Content note: this post discusses infertility and traumatic injury.
On the 27th of September, Isabel has her second appointment with Dr Daragh Vernant.
This scene gives us more of Isabel’s backstory – the stories behind some of her scars, for example. As I told you a few days ago, originally this conversation came in her first appointment, and was much more detailed, but I have no regrets about all the details I cut there. Sometimes, less is more, and it’s certainly more believable when it comes to how much Isabel would disclose to a near-stranger about her upbringing.
Nobody asked me what I thought. This small, terse remark that Isabel makes about her infertility is all we really need to know about her feelings on the matter. She’s not upset about not being able to have children – but she does mind the circumstances that led to that being true, and the denial of her bodily autonomy.
This was important to me, and it’s also one of the more spiteful details in the book. Sometimes, I confess, I’m inspired by other works not because I liked them, but because I didn’t, or because something about them annoyed me and I decided to write my own. In this case, it was Age of Ultron, and specifically, Age of Ultron’s treatment of Natasha Romanoff.
For those who never saw the film, or somehow managed to forget about this detail, it emerges during Age of Ultron that ‘graduation’ from the Red Room, where Natasha was trained as an assassin, involved forced sterilisation. We learn this around the same time that Natasha is making it clear she considers herself a ‘monster’, and I have to say, the film very much made it feel like these two facts were related.
I will never judge anyone who struggles with fertility issues for how they feel about that: whether they’re devastated or relieved, whether they feel it as a burden or it never bothers them at all. But I will judge a movie that threw it in as part of a character’s traumatic backstory in such a haphazard and, dare I say it, unconvincing way. Natasha’s grief for her infertility could have been handled well – but it wasn’t.
And I don’t doubt that the Red Room would have sterilised the women it trained: controlling people’s reproductive capabilities is usually step one in owning and controlling them, and an unexpected pregnancy could cost them a valuable asset at a crucial moment. (Which is why it makes sense that others would have made those decisions for Isabel, without consulting her; it’s part of a broader spectrum of being denied bodily autonomy.)
But making it their ‘graduation’, making it the culmination of all that training… frankly, to me, that reeks of misogynistic storytelling, undermining the fact that these are highly-trained women. It implies that their infertility is the crucial thing qualifying them as assassins, and not the rest of their training. And I hated that, both for how it undermined Natasha’s skills, and for what it implies more generally about infertility.
So. This detail of Isabel’s past, this throwaway moment that was only one small thing in a lifetime of being controlled and trained in others, this detail that doesn’t define her, that hardly even bothers her except that it left her with a scar – this was, in large part, a reaction against Age of Ultron.
It was also because I wanted to write a character for whom infertility wasn’t a tragedy, just a fact of life. This isn’t to suggest that it’s never a tragedy – for many people, it is a cause of grief – but that thwarted desire to have children seemed to be the only narrative about these things I ever saw, and I wanted to write a character whose only reaction was, “Yeah, well, wish it hadn’t happened like that, but oh well…”
It also means, because Isabel lost her ovaries specifically, that she needs to take hormones. Isabel’s HRT is only mentioned a couple of times in the trilogy, but sometimes I feel like it’s a crucial detail, in a story about an apparently cis girl written by a trans author. I joked in the NaNo London discord a few weeks back that Isabel’s assigned gender was “assassin”, and her actual gender is “girl”. I’m not sure I was actually joking, though. She wasn’t raised to be a girl; she was raised to be a killer. She wasn’t expected to become a woman; she was expected to become a weapon.
Her infertility is, perhaps, part of that; while her womanhood wouldn’t have been defined by her ovaries in any case, the utilitarian “yeet it all” approach that her parents took to her reproductive system when she was injured shows that they were never interested in allowing her to make those choices for herself, nor did they value her body in that way. They wanted a weapon, and this was one small step in their journey to making one.
So perhaps you could, in the end, read Isabel as a trans girl who was nevertheless assigned female at birth: she is trying to reclaim her girlhood, become a woman and not a tool, and because of how her body was perceived and used by others, she needs to take HRT as part of that.
I don’t know. It wasn’t an intentional metaphor or allegory; I’d have done it less clumsily if it was. But this book is certainly a story about becoming something you were never expected to be, and having to fight for the bodily autonomy to do it. And that is an experience that resonates for trans people.
Talking of experiences that resonate, let’s jump back a second to the symptoms and test results Isabel discusses with Daragh. Vitamin deficiencies, white blood cells going haywire, immune system eating itself, etc etc. Nasty work, this poison she’s facing. Also something that can happen without the intervention of poison, though – when it came to the autoimmune symptoms Isabel faces, I took a lot of inspiration from real conditions like Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).
I do not, thankfully, have MCAS, but I do have an immune system that likes to overreact to small – and often harmless – triggers. MCAS is like if you took that and dialled it up to eleven, and it’s bad. I know a number of people who suffer from it; if you’ve ever heard of somebody being “allergic to sunlight”, they probably had MCAS. Mast cells are the cells responsible for allergic reactions – for example, when somebody allergic to nuts is exposed to them and goes into anaphylaxis, that’s due to the activation of the mast cells. This is already not great, but it’s when they start going haywire and activating without an allergy trigger that things start going really wrong.
A lot of autoimmune conditions can also wreak havoc on your ability to absorb vitamins, or deplete your body’s existing stores of them, causing nasty forms of anaemia or other misery. This is also not great, especially because things like B12 deficiency can be enough to kill you on their own, let alone when combined with other things…
I spend a reasonable amount of time in chronic illness communities online – often not intentionally, I don’t seek out forums for it, but birds of a feather flock together and I’ve wound up with a higher-than-average number of chronically ill people in my immediate social circle and among my online friends and acquaintances. As such, many of Isabel’s symptoms are drawn directly from reality, even if the cause is different. Sometimes, I was extrapolating from my own experiences; more often, I didn’t need to use my imagination, because I would know somebody whose condition was ten times worse, and I could see exactly what that looked like.
I’m not a scientist, so I don’t always understand the exact mechanisms behind autoimmune things, and I’m not an expert in poisons (despite all my sketchy research). But I do know what it’s like when the immune system goes wrong. I’ve had it happen, I’ve seen it happen to friends, and I know that bodies can become a threat to themselves in a way that many healthy people don’t. It’s that knowledge of illness, rather than any medical study, that allows me to write these moments with Isabel and Daragh.
Daragh, in these scenes, is extremely careful to respect Isabel’s autonomy and obtain her consent before he acts; when juxtaposed with the details of her past, we can see why she would be both drawn to that and suspicious of it. He also still hasn’t revealed his sources of information, but he does reveal that he’s familiar with the name of her father’s lab: Parnassiinae.
One of three forming Comma’s biological and chemical weapons development division, and the most notorious of them. From my notes about Comma code names:
Individual weapons developers don’t have codenames as such, but labs do. There are 3 poison / nerve agent teams, which are each named after a subfamily of papilionidae butterflies. There are 4 major ballistics/explosives designers, and their workshops are named after subfamilies of pieridae butterflies etc. Weapons and poisons are therefore known by the code name of lab that produced them.
And, on the previous page, we had a list of Comma’s departments:
- Pieridae. Weapons dev: ballistics, explosives etc
- Papilionidae. Weapons dev: poisons, nerve agents etc.
- Nymphalidae. Field agents / contract killers (internal and external).
- Lycaenidae. Intelligence: codes, research etc
- Riodinidae. High level admin including lawyers, accountants.
- Hesperiidae. Medical and education.
- Hedylidae. Adjacents (manufacturing, logistics, janitorial staff, teachers for schools rather than training, IT staff, low-level admin, locksmiths, etc)
(Any misspellings are because I can’t read my own handwriting.)
Are these names the direct result of me spending too long on a Wikipedia page about butterfly taxonomy? Absolutely, and only a couple of them are ever mentioned on the page, nor is there a great deal of logic about which department is given which name – although one or two of them did involve some clever symbolism, I believe, which of course I now don’t remember at all and cannot point out to you.
Sometimes people say to me, “So, do you know a lot about butterflies now?” And the answer is… no. Well, I know a lot more than I did before, but that’s only because I was starting from zero. I still don’t know anything useful about butterflies, I just have slightly more scientific terminology rattling around in my brain. I can identify a few on sight, especially commas; I can tell you that the butterfly on the cover of The Butterfly Assassin is a swallowtail. Beyond that, though, no, I don’t know a great deal about them. We are purely using them for aesthetics over here.
But I do know a lot more about Comma’s internal structures than is ever on the page. And that is the important part.
There are just two more things I want to say about these chapters. First, when Daragh removes the poison pellet and Isabel thinks that, although it’s small, a grain of polonium far smaller than that would have been dangerous, that’s an echo of the fact that there was a draft in which she was suffering from polonium poisoning specifically. I changed it, because there was too small a chance that she would actually survive that 😅
Secondly, in this chapter we learn that Grace is a freelance poisoner, specialising in antidotes and nonlethal poisons. Grace has always been a poisoner, but wasn’t always freelance – in the early drafts, she worked for Hummingbird, and didn’t tell Isabel this. She finds out from Toni, instead:
Toni folds her arms. “Graham Whittock is Hummingbird,” she says.
As if that’s a surprise. “He told me.”
“He told you and you’re still taking lessons from him?”
“He told me his mother was Hummingbird but he left when he was fifteen. He wasn’t trained.”
“He lied. He’s Hummingbird through and through.”
It’s another punch in the stomach, but Isabel’s too bruised to care. “He doesn’t look athletic enough,” she says eventually, when she’s processed this idea.
“He was a poisoner. Like your father.”
One day, I promise, I will finish writing the Grace-centric short story I was playing around with, which talks about how she became a poisoner and her motivations for doing so. But for now, this post is long enough, so it’s time I stepped back and gave you the floor.
How did these chapters with Daragh make you feel? There’s a lot of trauma and backstory coming out – did it help you to understand Isabel better, or had you already guessed the bulk of it? And if, like me, you’re chronically ill and tired of inconclusive blood tests and GP visits… what would you do to have a doctor like Daragh? Because I have to say, he is definitely wish-fulfilment for me…