The Terrapin and Ms. Highsmith (by Michael Cebula)

2021 is the centenary of the birth of Patricia Highsmith, one of the great masters of the psychological thriller. She’s best known for her novels, especially Strangers on a Train and The Talented  Mr. Ripley, but she also produced many iconic short stories, twenty-eight of which first appeared in EQMM, beginning in 1957 and ending in 1994. We believe her April 1994 story “Summer Doldrums” may have been her last published work. It is an earlier Highsmith story for EQMM that author Michael Cebula focuses on in this post, which looks back at the life of one of the brightest stars in the crime-fiction firmament.

Michael Cebula’s short story “Second Cousins” appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of EQMM and was subsequently chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories 2020. His work has also been featured in a variety of other magazines and anthologies, including Mystery Weekly. “Selfie of an Actress as a Young Woman,” his latest story, can be found in the anthology Die Laughing, edited by Kerry Carter.

 —Janet Hutchings

In 1962, Patricia Highsmith, one of a handful of people who could reasonably claim to be the greatest suspense writer ever, committed a very real and very bloody murder. Though she took care to hide her crime (more or less successfully), she also made sure that her victim knew exactly whose hand wielded the knife.

The site of the murder was well-chosen—the October 1962 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which featured Highsmith’s short story, “The Terrapin.” In the story, an eleven-year-old boy named Victor is humiliated by the short pants that his mother insists he wears. His mother “wanted him to stay about six years old, forever, all his life.” When Victor complains to his mother, she teases him to the point of tears and continues to infantilize him, such as by asking him to recite the days of the week and referring to him as her baby.

One afternoon, Victor’s mother brings home a turtle—or what she insists Victor call a terrapin. He mistakenly believes that she bought the turtle to be his pet, and he plays with it and tries to feed it, but his mother soon enough tells him the turtle is no pet, but rather meat for a stew she is making. Shocked, Victor watches as she drops the turtle into a pot of boiling water:

Victor, open-mouthed, stared at the terrapin whose legs were now racing against the steep sides of the pot. The terrapin’s mouth opened, its eyes looked directly at Victor for an instant, its head arched back in torture, the open mouth sank beneath the seething water—and that was the end. Victor blinked. It was dead. He came closer, saw the four legs and the tail stretched out in the water, its head. He looked at his mother.

Victor begins to cry, imagining that the turtle had been screaming below the water. He is convinced that the turtle wanted Victor to rescue him but “he hadn’t moved to help him. His mother had tricked him, done it so fast, he couldn’t save him.” Irritated by Victor’s reaction, his mother slaps him. Victor leaves the kitchen and lies on the sofa, his mouth open against a pillow until he pictures the turtle screaming in a similar pose, and closes it. Then Victor returns to the kitchen, making himself watch what happens next. His mother, humming, continues to prepare the stew. The turtle is on the cutting board now. Still humming, his mother takes a knife and butchers it, a process that Highsmith slowly details. Victor forces himself to watch, even when “the terrapin’s insides were all exposed, red and white and greenish.” Victor’s mother finally stops humming and talks in a “gentle and soothing [voice], not at all like what she was doing.”

Later that night in bed, Victor imagines the turtle’s face “very large, its mouth open, its eyes wide and full of pain.” Victor wishes he “could walk out the window and float, go anywhere he wanted to, disappear, yet be everywhere.” But he imagines “his mother’s hands on his shoulders, jerking him back, if he tried to step out the window. He hated his mother.”

The story could end here. It would be a good literary story, one with no crime involved, about a child’s first encounter with death, living with a cruel and perhaps mentally ill mother, dreaming of escape, and knowing that escape is impossible.

But that is not what Highsmith had in mind.

Instead, Victor walks through the dark apartment into the kitchen. He feels “gently for the knife he wanted.” Then: “His mother’s cry was not silent, it seemed to tear his ears off. His second blow was in her body, and then he stabbed her throat again. Only tiredness made him stop.”

Again, the story could end here, with a great and chilling final line that perfectly conveys the depth of Victor’s brutal feelings for his mother. But instead, Highsmith continues for several more sentences. First, Victor hears people trying to break into the apartment. He unlocks the door and lets them in. Then, in the final paragraph, Victor is resting in a hospital. He “did everything he was asked to do, and answered the questions they put to him, but only those questions, and since they didn’t ask him anything about a terrapin, he did not bring it up.”

Highsmith, like many writers, hated to be asked how she came up with ideas for her stories. She typically told interviewers (after making clear just how much she hated the question) that she created stories “out of thin air.” But “The Terrapin” was one of the few times that Highsmith made an exception, and willingly offered a concrete explanation for a story’s origin.

According to Highsmith, an unnamed friend told her that she had heard of a woman who browbeat her son and forced him to wear clothes that were too young for him. Then, a year later, Highsmith saw a recipe for terrapin stew, and the story came together in her mind. “The Terrapin,” Highsmith claimed, had nothing to do with her own life or her own mother. And that, as far is it goes, sounds reasonable. After all, Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train and no one suspects that she ever planned a double-murder with someone she had just met on a speeding locomotive.

Nevertheless, Highsmith’s claim that “The Terrapin” was inspired by a cocktail story and a stew recipe, and had nothing to do with her own life, was a lie. Consider:

  • Victor’s mother is a commercial artist of limited success. Highsmith’s mother, Mary, was a commercial artist of limited success.
  • Just as Highsmith did, Victor lives with his mother in a series of apartments in New York, first on the Upper West Side (where Highsmith first lived with her mother), then on Third Avenue (near where Mary later moved).
  • Victor’s mother is divorced and he has no relationship with his father. Highsmith’s mother was divorced and, as a child, Highsmith had no relationship with her father.
  • Victor quickly becomes attached to the turtle while Highsmith cared for turtles enough that, on at least one occasion, she brought a turtle to a literary party as her plus-one.
  • Victor reads Karl Menninger’s The Human Mind, a collection of psychiatric case studies, the same book Highsmith loved as a child and throughout her adulthood.
  • True, Victor is male, but in Highsmith’s private notebooks she described herself as a man trapped in a woman’s body and wondered whether she could change her sex.
  • Though Victor hates his clothes, he does like his masculine, thick-soled shoes, and is thankful that they fit. Similarly, Highsmith, who had unusually large feet, wore men’s shoes most of her life, and was so obsessed with a particular brand of men’s footwear (unavailable in Europe, where she spent her final few decades), that she directed her cousin to ship them to her overseas for years.
  • Victor’s mother forces him to wear clothes that he detests and tries to turn him into something he is not (a baby). Highsmith’s mother hated the masculine styles her daughter adopted and wanted Highsmith to be something she was not (heterosexual).
  • Victor’s mother repeatedly tells him he is “psychologically sick,” while Mary told Highsmith, both in writing and verbally, that Highsmith was “sick in the head.”

None of these similarities are necessary for the plot of “The Terrapin.” That is, the story would be unchanged if, say, Victor lived at a different address, his favorite book was something besides Menninger’s psychiatric case studies, his mother was not a struggling commercial artist, or her browbeatings did not include accusations of mental illness. These details serve no purpose except to tie Victor and his mother to Highsmith and her mother, to tell Mary: this story is about us, this story describes how I feel.

And Highsmith certainly had reason to hate her mother. Mary tried to abort Highsmith by drinking turpentine, then told Highsmith and her friends about the story for years, presenting it as an amusing anecdote, rather than a narrowly averted tragedy. Mary also enjoyed telling Highsmith of the bookstores she wandered through that contained none of Highsmith’s novels and the bookstore owners who had never heard Highsmith’s name. And, as noted, Mary made clear her disapproval of Highsmith’s homosexuality, sharply criticized her looks, and frequently claimed, to Highsmith and anyone who would listen, that Highsmith was mentally ill.

Not surprisingly, Mary’s actions profoundly affected her daughter. Once, upon learning that Mary was paying her an unexpected visit, Highsmith fainted. Mary’s highly critical letters often left Highsmith feeling “shattered” and unable to work for days. And, like many victims of a difficult childhood, Highsmith was anorexic and an alcoholic. Highsmith finally went so far as to disinherit herself from her mother’s estate, an unusual move for anyone, but especially for Highsmith, who had crippling anxieties about her own finances.

Yet, despite all of this, Highsmith never broke away from her mother entirely. Even when Highsmith moved to Europe permanently, and could have easily ceased contact with her mother, the two women continued to write each other constantly, in long, detailed, much worried-over letters. And they still visited one other and traveled Europe together. Highsmith killed her mother on the page, but made no meaningful attempt to live a life without her. Whether the obstacles were real or imagined, Highsmith could not escape.

Once, when an interviewer asked what attracted her to crime stories, Highsmith mentioned a short story she wrote at sixteen, about a girl who steals a book. The impetus for the story, Highsmith said, was the desperate desire she herself felt to steal a particular book from her own school’s library. Writing, it seems, was a remedy to her strongest wayward temptations, a way for Highsmith to do what she wanted, without the risk or consequences.

But if writing was a sort of release valve, it apparently offered only temporary relief. Years after “The Terrapin” appeared in Ellery Queen, Highsmith was still brainstorming a particular brand of murder in her private notebooks, including: “Replacing roller skates on stairs, once mother has removed it.” And when Mary died, some years after that (from natural causes, it perhaps should be noted), Highsmith did not attend the funeral.

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3 Responses to The Terrapin and Ms. Highsmith (by Michael Cebula)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    A fascinating piece, Michael — thanks!
    FYI, for my 1983 anthology Top Crime: The Author’s Choice, Highsmith selected “The Terrapin” as the best of her short stories. We exchanged numerous letters — this was pre email! — and, despite her reputation of being difficult to work with, I found her friendly and cooperative throughout the process of putting the collection together.

  2. Stefano Cossara says:

    From a psychoanalytic perspective, it may be tempting to see this story as a sublimation of Highsmith’s aggressive impulses toward her mother. One might also read an inhibition of those impulses in the fact that the matricide, though crucial to the story, is barely touched upon and almost rushed, in contrast to the rich descriptive texture that characterizes the first part of the tale. Great story, thanks for inspiring me to read it!

  3. Sam says:

    Interesting parallels between the elements of the story and Highsmith’s life. I enjoyed your article.
    What about your life? Any parallels between it and your fiction or influences on what you write?

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