Feminism, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Jamie Killen, Karin Heimdahl, Lucy Pearce, Mirrors Podcast, Morality, Philosophy, Podcast Review, Podcasting, Sarah Hemmi, Sarah Rhea Warner, Science Fiction, Trans Movement, ZoomDoom Stories
[The following contains spoilers.]
Mirrors is an audiodrama from Texas that is written by Jamie Killen. There are three seasons of it and it had finished for good last December. The podcast describes itself as a “sci-fi ghost story” although in truth “feminist” is always the biggest label across the trunk. A lot of the uniqueness of this podcast nonetheless comes from how it is for a time drifting noncommitally between genres.
Its opening gambit is to pose as a ghost story. There are three women, each stationed in different centuries (the twentieth, the twenty-first and the twenty-second.) Helen Ashford (Lucy Pearce) is working at a Massachusetts research facility in the 1960s; Sierra Haraway (Killen) is a kind of “architectural historian” in 2018; whilst Z (Sarah Hemmi) is an archaeologist who has been sent to excavate the Houston flood basin by the corporatocracy of her own time. Each woman is haunted by what they initially consider to be apparitions:
It didn’t have a clearly defined shape, this ghost. More like a tall, vague shadow. But its shape suggested someone in long, loose clothing. Maybe a nightgown, or a long shapeless dress. It was pale, and slightly translucent. I couldn’t make out any facial features. In fact, I think it was wearing some kind of veil, something covering the face.
Although this sounds like a common-as-garden grey lady from any English manor house, we grow quickly alert to the sterile quality of these ghosts. Their long “crackling” fingers is supposedly an errant detail, which remains unreported in all previous ghost stories, but in fact everything about the ghosts in Mirrors is truanting. They are never frightening. They appear and wander blankly about up ahead, rather like livestock on a country road. And it is here that the listener has to make a decision – do they stay or do they go? Are they disappointed with these alien, inoffensive spooks – ghosts of ghosts, as it were – or do they instead recommit to Mirrors once it has retreated tactically as a ghost story, in its new manoeuvre as a science-fiction narrative?
The format of Mirrors, with its interwoven monologues, vaguely recalls that of Sylvia Plath’s radio play Three Women (1962). As the stories of the women in Mirrors become ever more wrapped up in each other, to the exclusion of everything else, and as the women come to gel improbably as a community, an interest arises and a suspense begins to pulse. Will these women ever succeed in climactically breaking down the partitions within their story and speaking directly to each other?
There are problems with the format too. It inclines naturally towards repetition, with the general sameness of these women, in their outlook and sensibility, offering little to disrupt their threefold (and eventually fourfold) reiteration of what is happening. One could not imagine these characters ever meeting and having an argument. Needless to say, a story in which all of the characters always agree with each other is never going to possess much dynamism as a drama. Although the women are confined to different historical periods, they come to increasingly resemble the users of some remote online forum in the early twenty-first century, who are communicating obsessively whilst never meeting in person.
Helen and Sierra are meant to be soliloquising into voice recorders, without knowing that they are telling their stories to us, but it is never realistic that they would sound so fluently presentational within private memorandums. One might reply that realism just has to be suspended in order to allow the storytelling to work, but by now these conventions within audiodrama have become irritatingly lazy. More realism would be welcome here; it would bring a dash more grit and seriousness.
We break with the bareness of the monologues with Z, who is equipped with a personal life coach named Eloise (Sarah Rhea Warner) to prompt her. When Matilda Delancey (Karin Heimdahl) pipes up from the nineteenth century, it might appear that the entire format has been derailed, but Z runs Matilda’s “letters” through “a voice synthesizer program” to convert them into recordings. But there is a glitch when Matilda is later overheard outside of her letters and she has exactly the same voice as she had been granted by the synthesizer.
Perhaps Z has since arranged for Matilda to be recorded reading her letters and then she has imposed these recordings over the original synthesized ones. Still, such speculation exposes a weakness within this podcast (and an especial weakness for a “science fiction” story) in that magic is too glibly resorted to as a way of solving problems. It is simply fixed for Z that she can travel back through linear time, just as it is fixed that the characters are allowed to communicate with each other across history. At times, the women uneasily confess that they are unable to cope with time travel’s Pandora’s Box of paradoxes, but the podcast that is stacked behind them also conspicuously ducks this subject. Mirrors appears to want the aesthetic of the famous time-travel podcast ars PARADOXICA without doing anything greatly strenuous to earn it.
The bold proposal that is made by Mirrors is that only women can see ghosts. Throughout history ghosts have been discounted and associated with hysteria, or so it goes, because women have too. This initially carries the hilarious implication that cardinal ghost story authors such as M.R. James, who are today routinely charged with misogyny, were feminist writers all along (just imagine the aghast look on James’ face at hearing this). Yet it is rather that listening to women and taking their visions seriously will lead to the irreproachably rational insight that there is no such thing as ghosts. The “Explorers” are neither frightening nor spirits of the dead. Being frightened of them is conceivably, in fact, a misogynistic reflex. The Explorers are living, physical, extra-dimensional beings.
Sierra reasons that:
I’m pretty sure they’ve been here as long as we have. I don’t know how that’s possible, us sharing the planet with another intelligent species for this long without knowing about it, but if being able to see them so rare, then, I don’t know. Maybe.
The feminist innuendo is being clearly howled by this point. But note that not all women can actually see the Explorers. However villainous eugenics is declared to be during Mirrors, a perception of the Explorers is an inherited genetic superiority that is confined solely to an elite of sensitive women, one that might mirror, incidentally, the leadership of any wave of feminism.
Although Mirrors only briefly raises the issue of trans identification once, the entire story is actually a product of the crisis that trans activism has plunged the feminist movement into. Feminism had previously waged that biology was not destiny – that women should be liberated from the random stereotypes and social roles that history had assigned them – but trans activism had soon required the capitulation that biology is actually destiny. Now, because individuals who are biologically male can identify as feminine, being female must logically entail more than simply harbouring the old female sexual organs and hormones. A problem inevitably arises when one demands details about the forms that this female essentialism is supposed to take.
Mirrors shows the extent of the crisis by being only ready to answer this question in a way that is totally fictional. Being able to see the Explorers confirms that there is indeed some innate, essential quality to being female, and one that is unconnected to sexual biology. Furthermore, this essentialism corresponds with obviously superior values, such as benevolence, wisdom, and caring for the environment (which is what the Explorers represent). But unhappily this essentialism is also, outside of the podcast, a fantasy – something that is unreal and supernatural. The hopelessness of this supreme ideological reconciliation is that the Explorers remain a wistful pipedream. They just do not exist.
In clinging so fervently to this artificial solution, the feminism in Mirrors is left looking ever more irrelevant and silly. If the Explorers are some purified essence of femininity, with their superb wisdom and benevolence, then masculinity, in excluding these values, is classified by default as being cartoonishly negative. Almost all of the men in the story are unimaginative, insensitive, trite, and materialistic. It aids this slander that no man is ever allowed to speak in Mirrors and that the only decent man in the story, Matilda’s lover Liam MacNair, is expediently killed off before he can plunge the fantasy that men are basically subhuman into logical turmoil. Otherwise, corporations, power, the economy, even linear time itself, are all equated with a destructive masculinity. Mirrors has here ventured some way beyond the normal pain threshold of reductio ad absurdum.
It is amusing to imagine the flipside of Mirrors, a story in which no female characters are ever allowed to speak and in which a lot of men sit around boasting about how wise and sensitive they are, as an innate gender superiority. Killen might reply that this is a more or less a description of the Sherlock Holmes stories or of any Jules Verne novel. She has just disappeared through the looking glass.