This is Role Monsters, a series on monstrous female archetypes by Jess Zimmerman.
Myth and folklore teem with frightening women: man-seducers and baby-stealers, menacing witches and avenging spirits, rapacious bird-women and all-devouring forces of nature. In our stories and our culture, we underline the idea that women who step out of bounds—who are angry or greedy or ambitious, who are overtly sexual or insufficiently sexy—aren’t just outside the norm: They’re monstrous. Women often try to tamp down those qualities that we’re told violate “natural” femininity. But what if we embraced our inner monsters?
I fought a chimera once. It wasn’t in real life, although there are real-life chimeras of a kind; it was in the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. The D&D chimera is a type of creature with a lion, a dragon, and a goat head side by side; the mythical Chimera it’s based on had a lion head in front, a goat in the middle, and a snake (sometimes a dragon) at the back, and there was only ever one of her. This chimera caught our D&D party by surprise, but we were good fighters and we held our own. We lopped off its heads—first the lion, then the dragon—until it was basically just a funny-looking goat. Then we tied it to a railing and left it alone. What harm is a funny-looking goat going to do?
This was a mistake. It’s comforting to imagine that you can tame a mass of contradictions by slicing off the ones that don’t belong. But a chimera with its heads cut off isn’t a goat. It’s just a chimera that’s also bloody and mad.
Many monsters of antiquity combine multiple beasts, or multiple copies of the same animal mashed together: Chimera’s sibling Cerberus is a dog that is really three dogs, and her mother Echidna is a half-woman, half-snake. But Chimera’s makeup is so haphazard, so jarring, that she alone has become the shorthand for irreducible complexity. When an organism contains two kinds of genetically distinct cells, for instance—because of grafting in a plant, perhaps, or because of mammalian zygotes combining in the womb—we don’t call it a genetic echidna, or a genetic cerberus. We call it a genetic chimera.
The creatures that make up Chimera should never be able to even live side by side. She’s like a walking game of Rock-Paper-Scissors; eventually the lion must eat the goat, the goat trample the snake, the snake sting the lion. Her triple self is in permanent tension, both threatened and saved by its own multiplicity: Her parts can’t quite destroy each other, but they also can’t get away.
Weddings often feature a lot of rhetoric about two people becoming one, or sharing a life, or building a life together. Mine did not. Our readings quoted Rilke: “Each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude.” We didn’t have a first dance, but it could have been Dar Williams’s “In Love But Not At Peace”: “I’ll stay in my body and you’ll stay in your own, ’cause we know that we’re born and we’re dying alone.” At home we slept under separate blankets, so we didn’t have to worry about sharing. I didn’t let him open my closet; I would only grudgingly share the trunk of my car, even after his became undriveable.
I am typically generous with my belongings. This hoarding wasn’t about selfishness; it was about protection. Being married, knowing someone who was willing to marry me, was the only real proof I could point to that I was an acceptable person—or anyway that someone would accept me, had accepted me. This felt fragile and precious, a veneer of approval I could crack just by moving wrong, let alone manifesting extra heads. Now that someone had pledged to love what he could see, it was vital that he never be allowed to see what he couldn’t love.
Those private spaces—my closet, my car, the solitary bundle I made of myself in my solitary blanket—weren’t hiding places for any real secrets, just personal mess. But they represented places into which I could tuck lion teeth or dragon fire, anything about myself that would crack that veneer of adequacy and show all my unflattering angles. Being married meant presenting a simple, appealing face—a domesticated face—to the world. To be lovable was to be uncomplicated. To be lovable when complicated was to stay unknown.
Human chimeras often don’t find out until they’re grown, if they find out at all. In the course of a routine medical exam they may discover they have two different blood types. An extra organ might show up on a scan, an organ that had gone unnoticed for decades. Sometimes human chimeras don’t find out until they fail parentage tests for their own children, who have the DNA from some lost zygote instead. It’s amazing how long irregularities can go unnoticed because they’re so deep inside, because they never come to bear. Of course we wouldn’t imagine, until faced with overwhelming evidence, that we’re anything but singular and steady.
Women, especially, are supposed to be consistent. The flighty, fickle woman, the town bike or the tease, is a stereotype precisely because the expectation is for women to be absolutely reliable and staid. We are supposed to settle down—into a marriage and a family, yes, but also into a solid crystalline structure that can support the weight of that family and marriage. A dragon isn’t the dowry anyone wants. If we have wilder hearts, if we have parts and pieces that break the structure, that don’t fit, that won’t be tamed, the question becomes: How deep can we bury them? How long can we pretend?
Our concept of the stable relationship, the stable family, relies on the stable unchanging female backbone. And yet women with two X chromosomes are chimeric, containing two genetically distinct types of cells. Because we only need the genes from one X chromosome, and most women (and other people considered female at birth) have at least two, each of our cells randomly chooses one X to express and one to pack away unused. We’re not, by the strictest definition, genetic chimeras; for the most part, we come from a single fertilized egg, not two. But we are genetic collages, phenotypic patchworks in which the gene expression of one cell may not match that of the next.
This is the reason why calico and tortoiseshell cats are almost always female. Their patchy patterns actually come from random combinations of active and inactive X chromosomes. For double-X humans, our motley nature is usually less obvious. But we’re mostly genetic calicos: every cell hosting a dormant sister, every cell with the echo of what it could have been. Inside each of us, another animal, sleeping.
I amputated the overwrought feelings that other people thought were abrasive, bagged them up, shoved them into the back of my private closet. The political fervor that made my husband kick me under the table was toned down or compartmentalized, not brought out in public. The negativity that had periodically annoyed everyone who ever knew me was blunted and sheared of its burrs. “Jess is mercurial,” my father said in his speech at my wedding, in contrast to my husband who was stable as the earth. It was a sweet speech, actually, but my friends looked at me and furrowed their brows. Mercurial? How?
I didn’t write or talk about my interior life much back then; I preferred to present myself as someone with thoughts but not feelings, which makes sense when your feelings are a mass of secret snakes. When I talked to friends, I talked in jokes.
But it takes a lot of energy to subdue a lion and a dragon, and what you end up with won’t be a goat forever. For me, it leaked out in long chat and email conversations with people I barely knew, in which I would finally vomit up all my frustrations, shake out my fangs and mane where it was safe. And once the inner beasts started splitting the skin, it never quite closed up right.
I’d tried to maintain the delicate illusion of stability and domesticity—to protect the people around me, and to protect my sense that some version of me could be loved. But what eventually got in the car and left was a fully-fledged monster.
The Chimera of myth may have her origins in a mountain studded with eternal flames. Several historians cite a “Mount Chimera,” which played host to lions, goats, and snakes—and, like the monster, had its own fiery breath. The geothermally active area of Yanartaş in Turkey fits the bill. Its methane flames spurt forth continuously from the rock, steady enough for hikers to boil tea on. They’ve been burning for thousands of years.
This practice, of reducing mythology down to real people and places and events, goes by the lovely name of “euhemerism.” There’s no way to know for sure whether a euhemerizing explanation is the “real” story behind the origins of a myth—but it makes some intuitive sense for Chimera to be something vast and geological, a mountain instead of a monster. Vast things can be various and not tear themselves to pieces; a continent can host many biomes and still be solid ground under your feet.
But a woman is not a continent, and we’re not supposed to be so manifold. From the genetic cacophony of our birth we are expected to forge a simple, predictable self, pushing down any elements that aren’t in harmony. There’s something seismic about the upheaval that comes when the selves you’ve always ignored insist on being born. Sometimes, to fledge yourself, you have to shrug off everything that rests on top of you.
A year before I left, there was an actual earthquake in my town, the first one most of us on the East Coast had ever experienced. Nobody was seriously hurt; in my house, almost nothing even fell over. But it was existentially unsettling to realize that the earth can shift under you at any time, that what we think of as “earth” is actually just the very outer facade of something turbulent and strange. It may stay quiescent long enough to fool you, but at every moment the earth has deeper and noisier roots than we know.
We East Coasters had forgotten, in our decades of life on tame ground, that we live on a tenuous shell, a thin coat of paint on top of grinding rock and molten rock and metal. That’s what the earth is, really—not the solid unmoving landscape, but the clashing stones and fire. When you recognize that, you can live in harmony with the danger—not perfectly, but better. You can build in a way that shifts with the rolling ground. When you’re unprepared, the slightest tremor can ruin you.
It would have been easier if my ex-husband was the monster, instead of me. If he’d been hurtful, if he’d betrayed me, I could have walked away clean—not emotionally unscarred, of course, but clean in conscience.
But the only thing he did wrong was to believe in the simple, single person I thought I could be. He didn’t even ask me to tuck away my teeth and claws. He just didn’t notice I was hiding them. Why would he? We’re accustomed to presenting ourselves as straightforward and satisfiable—so accustomed that we don’t even always realize there’s more until it starts to roil under our skin. What looks like a single creature is two, or more. What looks like a solid mountain is pitted with fire.
When you’ve spent all your life smothering your contradictions, their eruption can undo you. If you’re lucky, you have the leisure to be undone, to make yourself new: an adolescent monster. You learn to take tentative steps on your strange new paws. But it’s not being a chimera that confounds you—most of us are born that way. It’s the reeducation, after years spent simplified. If you’d always been allowed to be plural, strange, contradictory, imagine how strong you’d be: all the majesty of a lion, all the utility of a goat, all the harmony of an irreducible creature whose internal tension is a scaffold that supports it.
Chimera’s fiery breath was her downfall. For untold amounts of time, it had kept everyone who sought to harm her at bay. Then Bellerophon, mounted on winged Pegasus, plunged a lead-tipped spear down her throat from above. Her own breath melted the lead and killed her.
But on the slopes of Yanartaş, on Mount Chimera, hikers boil their tea atop the flames. With self-knowledge, with the courage of its contradictions, even a monster can do good.