Mermaids (1990)

Posted on 09. Sep, 2015 by in Nuns, Pre-Vatican II Catholicism

Mermaids takes place within the time of the early 1960s (it starts by setting the year as 1963) and the space of a small town in Massachusetts where single mother Mrs. Flax moves into a house near a convent with her teenage daughter Charlotte and younger daughter Kate. This being the early 1960s, Catholicism is in the media quite a bit, and societal mores are closer to Church-influenced standards of behavior, so women who behave in the sexually-free manner in which Charlotte’s mother Mrs. Flax has been known to do are shamed as sluts. Vatican II is taking place, but it is not mentioned nor are its implications depicted in the movie. This is the time in which JFK, the first Catholic (and so far, the only one) to be an American President is in office, and the media announcement of his assassination, and the public reaction to his death are portrayed towards the end of the movie. Charlotte is initially seen arrayed in dull-colored modest dresses, jumpers, and sweaters typical of what Catholic girls wore at that time period, and soon after the movie opens, following an initial introduction to her swimming star sister, Charlotte is seen in her home’s living room, watching a televised broadcast in black-and-white of the Singing Nun, who is shown in tv footage of the time, garbed in a Dominican habit.
Though the Flax family is nominally Jewish, no religion of any kind is shown to be observed in the home. Charlotte says of her mother and her home environment, “Mrs. Flax doesn’t believe in ritual or tradition but I’ve wanted to repent since the first time I saw a girl with ashes on her forehead cross herself and chant Hail Marys at a spelling bee”. Charlotte at the age of 15 is neurotic, hormonal, and seeks to distinguish her character and behavior from that of her mother by trying to live a life of virtue according to Catholic notions. A little thing like not being Catholic is not enough to stop her. She apparently turns to a religious tradition not her own because she feels a lack of ritual, religion, and order in her life, which is only being exacerbated by her mother’s frequent moves to escape romantic relationships which either implode or become confining. Charlotte is shown reading a copy of the Lives of The Saints, and on different occasions in the movie, tells some of the gory stories found within. (I prefer to focus on the miraculous, luminous, and heroic.)

The Lives of The Saints is worthwhile reading, and to have aspirations of becoming one is probably not too far from traditional Catholicism, but why must she pick stories featuring mortification but not miracles to recount to others?

The Lives of The Saints is worthwhile reading, but why must she pick stories featuring mortification but not miracles to recount to others?


She also is seen to have set up a sort of shrine with a Virgin Mary statue and a Christmas nativity scene in her room and is seen to pray before it and to wear a gold cross. Charlotte owns a surprising number of Catholic items for a minor whose mother is not a religious believer and who appears unsympathetic at times in the movie. Charlotte’s mother is surprisingly indulgent of this aspect of her daughter’s behavior, and thus can hardly be said to be anti-Catholic, though a case can be made that she is amoral. She gives no answers to Charlotte’s questions about her father, leading Charlotte to hide a partial photograph of a man she believes to be her father in a book of sacred music as the only memento she has of him other than some rain boots she constantly wears.
As for Charlotte’s younger sister Kate, perhaps her younger age and her obsession with swimming protect her from such things as being humiliated by her mother’s behavior or society’s censure of it, or concern with her own prospects for romantic relationships and her own conduct as a woman. Charlotte has an unfulfilled craving not only for spirituality, but for stability. In one of her conversations with the divine she says, “I try to be charitable, taking care of Kate, and not killing mother, but, I ask you, whoever heard the word of God going 70 mph on the interstate?”
In the movie, Charlotte, having evidently seen some of the externals of Catholicism, approaches it as an outsider, but apparently, the book from which the movie is derived says that Charlotte seeks out more direct knowledge from the nuns, unlike in the movie, where she is obsessed with asking the nuns embarrassing questions showing her ignorance about their daily lives, but has no direct interaction with them beyond public pleasantries and a visit to the woods around their convent where she watches them playing what appears to be a game of volleyball but does not speak to them let alone ask them questions about what led them to become nuns and what it is like to be a nun.
Mermaids2
One of the people who wrote into Goodreads.com reviewing the book version of Mermaids and explaining how it differs from the movie, says of the book:

There was an interesting chapter in which Charlotte goes to visit the convent to speak to the Mother Superior, who had invited her to come speak to her about anything she wanted if she ever needed to. I thought this might be good for Charlotte to talk about what was going through her head and whatnot, but Mother Superior brought out cookies for them to eat (which was obviously her little addiction), and they sat there and ate cookies the whole time while Mother Superior talked about herself. Patty Dann did an excellent job of writing for Charlotte, she captured Charlotte teenage selfishness and confusion quite well. Even when the president is assassinated it’s really on the periphery of Charlotte’s awareness, despite the fact Charlotte’s one desire is to be a selfless saint.

On the outside looking in.

On the outside looking in.


In the meantime, one of Charlotte’s classmates, a girl who has the conspicuously Catholic name of Mary O’Brien, engages in oral sex outside of school and discusses it with others while in the girls’ bathroom at school. When parent-teacher night arrives, Mary O’Brien is impressed with Charlotte’s mother, who takes care of her looks, has long, thick, black hair, and wears revealing dress; while her own mother is less blessed by good looks, being overweight, with grey hair and glasses. She says to Charlotte: “See that woman right there? That’s my mother and when I grow up… I want to be just like yours”.
Charlotte says, with more than trace amounts of sarcasm and irony; “Mary, you already are”.
Though it may initially seem that Charlotte qualifies as someone who may potentially have actually become a Catholic and even a potential candidate for sainthood through Baptism of Desire, she seems to others to be a victim of deep-seated psychological problems (at least in the view of some of the adults in her life who know of some of her seemingly strange past behavior, such as licking a chalkboard and claiming to have had visions). At the end of the movie, though she wins an argument with her mother, and ultimately succeeds in moderating her family’s lifestyle, she is shown to have turned her interest to Greek mythology, and her mother has turned to telling her “we’re not Greek”; as she once told her “we’re not Catholic”. It is thus implied that Charlotte’s interest in Catholicism was “just a phase” as many parents would say. The trouble is, does Baptism of Desire get rescinded when the interest in Catholicism and virtuous living proves passing?

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