In the early 1700s, a woman named Mary Toft—who is always described as illiterate and impoverished—gave birth, after a miscarriage, to seventeen rabbits, plus some rabbit and other animal parts. At first, leading physicians took the births as a manifestation of “maternal impression” (an explanation for birth defects based on what the mother experienced when pregnant, i.e., Mary Toft saw a rabbit and craved rabbit meat during her pregnancy), but Mary Toft confessed that it was a hoax after being threatened with painful experimental surgery. The episode has been explained as Mary Toft creating a hoax to obtain attention and notoriety, being manipulated by her husband, the organ grinder’s wife, and/or her mother-in-law, or being a pawn as venerated aristocratic doctors tried to take advantage of her at a time when male physicians sought to replace female midwives. She was imprisoned for a few months, exhibited as a curiosity, and, at her death, her parish described her as “Widow, the Impostress Rabbitt.”
I find this story enthralling, whether I see Mary Toft as a pawn or a master manipulator—or something in between. (A male writer who recently published a novel about the incident said that Mary Toft would not make a good narrator of his book because she was not narratively interesting. I leave that without comment.)
I’d read about Mary Toft before and when I decided to do a series of “monstrous baby” stories, I did more research. While Mary Toft’s story raises issues of class, misogyny, sensationalism, and self-aggrandizement, all issues valid today, I wanted to concentrate on motherhood: fertility, difficulties, compartmentalization, and ambivalence. In other words, while Mary Toft sparked the idea for this story, it is certainly not a retelling of the story.
(What else do I know about rabbits? Watership Down, the White Rabbit who leads Alice to Wonderland, the Velveteen rabbit, the old version of pregnancy tests sacrificing a rabbit, the paella I ate one night on a patio of a San Francisco restaurant. I really don’t know that much about rabbits, but that didn’t stop me from writing about them.)
In this story, I aimed to create a world where it’s quite normal to birth a rabbit. I wanted to throw the reader right into a disorienting situation—and what can be more disorienting than starting in the middle of a sentence, as if the reader has landed in the middle of a scene that’s already started without them? Childbirth, too, is disorienting, entering into a liminal state where your body is not yours, but in the hands of hormones that you don’t have control over, the pain, the small mewing being that’s pushed out of you like something both foreign and familiar. How can anyone not feel like their past and future have been rendered into pieces, never to be repaired? Maybe that was how Mary Toft felt, when she first decided—or was forced—to birth a rabbit.
LORI SAMBOL BRODY lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Tin House Flash Fridays, New Orleans Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her stories have been chosen for the Wigleaf 50 and the Best Small Fictions 2018 and 2019 anthologies. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.