Kristen Arnett’s “With Teeth” Packs a Huge Bite

Kristen Arnett, author of With Teeth (Photo credit: Courtesy of the author)

Children bite. Without fail and at various ages, they bare tiny chiclets of bone and clamp down on a nipple, a toy, a playmate, a piece of clay, or their parents, who sometimes (playfully) bite back. But what happens when a parent bares their teeth, too, sinking into their child’s skin and leaving scars that last a lifetime? That’s the pivotal moment shaping the events in Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth, a novel that explores the desire to be seen, the ways love and violence so often writhe together, and the horror of inescapable self-absorption. Sammie is a gay mom living in Orlando with her handsome wife Monika and their young son, Samson. Since his toddler years—when he happily allowed a stranger to lead him away from the playground—Sammie’s become convinced something sinister underlies Samson’s (seemingly) abnormal behaviors. When he bites other children and develops an obsession with a homemade golden doll of himself, Sammie reacts as though she’s discovered her child is the spawn of Satan.

After 9-year-old Samson bites her, Sammie makes the shocking, split-second decision to bite him back, leaving an imprint of her teeth in his skin. “She wedged them in, deep, and then they were both looking at each other, engaged in some terrible battle to see who’d be the first to let go,” Arnett writes in the tense scene. With this, Sammie makes a pact of secrecy with Samson. In her mind, hiding this act of violence from both Monika and Samson’s therapist gives her and her son control over each other while also bringing them closer together. But Sammie’s proposition merely widens the chasm between them, increasing her paranoia and making it difficult for her to see her own flaws. After biting Samson, Sammie begins imagining herself as a victim of both her wife and her son. But as we learn more about Sammie, we see that her narrative can’t necessarily be trusted, especially when it comes to owning her role in her family’s dysfunction. From there, With Teeth almost has the feel of an “Am I the Asshole?” subreddit. At many points, Sammie is indeed the asshole, but she continues to unsuccessfully seek validation for her flawed perspectives.

There’s an idea that the matriarch holds the key to every family’s archives of truth. She’s the keeper of memories, so when seeking the truth, one must seek her. For Sammie, the opposite is true. Her role as an unreliable narrator is established early on, especially when it comes to Samson, whose behaviors aren’t as malevolent as she imagines. She’s just as complicit—if not more so—as her partner Monika in the obfuscation and muddlement of the truth of their family. But isn’t that the way of life? Does the keeper of memories ever really exist? “Everybody in the household is an unreliable narrator,” Arnett told Bitch. “All families share stories. Sometimes those stories aren’t nice stories. But even a story that wasn’t nice gets turned into something else according to who’s telling it.” As a character, we can’t always trust Sammie’s account of events. But can we trust Monika’s, or Samson’s? In most families, Arnett says, “No one’s giving a true account of what’s happening. It’s too hard to be like, ‘Here’s the truth. And here’s a lie.’ I think it’s usually some mix or hybrid of those things. You’re telling a story of a memory and those things are very much cloaked in how we perceive the other people in our household.”

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But for Sammie, the burden of being a woman who can’t be believed weighs heavy. Her family doesn’t gather happily at her feet to hear her version of their stories. She’s not the moral compass; she’s drifting. In other words, she’s failing to live up to the impossible standard of cisheteronormative motherhood that society has offered her. Her body and psyche have been altered by birth, and she’s isolated in the very home where she feels confined. Is it any wonder her perceived failure in this arena alters her ability to see herself—or anyone else—clearly? There may be no heroes in a family, but the family unit itself becomes the hero we root for. Though Sammie’s family has everything it’s “supposed” to—Samson has a stable home and a good education, and everyone is in therapy—it’s still floundering. Our hero falls down in the first part of the book, and they never get back up.

The proprietary obsession Sammie has with her son is the source of her indifference toward him, but an intense need to control Samson—gained mostly through shaping the narrative about him or marking her ownership over his existence, rather than controlling his behaviors—is magnified after she bites him. As Arnett writes, “She’d see the flash of her own marks imprinted on him, the tattoo of it branding him as her own.” Samson is the center of her life, but the version of Samson she’s created seems like a different person than the version Arnett allows the reader to see. Like the golden doll he carries around, Sammie has made her own son the embodiment of a horror trope, but she’s largely uninterested in him as a person. She freaks when her son rejects being her namesake and requests that his teacher and classmates refer to him as Tommy. She sees his self-assertion as yet another creepy behavior, but it’s actually incredibly common for children—for everyone, really—to experiment with different names as they attempt to express their identity. And for Samson, whose mother regards as a threat, calling himself Tommy might be his way of forcing her to see him beyond her own anxieties and self-involvement. After all, Sammie knows almost nothing about her son.

Even when he’s a teenager, she can recite a litany of his failings or describe the porn he likes to watch, but she still doesn’t know his favorite color. It’s this moment in the book, when Sammie asks Samson about his favorite color in a misguided attempt to bond and he reacts with disbelief at her lack of knowledge, that Arnett describes as the second, less pivotal moment for Sammie—the first being her snap decision to bite her son and hide the truth. “There was this moment where she could have said, ‘I really have fucked up in some ways. My kid has shared stuff with me, and maybe I just haven’t listened. Maybe I’m very complicit in the fact that my relationship is fractured with him,” Arnett says. “But instead, she kind of chooses to go about that situation in a way where she’s very self-pitying. She’s like, ‘It makes me feel bad that I don’t know anything about him,’ instead of saying, ‘I do want to know more about you. You’re right. I’m sorry.”

No one’s giving a true account of what’s happening.

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It’s Sammie’s frustrating tendency to always choose the most myopic path or point of view that Arnett says is “fascinating,” and makes for a “very messy character.” It’s ironic that Sammie’s desire to be seen is so shamefully obvious to everyone she comes across because many of them do see her; they simply don’t like what they see. Her desire to be seen makes her a voyeur into others’ lives, where she transposes her own anxieties and desires onto them. She creepily hangs out in her neighbor’s backyard, reads her wife Monika’s love letters from another woman after they separate, and snoops through Samson’s room. Even when we zoom out from these vignettes, we still don’t move past Sammie. We’re simply introduced to different ways of seeing her, of doubting her, which only intensifies the claustrophobia. We’re not only living in Sammie’s home, her family, and her mind—we’re also reading a “call is coming from inside the house” novel, though the book begins with a stranger attempting to abduct Samson from a park. As the book progresses, Arnett says that terror “quickly kind of turns on its head. The ‘scary’ stuff that’s happening is all happening inside the family.”

Sammie frequently mourns the life she and Monika had before they began to take on the trappings of an existence more associated with a cisheteronormative script—first marriage, then a house in the Orlando suburbs, and then parenthood. Arnett, who has lived in Orlando all her life, says queer families are often “not set up for success” in the mostly conservative state of Florida. “I wanted this book to be about gay moms, but I wanted it to be about gay moms who are failing in kind of important ways,” she says. “Finding your own community, building your own kind of family…what does that look like when you introduce kind of heteronormative stuff, like getting married and deciding to have children, and those decisions don’t fit in with this kind of queerness that’s available to you? If that community disappears, what would that feel like?”

With Teeth by Kristen Arnett (Photo credit: Riverhead Books)

Arnett portrays her hometown as a unique literary world full of queer people, but the community spaces don’t reflect the population, perhaps because of the state’s politics. “It’s very difficult to find spaces [in Orlando],” Arnett says. “There were like three gay bars there. Pulse happened. Then there were two.” When asked if Sammie and Monika have possibly been failed in some ways by their previous queer community—built before their marriage, home, and son—Arnett says that’s “just asking too much of a community that’s like already kind of struggling.” You have to consider the threat of violence in the region and how Sammie and Monika figure out which places are safe for queer couples. And yes, Sammie’s self-pity about her lack of community can be frustrating because, as Arnett says, the character can be passive, merely allowing things to happen to her instead of seeking out what she wants. But what is there for her to seek, exactly? Even taking into account the character’s self-involvement, it’s easy to see that opportunities for queer community are extremely limited for her and her family, including Monika, whom Sammie perceives as existing effortlessly.

But with each step they take into this world, Sammie, Monika, and Samson become more isolated and yet more visible—an island unto themselves contained in a cage, with everyone walking past and smudging sticky fingers against the glass. Perhaps that’s why it’s impossible for Sammie to believe she isn’t invisible. She’s surrounded by people, yet so tragically alone. And doesn’t that feel like a sort of madness? Feeling unbelieved, as if she might be “crazy,” is a consistent form of distress for Sammie, one that makes Arnett give her character a moment of “catharsis.” Because as unreliable a character as Sammie is, the reader knows she’s not a liar. Within her narrative of events is some kind of truth, and within her experiences is a denial of that truth. We just can’t pinpoint where. Many writers who create unreliable characters or obscured truths have a fixed version of their world’s reality contained within their heads, inaccessible to the reader but always known to the author. Arnett doesn’t. “Every time I think about how families work or what truth is, my feelings about different parts of the book change,” she says. “It’s not a static feeling, which is in keeping with how I feel about household narratives.”

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by Nylah Burton
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Nylah Burton is a writer and sexual assault prevention specialist based in Washington, D.C. She covers topics related to mental health, health, climate justice, social justice, and identity. Nylah also has bylines in New York Magazine, Zora, ESSENCE, The Nation, Jewish Currnts, Lilith Magazine, and Alma, among others. You can follow Nylah on Twitter @yumcoconutmilk.