“FLESH EATING MOTHERS” (James Aviles Martin, 1989)

OK, I’m posting this on Mother’s Day, and a very happy occasion may it be for those who have a mother, particularly one who doesn’t routinely eat her children. But the film is also about a deadly virus, one which has been covered up by the authorities, so it’s not just schlock horror, but also somewhat prophetic.

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This has it all: cannibalism, domestic violence, murder, lots of blood, adultery and filicide – yes, the mothers eat everything in the fridge and then start on their kids. Early in the piece, one mother stuffs a whole sandwich in her mouth (possibly the most abject scene) then starts on her son, who is still, absurdly, wearing his baseball mitt.

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Her husband is a cop and manages to shoot her as she nominates him as main course, then he’s arrested, has to prove his innocence with the help of a scientist who is being stymied by official obstruction, and at this point there is a tendency to turn off and watch something else, particularly as the acting is so bad that one suspects it has to be deliberate.

This one literally is the best actor in the film:

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You get the idea. One mother makes her son special creamy mashed potatoes, which he eats as she describes the process of producing milk-fed veal. Is there a message here – a cream-fed kid who is about to be her dinner?

“Milk-fed baby cows…. The calf is taken from the mother and put in a small room, so small that he can’t move around, see, so that his muscles are real tender. And they don’t feed him anything but milk, so that he’s really soft by the time they kill him. And so he’s really delicate to eat.”

She pours him another glass of milk.

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“Mom’s on the rag again” he complains to his friend after he escapes, adding that he doesn’t blame her: “it’s all society’s fault”.

The kids work out what’s going on and unite in opposition, but not until plenty of makeup and fake blood has been added to this powerful stew of nonsense.

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“My mother ate my brother.”
“My mother too!”
“My mother ate my father.”
“She’s never done anything like this before!”

Look, it’s all very light-hearted, despite the R rating, and it’s a bit unfortunate that I decided to review it the week after one of the greatest cannibalism movies, Fritz Lang’s M. But there’s an important point here, for us keen Cannibal Studies scholars. So many cannibal films feature male cannibals, from Hans Beckert to Sweeney Todd to Hannibal Lecter. Yet as Barbara Creed told us in The Monstrous Feminine, published not long after this movie hit the big screen, mythical tales and modern horror films teem with female monsters. But the stereotype for cannibal films is the male cannibal and, often, the female victim. Where monsters are female, they often follow Freud’s odd designation of women as terrifying and abject because little boys are supposed to see their lack of a penis as proof their mothers were castrated. Thus, we get the dumb teenager saying “Mom’s on the rag again”. She is, even after trying to eat him, a victim in his eyes.

But Creed, and this film, argue that the female monster relates not to her lack but her centrality to reproduction and nurturing. Woman is the all-consuming womb, the witch, the vampire, the castrator rather than the castrated. We know we came out of her, and fear we may be reabsorbed. But hey, the scene of the battered wife eating the fist of her abusive husband fills us with a certain satisfaction.

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Of the more than 300 films involving cannibalism that I will be discussing in this blog (eventually), only a handful involve female protagonists or even female directors. When they do, they are often presented as comedy as (I presume) this film is; films such as Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death or Santa Clarita Diet. Even in those, though, as in the more serious offerings such as Raw or Jennifer’s Body, cannibalism is presented as a form of empowerment, never as a lack.

Here’s the virus under a microscope.

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The authorities knew about it, but kept it hidden, apparently because they thought it was a punishment for adultery. Plenty of Trump supporters who doubtlessly believe the same about COVID-19. Luckily, there’s a smart scientist with an instant vaccine.

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This is a very silly movie, but it’s refreshing to see some women do the flesh-eating for a change.

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Happy Mother’s Day!

From the sublime to the ridiculous: LOVE BOAT Season 3 episode 13 (Duchowny & Rafkin, 1979)

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Tom Paine said it is only a small step from the sublime to the ridiculous, so it seems fitting to move from last week’s blog, HANNIBAL, one of the most concise studies of the cannibal psychosis of postmodern society, to a glimpse of the bourgeoisie at play, or at least their aspirations of what that might look like. I refer, of course, to LOVE BOAT, a series that ran for an absurdly long nine years and 250 episodes. Aaron Spelling was the producer – he also made Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Beverley Hills 90210, Charmed and a string of other shows, which always seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the time.

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Why are we watching Love Boat you ask (or wail, while pathetically covering your ears)? Well, there is an interesting cannibal reference in episode 13 of season 3, which went to air on November 24, 1979. The episode has the catchy title of “Not Now, I’m Dying / Eleanor’s Return / Too Young to Love” – there were always a few threads going on at the same time.

Warning: the following theme song is a mind worm and will be running through your head relentlessly during your worst hangovers.

Anyway, getting to the point. One of the main characters on the ship is the Doc (Dr Adam Bricker) played by Bernie Kopell, who also played the KAOS agent Siegfried in Get Smart. On this particular cruise, Lucy, a friend of Doc’s (Barbi Benton), comes on board with her boyfriend Peter (Dack Rambo). She wants a romantic conclusion, a proposal, but Peter keeps on making excuses.

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Eventually, Peter “admits” to having a terminal illness, saying he has Kuru, a disease he spotted on the front of a magazine. Doc calls his bluff, pointing out that Kuru is only contracted by “eating people”. But then Peter drops a pen, can’t hold a book, and Doc realises that he really does have a disease – ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). A sad irony in that Dack Rambo was to die of complications from AIDS only five years after this episode went to air. Barbi Benton, who started off as a Playboy model, is still going strong, as is Bernie Kopell at the time of writing.

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This is interesting not so much for the longevity of the stars but the mention of Kuru. This is a prion disease, a rare, incurable neurodegenerative disorder that was found in the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. Kuru is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, related to the “mad cow” disease that cured people from eating beef for many years and is still tested for when you go to donate blood.

Kuru was first suspected to be related to funerary cannibalism (eating your relatives rather than burying them, to return their life force to the village) after extensive studies by the Australian anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum starting in 1961. Kuru was found to be eight to nine times more prevalent in women and children than in men. Fore men reported that they considered that consuming human flesh would weaken them in times of conflict or battle, while the women and children were allowed to eat the bodies of the deceased, including the brain, where the prion particles were particularly concentrated. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, a virologist, was later awarded a Nobel prize for mapping the transmission of the disease to chimpanzees by transferring into them parts of the brain of an 11-year-old Fore girl who had died of Kuru.

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From a 2010 documentary of Kuru

Kuru is rare and hard to catch (even the Fore people have a high rate of immunity to the disease). It is, however, very popular among people who write about cannibalism on social media, as they think it proves that human cannibalism is a ‘bad thing’ because it can make you ill (although they don’t mention the bovine version, in case that ruins their dinner). The Nobel prize was the cherry on top of the brain tissue theory of cannibalism.

In 1979, the same year this episode of Love Boat was aired, an American anthropologist, William Arens of Stony Brook University, New York, published his book The Man-Eating Myth, in which he challenged the automatic assumption of cannibalism among those dubbed “savages” by the colonial powers of the West. In fact, Arens caused a major uproar in anthropological circles by saying he could find no adequate documentation of cannibalism as custom in any form for any society – it may have happened, but not as a socially sanctioned system. He was more interested in why people are so fascinated by the depiction or suspicion of it (and so am I, hence this blog). As for the Fore, Arens said “the evidence is circumstantial, since Fore cannibalism has never been observed by an outsider”.

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So, did the Fore get Kuru by eating their dead? We’ll never know for sure, but we can be confident, with Doc, that Peter didn’t.

NEXT WEEK: HANNIBAL Season 1 Episode 2

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The first cannibal film was made in Australia? “The Devil’s Playground” (Bindley, 1928)

We tend to think of ‘cannibal films’ as starting with the Italians: Ruggero Deodato’s Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1977) or, before that, Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River (Italian title Il Paese Del Sesso Selvaggio, 1972). These followed a formula in which civilised Europeans blundered into savage lands (Lenzi’s film was set in Thailand) and are captured by cannibals, tortured, witness terrible atrocities and then escape.

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Chief Trelua, cannibal king, actually a Sydney lifeguard

But cannibals have appeared in movies well before the Italians invented their special exploitation genre. Tarzan films from the early twentieth century showed the lost British Lord living with apes but killing cannibals – they were prima facie cannibals, because they were savages. But they were background noise, they were the predators in the jungle, assumed to be cannibals by trade, but not usually caught in the act (and, in the books, Tarzan’s British aristocratic breeding stops him tasting human flesh, for reasons he can’t quite understand).

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Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan the podiatrist

One of the very first film to show savages as cannibals, before Johnny Weissmüller hit the vines, was actually an Australian film called The Devil’s Playground, written and directed by Victor A. Bindley.

This is the opening card (it’s a silent movie):

Far off the beaten track, in the South Seas, lies a beautiful island – a jewel of the sea. Its waters, abounding in the low grade island pearl shellfish, have brought a few white traders to its shores. The sinister reputation borne by its native population in fetish and cannibal rites, in the past, and the wild doings of some of its present white population, has earned for the island the name of:

“THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”

 Not to be confused with Fred Schepisi’s 1976 film of the same name, which revolved about quite different appetites.

Bindley’s silent movie was made with a budget of £2,000, not a fortune even in 1926, when production commenced. This required a certain financial prudence: according to Australian Film 1900–1977, scenes were shot on beaches near Sydney (Bilgola) and interiors in the Mosman Town Hall. Natives were played by Sydney lifeguards in
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Painted savages

The villain, however, is a corrupt white man named Bull Morgan who exploits the natives and forces the heroine, Naneena, to marry him, after murdering her brother. Fun fact: Naneena is played by Elsa Jacoby, later a prominent Sydney socialite, philanthropist and opera singer. Meanwhile, the locals are not content to put up with colonialist discourses:

Trelua seeks counsel of the wise man, Malatai!

“Malatai! Our warriors grow fat and lazy under the white-man’s rule, and our men-children are weaklings!

“Our spears would but splinter against the might of the whitemen, for they are as many as the white sands of the sea! Their great men are wise! Let Trelua seek justice in their councils!”

“Your puny words cannot hold me for long, O Malatai! Better to die fighting like men, than like women upon our sleeping mats!”

The natives rise up, but not to rescue Naneena – they are cannibals and cannot be seen to do too much good. She is rescued by an airman, who calls in a British cruiser to quell the native revolt although, before the cannons roar, the cannibal chief kills Bull, proving that no one is all bad.

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The cannibals attack the grog shop!
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The noble hero

The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 February 1930 reported that the film had been banned from export (another first for the director) under the censorship regulations which included blasphemy, indecency, or obscenity, being injurious to morality, or likely to be offensive to the people of the British Empire. It may be that the violence of Bull whipping poor Naneena was a bit over the top for the censors (although she gave him back as good or better than she got), or that the British navy blasting natives with cannons was “offensive to the people of the British Empire”.

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The navy arrives to put down the cannibal mutiny
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Bull whips Naneena!
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Naneena whips Bull!

But the most likely reason for the ban is that showing the corruption of the white traders, who were widely known to be exploiting and corrupting the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, was a bridge too far. Like most cannibal films, it raises the question: who is eating whom?

At any rate, the film was shelved and did not have a public screening until 1966, by which time it was just a historical oddity. It is available in the NSW State Library on VCR, which led me to spend an excruciating two hours there recently. It’s not much of a cannibal film, really, but then it’s not much of a film. Pretty exciting, for a cannibal film blog, to find a very early specimen, especially when it’s home-grown!

Incidentally, the Oxford Apartments in Milwaukee where Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate most of the boys and young men who took his fancy in the 1980s was torn down after his arrest and a playground built, but the locals refused to use it, calling it – you guessed it – the devil’s playground”.

 

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The unkindest cut: “Teeth” (Lichtenstein, 2007)

Six months into this blog, I ask you: have we actually defined cannibalism? I answer you (because it’s a rhetorical question): no, we have not.

The Oxford Dictionary says that a cannibal is “a person who eats the flesh of other human beings”. But what does “eat” mean, then? “Put (food) into the mouth and chew and swallow it.”  So then we have problems with zombies, who eat the flesh of other humans, but may or may not be “persons” (since they are dead, or undead). And with bulemics, who chew and swallow, but then bring it up again?

Why am I being such a pain about this? Because I like this film, and would love to fit it into my cannibal blog. But she, to put it politely, does not swallow

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Teeth is directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, the son of far more famous pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. It is awkwardly defined as “comedy horror” which can be a problematic mix, and often ends up with silly movies like Eat the Rich. But this one works, although I didn’t find it terribly funny. I guess if you were sitting in a cinema watching a bunch of teenage boys squirm, that might have been good for a laugh.

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Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Weixler) is a teenage spokesperson for a Christian abstinence group called the “Promise”. This is a terrifying crowd – young teens can be pretty off-putting anyway, but this lot want to chant stuff about Eve and the Devil and Sin, and do so with a flint-eyed seriousness that is disturbing (or funny if you see it from a certain angle).

Dawn has a talent which is not known to anyone, including her, or the various males who try to assault and penetrate her: she has a vagina dentata: a toothed vagina. As a tiny girl, she almost bites off the finger tip of her step-brother who is doing naughty things under her swim suit in the wading pool, but the talent comes into its own when a boy from the abstinence group decides that God will forgive and understand if he takes advantage of their solitary swim, knocks her almost unconscious and then starts to rape her. Well, God might forgive, but Dawn’s lower teeth don’t, and he discovers a new and very agonising weight loss method.

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The vagina dentata is an ancient myth that is found in many folk legends from a wide range of peoples. Freud and the classical theorists liked to say that it is a representation of the fear that little boys have of their penis-less mothers, which leads them to assume that they are next for castration, either by her or by their fathers who are angry at their budding Oedipal desires. Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God talks about a New Mexico myth in which “vagina girls” ate men who came to their house for sex. We’re getting close to cannibalism now, I think.

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It’s a huge subject, covering quite a lot of what goes in the festering sewers of our unconscious minds. If you wish to research it more (and it is fascinating stuff), Barbara Creed has covered the subject comprehensively in The Monstrous Feminine.

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So: young Dawn, played brilliantly by Jess Weixler, whom you may recognise as the investigator Robyn in the TV series The Good Wife, believes in saving herself for marriage, a view that is considered somewhat old fashioned now, but still resonates in many parts of the world, particularly the Bible belts. Those around her, including her step-brother with the disfigured finger, feel that she should “put out” as they say, but when she does, boy are they sorry. Creed looks closely at the “taboo of virginity” and Freud’s view that this arises from penis envy and frigidity. Men fear that women will castrate them, particularly when the loss of virginity is painful, as it clearly is to Dawn. Freud ignores the possibility that it is men’s irrational fear of the deadly power of the vagina that leads to fear of sexual intercourse. Brought up in this oppressive environment, Dawn is unaware of her power. The film unravels this power.

Weixler won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival “For a juicy and jaw-dropping performance”, and it was well deserved.

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You have to watch closely to catch the “banana split” gag

The horror of cannibalism is at least as much to do with their power to snap, bite and destroy as it is with their tendency to swallow (any old Jaws can do that). The vampire, without whom the Horror industry would be toothless (sorry), swallows, but only blood, not flesh. Yet it is the sharp teeth and the swallowing that gives vampires their welcome into at least the outer limits of cannibal fiction. Dawn is an unwilling but not totally innocent cannibal, because she soon figures out (through google) what it means to be the bearer of the vagina dentata.

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A film like this could easily degenerate into farce, and the celibate teens could end up laughable stereotypes of conservative bigots. Yet, Dawn takes us with her on her quest to understand what she is, what she wants, and what she can do to those who wish to force themselves on her. The logline states “every rose has its thorns”, and the trailer says “Something is wrong with Dawn O’Keefe”. But surely that’s not true – there is something very wrong with the rapists, and it gets a lot wronger as they get closer to the climax of their plans. One review said:

“What’s most important for Dawn is she discovers her vagina is not a curse but a source of power.”

Dawn at first thinks that her vagina dentata might be the “Adam within”, a forbidden male side of her character that causes gratuitous havoc. But in fact, the teeth are her defence and her weapon against injustice. With her extra teeth, and the ‘dawning’ of the realisation of her own power, Dawn is a superhero of the #MeToo age.

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The film has a respectable 80% on Rotten Tomatoes website, with the concensus being:

“Smart, original, and horrifically funny, Teeth puts a fresh feminist spin on horror movie tropes.”

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This poster was apparently banned

The final credits state:

No man was harmed

 

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The cannibal next door: The Santa Clarita Diet (Fresco, 2017)

OK, last week’s cannibal film blog, Dahmer, was a bit grim (even if we didn’t see anyone eat anyone, for a change), so this week something witty and clever, and with lots of people-eating.

I’ve watched 20 episodes now of the Netflix series Santa Clarita Diet, and I’m still wondering: is this even a cannibalism show? Without risking too many spoilers, the protagonist, Sheila (the wonderful Drew Barrymore) is undead, what we sometimes (but never in this show) call a “zombie”. But she’s not the type that shuffles about, rotting bits falling off of her (well, maybe a few) and drooling for brains. She is sweet, witty, strong, loving and over-sexed. And dead. Sorry, undead.

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She just seems so human. Presently human, not just formerly, decrepit, rotting human. I guess there’s room in cannibal studies for the undead human people-eater?

Sheila and husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) are realtors, living the perfect suburban life-style in sunny Santa Clarita, Los Angeles County. The American Dream becomes more dream-like when Sheila is showing a house to a prospective buyer, but ruins the sale by expelling copious amounts (we’re talking gallons) of vomit on the perfect bedroom carpet, together with a small object that might be her life force or soul or something (later it grows legs, so maybe not a soul). She realises that night that, while she is feeling just fine and dandy, she no longer has a pulse.

And then she gets hungry, and it’s a diet that could only be zombie, or perhaps broadminded paleo. No carbs, just meat. And only one species will do. But, like Hannibal, she will only eat bad people – rude, abusive, Nazis, etc. Can they find a cure? Does Sheila want to?

Don’t you want to be cured?

Of course I do. Although, I do like the way I feel. I have endless energy, and I sleep two hours a night. I get so much done.

You eat people!

I know, it’s just that I’m so much more confident now. And our sex is incredible… And I can parallel park in one move now.

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The dialogue is sparkling and very funny. I can imagine the hilarity in the writers’ room when they were putting all this together. Lines like:

We have to kill someone who won’t be missed. Someone without a family. And someone bad, who deserves it… the prototype would be a young, single Hitler.

I’m feeling a little low energy. Maybe I need to eat people with more iron in their diet.

She gets this look in her eye. The next thing you know, she’s yanking intestines out of these guys, like a magician pulling out scarves! The other day I came home and my kitchen looked like someone shot a person out of a confetti gun. There was a dick in my fruit bowl. The next morning I’m eating oatmeal at the same counter like my life is Leave it to Fucking Beaver!

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Here’s the thing: it’s very funny, and the characters are sympathetic and honest. Barrymore and Oliphant are brilliant, and so is their daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson) and her friend Eric (Skyler Gisondo), the nerd next door who understands both the science and the occult aspects of the problem.

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I’m asking because last night you saw your mom and dad scrape a half-eaten dead guy into a grave.

Please. I once walked in on my grandparents changing in a cabana. That was intense.

Yes, lots of gore (also vomit in episode 1) but in so much surfeit that it is cheerfully fake. The manicured lawns and perfect houses feel even faker – this is the Stepford Wives gone feral. The neighbours suspect nothing, even when Sheila eats one of them.

If you’re wondering how cannibal movies prepare the flesh, the special effects designer said in an interview:

Drew Barrymore is essentially a vegetarian, so a lot of the methods that we might have used traditionally — sushi, tuna coated with fake blood or ground meat or turkey meat or anything like that — was an absolute no. So we had to find other resources. One of the resources that we went to was gummy bears.

And this is the heart of the Santa Clarita Diet. For one thing, it celebrates the resurgence of the monstrous feminine cannibal. From Sheila, to Justine in Raw, and Melanie in The Girl With All The Gifts, and even the Cannibal Women of the Avocado Jungle of Death, we see women cannibals emerge from their niches in myth and fairy tale to stand their ground, glorying in their power. Sheila says she hunts when she feels “a tingle in her vagina” and tells Joel all about the orgasm she enjoyed while eating a human liver.

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She so did not eat this heart sandwich. It’s a strictly no-carb diet

It’s also a biting commentary on the stories we tell about appetite and about power. Sheila believes she is a good person, who is strong enough to hunt anyone she chooses, and to eat whatever or whoever she feels she needs or wants. And isn’t that the story of every carnivore?

The only things I believe in enough to crochet on a pillow are “I’m winging it” and “all races taste the same.”

 

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