The Lovely Bones: Death’s Transformation


"Without the Mysteries …
Bios – life itself – would become abiotos, unlivable."

Mother and Daughter

This is a story of Mothers and Daughters as much as anything else. About Susie and her mother, but also the mother and her mother – Susie’s grandmother – and the long and tortured process through which each comes to find the other. For in a very real sense, the daughter is the mother.

It is the Mother’s life trajectory which the film follows: from the excitement of young love and the beginnings of her family, the unanticipated – and deadening – effect of marriage upon her youthful aspirations, the iron grip of the role accorded to her as suburban wife and mother, the horror of contending with her daughter’s abduction and death, which ultimately leads to her decision to leave the confines of a stalled relationship to embark on a journey, one that largely occurs out-of-frame, probably because it is hers and hers alone. Despite the demands or wishes of others including her husband, she follows her heart, seeking to divine a meaning that can give sense to it all.

In this vein, it’s worth noting that the myth of Demeter and Persephone is less about the abducted maiden than the travails of a mother stricken by her child’s awful fate. About a mother who roams the world in search of her daughter who was taken, railing against the gods and adamantly refusing her gift of grain until the day she is finally reunited with the one whose absence she mourns.

And in that story, Demeter experiences a series of events that parallel the fate of her daughter, including a rape at the hands of one who would presume to take what isn’t his to own. By Poseidon – earth-shaker and god of the ocean – who in the form of a stallion, forces himself on the bereaved woman disguised as a mare. In other words, in seeking out her daughter, the Mother comes to be to subject to the very horrors experienced by the child, deepening her understanding of what was done to the daughter and, as a consequence, magnifying her rage.

The Dreaded Inheritance

Which is not to say that their relationship was a bed of roses from the beginning. Far from it. This is, after all, how we come to see Susie balking at the gift dangling before her face, her maternal inheritance. It’s not something she wants. In fact, to take it as her own is considered nothing short of an exercise in humiliation.

If we allow ourselves pause, this should come as no surprise; neither should it be chalked up to the reticence of rebellious teenager. For we have already witnessed the kind of relationship that has congealed between Mother and daughter, one in which the girl’s passions are tolerated, at best, or squashed  in their entirety. And if Susie were to take the elder as her model, she would be confronted by a most awful lesson: tied up in an apron, her life would amount to nothing other than that of a beautiful ornament attending to the needs of others.

And if Sebold’s novel can be taken as a guide, it is one in which Mother comes to be trapped by the persona handed out to all women of her time. For only on rare occasions when she believed she wasn’t watched, like the time Susie happened upon her on the back porch one early morning, without makeup. For it was another woman with whom she was confronted: discovering that her mother was a stranger.


By the end, the estrangement between mothers and daughters finds its resolution in a configuration consisting of the very same elements with which the story began. But with a shift, if not in perspective, then at least in the kind of relation they’re finally able to take with each other.

For in the beginning, as was already evident in Susie’s reaction to her mother, no love was lost between the three, signaled in the less-than-enthusiastic reception for the Grandmother’s arrival. When the husband, seemingly unable or unwilling to comfort his own wife, sought the assistance of her mother: her presence is met with a daughter’s silent recriminations and a granddaughter’s stony indifference. As if what connected one to the other was not only a source of embarrassment but, more significantly, nothing short of a crime.

Only later will their line of sight trace the passage of generations. Mothers looking to their daughters, in part seeking atonement for their sins, only now able to recognize what they had been unable to give. And it is the youngest – a stand-in for Susie but also for all girls who look to their mothers – returning the gaze, less one of admiration than a stance of expectation, wondering whether she will finally be accorded the kind of inheritance she truly deserves.

There's a Tomb in the Middle of Your House

In order to reach this point, the precondition for this reunion, Mother and daughter must confront their alienation. The turning point comes quite unexpectedly during a rare moment, when the elder challenges the younger about the awful truth she has been unable and unwilling to bear: the fact that the room of her own child has been turned into a mausoleum, a tomb in the middle of her home.

It’s an unexpected truth, precisely because the elder is a lush, and one who smokes like a chimney, to boot. But the prodding hits a nerve in the one who’s listening. As if her daughter’s misery was her own, as if she were acting out a child’s desperation that comes on the heels of unbearable loss. As if the mother were the daughter, the lines between the generations blurring in more ways than one. A portrait of a slow and steady decline, the alcohol and tobacco a measure of what can barely be contained. And a message about how untenable life had become, precisely because she’s expected to continue caring for her family, as if nothing ever happened.

Luckily, the mother-who-is-also-a-daughter hears the message buried in those substitutions; she also finds the strength to leave her husband and their family. For the death that was never truly mourned deserves its due, requiring the kind of rupture signaled in her departure and the kind of travel found in Susie’s journey through the In Between. Both Mother and daughter are implicated here, which is as it should be. For it is a task of reclaiming what was forgotten (but not lost), of finding what was but waiting to be found.

Hades, The Hidden One

On the face of it, the one against whom they do battle is none other than Hades, the God of Death. He goes by many names – in fact, one of his epithets is "He who has many names" – suggesting that he has many incarnations, unable to be pinned-down to a single form. And yet, in his most dangerous guise, he is best known as The Invisible or The Unseen One, lurking in the dark just beyond one’s line of sight. For it is behind the curtains, in the dark, where his "itch" invariable returns. And it does so, precisely because of what has been denied and disowned: the only acknowledgement of the kind of power that exceeds his grasp, one he can attain only by force and abduction.

Precisely because he’s hidden, it would be a mistake to reduce him to a personage, for the effect of his visitations long outlive whatever injury he may bestow upon his victims, leaving his trace on those forced to live in the shadow of death. At times, this is evident in the whispered voices that refuse to go away, personal hauntings that linger on in the mind and in the head; it is also found in the body, a demonic transference, in which both posture and sensation harken back to that pivotal moment, when his hand interrupted the very integrity of one’s Being.

He’s also evident in the rhythms that mark the cycle of day and night, one tumbling into the other, the onslaught of obligations, recuperations, and preparations for a life absent meaning. Despite his otherworldly abode, he has colonized this world, as well, where one kind of labor has surreptitiously been replaced by another, inserted as a substitute (and means) for living. For it is within this scheme of things that "release" is found, instituted in rituals – both public and private – that celebrate time away from work, jealously protecting those few moments when they are "free" to do what they will. Until the cycle begins, once again.

Alarming, indeed.

In the Shadow of Zeus

According to myth, this God of the Underworld is none other than the brother of Zeus, Father of Gods and Men. One could say that he’s nothing other than the shadow of the One who rules the heavens, although the truth that connects the two is rarely spoken, much less understood. Yet, their relationship is both logical and preordained, for both heaven and the world beneath are predicated on a certain absence, and it is this vacancy that lays the ground for the crime against Susie and those belonging to her sisterhood, the crime that forms the heart of this story.

If truth be told, as the shadow of the One, very few can claim to remain untouched by Hades’ hand, although each finds their way to make peace with his unwanted presence, forming an uneasy alliance that only shows its face when provoked. Otherwise, this artificial life continues according to its mechanical rhythms, leaving all who know Him to find their way to the Mystery sequestered in the dark, if at all. For the irony of ironies is this: in this world of Man, only by plumbing the depths of this darkness – traversing the far-reaching corners of the cosmos – can that Mystery be found. Which is why, according to legend, Hades also came to be known as Pluto, the Giver of Riches. For, ideally, Death itself comes to be transformed.

In the heart of that other story, the one revolving around the grieving mother, a child comes to be born.


In the meantime, it’s the rage of the father that dominates this tale, furious for what was taken from him, fuming over the fate of his daughter. For a while, he forms an alliance with the detective, committed to identifying the one responsible for his child’s disappearance and, if possible, bringing her home. But as weeks turn into months and months into years, that hope slowly begins to diminish, and his obsession then turns into a fury, barely contained.

The breach between the detective and the father is but one broken relationship that comes his way. Each of the women in his life will take their leave of him, as well. The grandmother – the crone – is the first to recognize his malady, noting how his refusal to drink speaks to the very nature of his problem, preferring to nurture his anger rather than give way to the grief that comes upon losing one’s child. Later, the Mother, his wife, will come to the same conclusion, recognizing that she was already excluded from his pain.

It’s only Susie, the daughter, that hangs her hope on this branch of emotion, hoping beyond hope that redemption can come through the father. But even the child soon comes to the same conclusion as her foremothers, choosing to withdraw the power accorded to the man that would defend her. Recognizing the imperative that places responsibility for her fate in her own hands, however unfair that might be. Finally able to let him go, knowing he loved her the best he could.

Facing Death, Alone

Which is probably why Ruth spends so much of her time alone. For this solitude provides her with the means by which she can visit the graves of the dead, the favored haunt for those seeking to learn the secrets of the afterlife. In all likelihood, it also explains the space she insists upon when it comes to Ray, the one who also mourned Susie’s passing. For it is precisely that distance that allows the kind of freedom required for her travels, and such space requires respect.

In refusing (or deferring) that relationship – in turning her attention to her sisters, instead – she makes room for the girl that has gone missing, apparently without a trace, insisting upon a certain sacredness that must not be denied. For she has been nurturing a relationship with Susie and the sisterhood to which she belongs, communicating with the world that few recognize much less dare to visit on their own. Communing with the forgotten and the dead.

In this way, she is a stand-in for the Mother, giving evidence to the kind of labor with which she’s been consumed after leaving her husband, Susie’s father. For the two of them never share the same frame together: it’s only in the Mother’s absence that Ruth will appear, just like the time when she and Susie first met, out by the edge of town. For in this way, the daughter is the mother, too.

Grandma Lynn

In the Mother’s absence – as she travels the depths of the beyond – it’s her mother, the crone, that makes this possible. She provides the container for the journeying that compels her daughter. And while she might be dismissed as a drunk, it is her drinking, as well as her ineptitude, that makes space for joy, however attenuated it might be. For even those that grieve deserve a respite from their mourning, especially those too young to understand what it means to die.

It is also the grandmother who appears during each pivotal point of this story, as if she were both witness and impetus for Susie’s death and transformation. It was she who spoke to the young girl who saved her brother’s life, giving it a meaning beyond some accidental brush with fate. It was also she who witnessed Susie’s longing, listening to her fears and giving her encouragement when overwhelmed by the possibility of it all. It was also she who first hears of Susie’s whereabouts after her disappearance, seemingly the only one who’s befriended the little boy brought back from the dead. And upon the reunion of husband and wife, she is the one to whom Lindsey will turn, giving shape to the closing chapter of this story.

Given that the family is one – "My name is Salmon, like the fish" – this should come as no surprise. For each of these figures is but a version of the girl. The mistake, in fiction as well as in life, is demanding that our family embody these roles on one’s behalf, whether it be mother, father, son or daughter. But what Susie had already begun to learn, even before her death, was the force of generations, in this case, recruiting the power of the crone for herself.

Lindsey, The Hunter

If grandmother is the container, witness and impetus – and Mother the grieving one in search of her daughter – Lindsey is the one who tracks down the Murderer, intent on identifying her sister’s killer and, whether she knows it or not, preventing Susie’s fate from becoming her own. For in the aftermath of her sister’s abduction, she came to develop a sixth sense that pointed in his direction, forcing her to dwell with a sneaking suspicion, even though it had yet to be proven or known.

Which is how we come to find her breaking into the Murderer’s basement window, unable and unwilling to allow her sister’s fate to fade into a forgotten memory, unwilling to become another’s prey. Violating all sense of reason and propriety, she is compelled to unveil the mask protecting the Murderer. In other words, as another face of the Salmon family, Lindsey is the force that seeks to know, tracking the scent that only she has detected. And she does this on her own, acting on an imperative that refuses to be bowed.

She’s also the other face of the Maiden, learning to live the kind of life that, for her sister, was already stolen. Finding a boy with whom she could fall in love, and one who would return her affections. The maiden who never believed in love finds it anyway and, by story’s end, she even finds herself becoming a Mother.

Hope and Trepidation

In this way, the daughter gives birth to her own Mother. For it is immediately on the heels of her discovery, when she manages to unveil the truth of the Monster, that her (other) mother returns. And with the two of them standing side by side, they will look above – with hope and trepidation – as the father hobbles down the stairs. For it is with mixed feelings that they greet his reappearance, uncertainty mixed with love. Does he still love the mother? Will he welcome her back with open arms? Or does he retain a grudge that’s still itching, nurturing the wound she left upon her departure?

In other words, while the surface of the Salmon’s story would seem to revolve around the women’s dependence upon the man, it turns out to be a different kind of tale. For they have labored mightily – for themselves, as well as for Susie – toward a goal that’s all but been forgotten. For in doing battle with Death, they’ve also been forced to overcome the function accorded to the men they love, divining a power of a different sort, a power that resides within themselves.

It’s a lesson from which men can learn, as well. What was his defeat turns out to be the source of his salvation. For it marks the limit of what he took to be his own: his pride, his strength, and his honor. But by allowing himself to be overcome – a lesson in humility rather than humiliation – he finds himself in the position to become a different kind of man.

Lesson from the Crone

So, to return to one of the pivotal moments with which this story began, the lesson of the grandmother, the one borrowed from the Buddhists and the one that Susie initially dismissed: if you save the life of another, you will live a long and happy life. Even as she pulled Susie aside, a purse dangles between them, surrounded by light. A sign of the wisdom passed from crone to maiden, inhabiting the space that separates them, between a womb gone dry and one that has yet to reach fruition.
A space that marks the place of the Mother yet to be born.

In saving the life of her brother, Susie had already shown evidence of her power of generation, snatching the young boy from the jaws of death and providing him with the privilege of another chance at life. And surely she will have noticed a similar transformation in Ray, the one who mourned her own passing death. For upon making Ruth’s acquaintance, his grief turned into something else, sharing in the commitment of his newfound friend, seeking to divine the lessons of the dead.

In helping to save the lives of these others, surely Susie will have discovered the power in herself to save another other, one closer to her family, and herself. A power that exceeds the imperative of revenge, one closer to the words first given to her by the crone.

When caught in the bowels of the earth, the embrace of a stalled revolution – stuck in a world ruled over by Zeus and his Shadow – perhaps this is what it means to find one’s legs?

~ by mistified on November 29, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Lovely Bones: Death’s Transformation”

  1. I’ve found your blog looking for some in depth analysis of the Lovely Bones. This is really great, I keep re-watching this movie and each time there is some little but important detail I’ve missed.

  2. Simply amazing.

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