themes of generational trauma. The family (originally Holm, then moving through several surnames, eventually to Strand) is defined by the trauma of its women. The men of the family, because they haven't experienced the call, almost universally don't understand. As the generations continue, the women continue to try to break this cycle, unable to do so, and the more women die, the more they become defined by their collective destiny. Each daughter reflects on what has come before, and they come with the collective trauma of the deaths of their mothers -- and grandmothers. It's something that's inexorably a part of them, as much as their eye color. And sometimes it seems as though there's no escape. Only acceptance of the inevitable.
There's a lot of generational trauma in my family. Sure, there's not a family curse. No supernatural force of our own reckless, maddened decisions is sending us to our doom a century after the fact. But in my family, we have a legacy of brokenness. Of one woman surviving through unthinkable abuse and trauma, and then emerging battle-scarred, proud -- damaged. And then, when they have children, they were unequipped to pass on healthy perspectives, so they pass on what they can: the trauma and the damage. And then those children pass it on to their own kids. Many families are broken, and defined by the damage we take on ourselves. Many of us seek to undo our own brokenness, given to us by our parents, so that we can spare the next generation. Some of us (me) choose not to have children, and to break the cycle that way. But the Strand family is really, in many ways, just like mine. Defined by the trauma of the women who came before, unable to break our heads over the surface of the waves that threaten to drown us in the same waters as our mothers.
Minus the actual supernatural spirits of drowned girls bent on underwater family reunions.
My favorite kind of horror is the story that has something to say. Cheap scares may be nice for a stormy night, but the beauty of stories is truly what they have to tell us. They Drown Our Daughters is a prime example of a story that successfully uses horror as a vessel to give us a story that's more profound -- and heartbreaking -- than your average nineties' slasher fic would have us believe possible out of the genre. Monroe utilizes small pieces of imagery to devastating effect: a seashell. A red light. A jar of water. Thalias. A teenager with red hair. We know they mean something. Often they mean something horrible. But she hasn't given away the secret just yet, so we're left on the edge of our seats, wondering what's lurking on the next page.
Most of the best imagery, however, comes from the ocean itself. The feeling of one's ankle being tugged by some unknown force. The face with the long, stringy black hair and the too-long neck and the distorted, black-hole eyes. Who is this creature? What is it? Why does it summon the women of this family to their deaths? Monroe risks overuse of this imagery by having her return over and over through the generations, but she manages to describe it in startling new ways each time. The reappearance of this creature does take some of the edge off of the terror as time goes on, but not in such a way that makes it feel repetitive or that makes it drag. And anyway, half the fun is the mystery, and by the time it all makes sense, it feels new again. I found I was more heartbroken than horrified at the end, but that mirrored the characters in the book, and I get the sense that Monroe wanted my empathy, not just my unbridled, ignorant fear.
The Writing Style
Monroe strikes an excellent balance between elegance and accessibility. It's easy to fall into the landscape of Cape Disappointment, Judith's house, the lighthouse, the water. She describes the environment with such ease, and yet it isn't overwhelming to me. I didn't have to read passages twice, for the most part. It was all carefully, methodically laid out. The timeline skipped around quite a bit, but each chapter was well-labeled with both which character held the perspective, as well as what year the events took place in. The scenes taking place in previous generations were cunningly placed in such a way to help unravel the mystery and move it forward for the reader. I always felt as if I was learning some vital detail, even if the main plot line wasn't moving forward.
I particularly enjoyed the dialogue. It felt natural and well-composed, such that it didn't feel forced at any point. This was impressive, considering that speech patterns were a little different depending on the era. Nothing felt overdone, but neither did it feel out of place. There was meaningful vernacular and slang, but that vanished as we were transported back in time to previous generations.
She split up her chapters into smaller sections, as well, which I appreciated. Long scenes tend to drag and feel unnecessary, and instead, Monroe breaks between scenes in the middle of a chapter. The only time a chapter will segue into another is if the perspective changes, or the timeline. There are points where a chapter for present-day Judith will transition into a chapter about Judith in her childhood, et cetera. But it's clear, and it helps me delineate where I am, and put together what's happened. The family tree was also incredibly helpful when it came to parsing out the context of these stories and their characters.
This is going to be a short section, because naturally, I don't want to give too much away. That said, I did feel as if the plot turned rather abruptly about two-thirds of the way through the book, leading up to a breakneck series of sweeping, climactic scenes that, while excellent, occasionally seemed like they were a touch rushed. Major plot points were tossed out abruptly, leaving me going "wait, what just happened?" and the conclusions at the end were reached as much out of suspicion and instinct as actual evidence. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. God knows Arthur Conan Doyle had tremendous success with Sherlock Holmes jumping to correct conclusions on squidgy evidence (if you ever read the actual books, you'll find that this is true.) It just felt a bit, at the end, like Monroe was trying to get the job done, and maybe skipped a board or two when nailing the final bits of plot into place.
The final two chapters, though, left me in breathless tears. When I put down the book, my wife looked at me, handed me a tissue, and said, "done?" And I wiped my eyes, nodded, and asked for a hug. I was so overcome with emotion for these women, and maybe for myself, too.
The Queerness of It All
I loved the LGBTQ+ representation of Meredith. So many times, we turn our LGBTQ+ characters either into caricatures, or into saints. Stand-up, perfect citizens without flaws -- because God knows there are those who will use any excuse to come after us where someone else might get grace. (If you've never been there, don't argue. Believe me, it happens.) Meredith is a good mom who makes mistakes with her kid, but is committed to giving her the best life, no matter what it takes. She's not always the world's best daughter. She's messy, bitter, and angry, and occasionally drunk. She doesn't always trust her gut, and she doesn't always get it right. She's a real, whole, person who can be related to without being worshipped -- or condemned.
In fact, her sexuality doesn't play too much of a role at all. She happens to be married to a woman. She happens to make a bad decision with a random stranger in a bar. The gender of the stranger is female, but that's largely immaterial. Oftentimes LGBTQ+ characters have to be doing something gay at any given moment in order not to be considered straight. Walking? Gay. The way they talk? Absolutely gay, and constantly talking about gay things. Breathing? Gay, obviously. Like, yes. I'm bisexual. It's very much a part of my world. But every queer person is different, just like every straight person is different. Sometimes I feel like we're not allowed to be multidimensional at all, where all our other needs and cares take a perpetual backseat to the cause of having a queer character in the story. Giving someone the freedom to be a person who is queer and not have to be a constant shining example of the virtues (or downfalls) of that world? Priceless.
They Drown Our Daughters was a godsend for me in a profoundly terrible moment of my life. It was the friend that sat down next to me and said "hey, I know what you're going through, and it's okay to feel the way you do. Now let me scare the shit out of you as I help you work through what's happening." I encourage you. If you are a woman with a mother, or a daughter. Even if you're not into horror books. This work has beautiful things to say about the nature of family and the trauma that we carry through generations. Katrina Monroe brings the women in this story to life with such aplomb, and I'm grateful that it came along right when I needed it most. Katrina Monroe, if you ever read this, thank you, from the very core of me, for hearing what my heart wanted to say about losing my mom, about the trauma I inherited from the generations of broken women in my family. Thank you for putting your work into the world. And I can't wait to read your next book.
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Credit: My book, my camera phone, my wife's blanket. Cat for scale. (Look hard; she's there.)