Is Typhoid Mary Bad Enough for You?

Blog: What's the Big Idea?

Is Typhoid Mary Bad Enough for You?

In my novel The Prisoner of Hell Gate — and perhaps in real life — Typhoid Mary is what we call a sympathetic monster. Yes, she did bad things. Yes, she was a bad person. But was she all bad? And what made her bad? If we allow some pity into our assessment of her, we might understand (without condoning) her motivations.

One of my goals for the novel, in fact, was to get away from the historical caricature of Typhoid Mary and delve into the psychological forces that made her so contemptuous. After her nemesis George A. Soper caught her the first time, she might have cooperated and received less harsh treatment. Instead she doubled down and continued to behave quite abominably. Why?

I don’t know for sure. We will never know for sure. But I think her pride got wrapped up with her notions of independence and identity, and after that she just couldn’t back down.

But I’ve learned since the book’s release that the idea of a sympathetic monster deeply unsettles some people. They wish to see the world as black and white. Or, at least, they wish to see bad people in the world as being all bad.

One exchange with a prospective reader really intrigued me. In a blog post, I’d written that “Mary Mallon, much to her consternation, had the name Typhoid Mary imposed on her — leading to the loss of her independence.”

This struck me as a pretty straightforward statement of fact. While her actions may have earned her a denigrating label, Mary Mallon didn’t decide to call herself Typhoid Mary any more than the first Queen Mary would have chosen to call herself, as she later came to be known, Bloody Mary. In Mary Mallon’s case, the name was imposed upon her by newspapers of the time indulging in yellow journalism. Once the epithet stuck, it likely made her subsequent punishment more intense.

But the person who objected to my characterization of Mary refused to let this logic dent the armor of her righteous indignation. She wrote to remind me of all the terrible things Mary did — as if I didn’t know — as if this changes anything from Mary’s point of view.

It turns out this person came from a family of medical professionals. Perhaps with such a deep stake in saving people (and in modern hygiene), she couldn’t accept the idea that someone who does the opposite might yet be a fully rounded human being.

Remember, we are not discussing what Mary should have done; we’re discussing why she did what she did and how the epithet Typhoid Mary in some sense caused her to stoop to that terrible name.

I believe you can see the monster in Mary and still extend her an ounce of sympathy, remembering that — in novels and in life — everyone has a rationale, even the bad guys.

We are all potential angels and we are all potential monsters. And while a few saints and a few utter psychopaths walk among us, most normal behavior falls on a spectrum. The killer’s actions aren’t confined to killing. The hero isn’t always a nice person. That’s what makes us human. Good or bad? It’s a matter of degree.

When they succeed, novels conjure empathy for other human beings. So if you see the world as black and white, here’s my prescription: Read more novels.

An encouraging observation about the portrayal of Mary Mallon in my novel came from an NPR reviewer who wrote that “the looming question about Typhoid Mary — was she a villain, a victim, or something more complex? — is handled with eerie grace.”

I’d love to hear what you think of Typhoid Mary and her monstrousness. Drop me a line, a Facebook comment or a tweet!

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