Sirens and Suicides: The Ghosts of Pernicious Memes in The Drowning Girl By Nia Pietrobruno

Sirens and Suicides: The Ghosts of Pernicious Memes in The Drowning Girl By Nia Pietrobruno

My name is Nia Pietrobruno. For as long as I can remember, I have had a passion for the arts. However, as a Dawson Pure and Applied Science student, I found it difficult to pursue the things that I love: literature, languages and fine arts. In my first semester of CEGEP, I rediscovered these passions through the Reflections course for which this essay was written: The American Gothic, taught by Dr. Kristopher Woofter and Dr. Jay Shea. Since then, I have decided to change paths and transfer into Commerce. Although I’m unsure of what lies ahead, I’m considering a career in law or marketing. Regardless of the path I choose, I hope that I will someday hold a novel with my name on it!


Sirens and Suicides: The Ghosts of Pernicious Memes in The Drowning Girl

By Nia Pietrobruno

             Caitlín Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl is the fictional memoir of India Morgan Phelps, the novel’s schizophrenic protagonist, who documents her journey to uncover the truth hidden beneath her perceptions of reality. India experiences a haunting: she encounters Eva Canning for the first time, twice. In the first of these instances, Eva is a siren; in the second, she is a werewolf. As India struggles to differentiate what is factual, what is true, and what is distorted, she determines that Eva is in fact real and that she only ever existed as the “siren.” India uncovers the truth behind her second encounter: she has altered her memories, fabricating “werewolf” Eva, to help herself overcome the traumatic experience of being an idle witness to Eva Canning’s suicide. India’s subconscious is haunted by Eva’s suicide. She is unknowingly affected by the ghosts of her memories, which have been repressed and hidden to alleviate her guilt but are revealed through India’s perception of Eva. This perception is represented through the many connections she makes between Eva and “memes, especially pernicious thought contagions,” which India calls hauntings (Kiernan 12). These memes, defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” (“meme”), include stories relating to Saltonstall’s painting The Drowning Girl, and tales about sirens and mermaids.

India’s haunting is brought to the surface through her association between The Drowning Girl, a 1989 painting by Phillip George Saltonstall, which depicts a young, naked woman standing in ankle-deep water, looking into the dark, oppressive forest behind her, and Eva Canning. India had first become engrossed in this painting as a child; however, her interest in it was rekindled over and over as she grew older. India is haunted by this painting, this “pernicious meme”, as she calls it (Kiernan 27). She believes that the painting itself is haunted by Saltonstall’s experience at Blackstone River, the inspiration for the location of the painting (Kiernan 13). India discovers, through research, that the artist was seeking the “Siren of Millville,” a young woman named Perishable Shippen, who was “murdered by her father and tossed into the river” (Kiernan 60). India becomes obsessed with this story, often referring to it and comparing Eva to Perishable, stating that “no light escapes the eyes of Eva Canning, when I still believe her the Siren of Millville” (Kiernan 284). India’s comparing Eva to a drowned girl whose death was caused by her parents suggests that she, although subconsciously, knows that Eva drowned herself to join her mother. She is still haunted by Eva’s suicide and this haunting takes the form of another haunting, rather than her own, because India’s memories are repressed and hidden, even from herself. This also occurs when she compares Eva to an unidentified suicide, l’Inconnue de la Seine: a beautiful drowned girl whom India suspects inspired Saltonstall’s painting (Kiernan 46, 49). India recounts her sexual experience with Eva during her psychotic episode, describing “She kissed me again, tasting all of brine, and her lips the lips of l’Inconnue de la Seine” (Kiernan 297). India recalls Eva in a way that portrays her as already dead. Her subconscious image of Eva is that of a suicide, a drowned beauty. India’s repressed memories resurface through the associations and connections she creates with other hauntings, because she is not even aware that she has any repressed memories at all. Saltonstall’s The Drowning Girl (1898) becomes nearly indistinguishable from Eva as India’s perception of the two draws them nearer to each other until they nearly coincide. India relates every possible inspiration of the painting to Eva and sees Eva in the painting itself. On every occasion, India’s impression of Eva in relation to the painting demonstrates her subconscious memories of the event and her struggle to uncover them.

These memories also attempt to show themselves through India’s association between Eva and sirens. The motif of the sirens, mythical creatures that lure sailors to destruction with their erotically charged singing, is important in this novel. India sees the siren as something that is different for everyone but is always inescapably present, “singing you to shipwreck” (Kiernan 101). From India’s perspective, her “insanity has always been [her] siren”, inciting her to commit suicide like her mother and grandmother before her (Kiernan 101). Soon, however, she begins to envision Eva as her siren, a real siren. When Eva comes to India’s apartment, India writes that “a siren came knocking at [her] door” (Kiernan 278).  Eva’s arrival marks the beginning of a tragic sequence of events. She persuades India to stop taking her medicine, leading her into a psychotic episode. This resembles both of India’s concepts of the “siren”: a creature that leads one towards their destruction, which is, in this case, madness; and madness itself. Soon after, Eva tells India, “‘I’ve come to sing for you, and to draw your song from you. And when we are done singing, you’ll take me home, and I’ll go down to my mother, who dreams of me each night’” (Kiernan 285). Eva’s song appeals to India’s insanity, drawing it forward, removing any obstacles such as medications and outside help. She leads India into madness, knowing that when India finally “sings” and fully accepts her madness, she will go “home”. To Eva, “home” is the ocean where her mother drowned herself, and India knows this. She knows this, yet when asked to drive Eva to the ocean so that she can commit suicide, India accepts. By imagining Eva as a siren, India is able to fictionalize the events that she experienced and separate herself from reality and the guilt of helping Eva commit suicide. India tries to forget that Eva’s death was caused by her fall into insanity, that it was facilitated by her willingness to bring her to the sea, and that it could have been prevented if only India had tried. She represses her memories in order to protect herself from the truth. Her perception of Eva as a siren embodies India’s traumatic memories, yet also serves as a way for India to cope with these experiences. India makes Eva into a siren so that she can live forever in the sea, so that her beautiful body will never float back to the surface as a corpse.

            The Drowning Girl weaves an intricate and haunting tale that allows India to discover for herself what is “factual” and what is “true”. Her subconscious reveals itself, resurfacing through the “siren” that she imagines Eva to be and the many memes with which she is infatuated. Her memoir itself becomes a ‘pernicious meme’: a tale of haunting by two Eva Cannings. India fabricates her story around her ghosts—those ghosts that she describes as “memories that are too strong to be forgotten for good, echoing across the years and refusing to be obliterated by time” (Kiernan 12). Her ghosts, the memories of Eva Canning, become entwined in every word, seep into every space, and haunt, just like the memes in which she finds so much interest. India brings these ghosts to the surface, recalling her memories of Eva Canning’s suicide through the stories relating to Saltonstall’s painting, The Drowning Girl and the folklore about sirens and mermaids. She uncovers what she had desperately tried to keep hidden. She remembers what she had desperately tried to forget. It may not have been the ending India wanted, but it was the ending she needed. India began the novel, “I’m going to write a ghost story now” (Kiernan 1). She was true to her word.


Works Cited

Kiernan, Caitlín R. The Drowning Girl: A Memoir. R.O.C, 2012.

“Meme.”, Merriam-Webster,

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