The Unstable Identities of The Caregiver

Samuel Park’s last novel explores how one person’s sense of self can be absorbed into another’s need.

Christine Wehrmeier / Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Samuel Park’s new novel, The Caregiver, is a study in fragility: that of bodies, of boundaries, and of identity itself. Centering on two relationships—a mother and her daughter, and the daughter and her patient—it explores the complex bonds between people who are linked by the need that one has for the other, and by “the strange love that fills one’s heart when one gives, gives, and receives little in return.” Such giving, The Caregiver shows, is risky: As the title suggests, it can come to define the person who does it, to the point that her sense of self is inextricable from others’ need. At the same time, the novel reveals how both giving care and receiving it can be ways of affirming a person’s individual worth.

The Caregiver is Park’s second novel, and his last; he died of stomach cancer in 2017, at the age of 41, shortly after he finished writing it. The book’s narrator and heroine is Mara Alencar, the caregiver for a wealthy woman, Kathryn Weatherly, who suffers from the same disease that killed Park. Mara is a Brazilian immigrant living undocumented in Los Angeles, who came to the U.S. on her own when she was just 16. Caregiving is the first job she was told to apply for when she arrived, and although she’s good at it—anticipating Kathryn’s needs and moods—she tends, even after 10 years in the role, to either resist the label of “caregiver” or dismiss it. “It’s not that I don’t like it,” she explains to Kathryn about her work. “I just feel like I never got to choose.”

Much more than by her present occupation, Mara defines herself by the events of her childhood in Rio de Janeiro, recounted in two extended flashbacks, to when Mara is 8 and 16 years old. The most important person in her life has always been her mother, Ana, a single parent who lost her family’s approval—and the future they’d carefully groomed her for—when she became pregnant. The mother and daughter’s relative isolation leads to a mutual sense of dependency. Mara feels compelled to protect her mother; Ana, in turn, often talks to her as if she’s an adult. Meanwhile, Ana devotes herself to providing for her daughter: “I don’t care what I have to do,” she promises, “but you’ll always have a roof over your head and food in your belly.” It’s this imperative that leads Ana, when Mara is 8, to join a group of student rebels on a mission against the country’s military regime. That mission goes wildly wrong, in a way that will ultimately upend Mara’s understanding of who her mother is.

Acts of care—some explicit, some subtle—appear throughout this plot, and so do acts of disappearance. Both Mara’s undocumented status and her caregiving work require a kind of routine invisibility: She drives without a license because she can’t apply for one, and she pays rent in cash to a roommate with a green card, “the only one [in the apartment] with pay stubs and a credit history.” She works as a caregiver because it’s one of the only jobs available to her, other than that of the maids who do the hidden work of cleaning “the rooms that were already clean because they’d been cleaned the week before.” She is shocked to realize that Kathryn’s ex-husband “might possibly feel judged by—of all people—the caregiver.”

For her part, Ana supports herself and Mara primarily by dubbing the female parts of American movies in Portuguese. It’s a self-effacing job—giving voice to others while hiding herself—that carries small echoes of her role as a mother: the soda she buys only for her daughter; the bath she gives Mara when she herself is tired and dirty; the way Mara locates her mother’s love “in the parts of my own body that I cannot see.” Ana will do anything for Mara, and in one case this even means denying her daughter’s existence: To get the lucrative job for which the revolutionaries are hiring an actress, Ana must assure them that she has no one to depend on her.

In a sense, the caregivers of this novel are shape-shifters: They slip in and out of existence depending on where and by whom they are needed, pouring the essence of themselves into the people and objects around them. It’s a slipperiness of self that’s mirrored, throughout the novel, by the slipperiness of language. Park’s prose is simultaneously dreamlike and visceral, evoking ocean water “shiny as Mylar” beneath “a neat peach-colored blanket” of dusk. Kathryn, after surgery, looks “like the chalk police outline of her own body”; in the sun, “the rays [turn] her hair into a torch.” As a voice actress, Ana has “all these people [who] lived inside of her and took turns emerging from her throat.” Mara describes emotions in terms of force and shape, noting “an outward trajectory” to a neighbor’s sadness, as well as how Kathryn’s illness “drew people’s thoughts like a magnet.” In all these descriptions, the lines between people and objects, the physical and the intangible, are blurred—giving the sense of a world that is constantly in transition, and that could change shape at any moment.

This sense of instability captures the impact of severe illness—a self turned unrecognizable by a body that’s spun suddenly out of control. It’s there in the tumor that Kathryn feels as a new heart beating in her stomach, and in the “mad clock” that Ana feels lodged in her chest, a symptom of a heart condition that weakens her so much that Mara, by then a teenager, feels “as though I wasn’t talking to my mother, but rather, to her disease.”

In Park’s novel, though, the caregiver’s identity is just as unstable as the patient’s. Care, Mara reflects at one point, is almost a compulsion—“the heart’s choice, for whatever reason, to devote itself to another being”—and it can absorb the giver completely, so that her identity disappears into that of the person who depends on her. In one of Mara’s childhood memories, her mother holds her “as though she’d turned herself into a coat and draped herself over me.” Similarly, the adult Mara envisions herself fully enveloped by her role as caregiver, when Kathryn sleeps late and her “house became the body whose well-being I was responsible for; the body I wiped, bathed, and rearranged.” The image is claustrophobic—yet it’s Kathryn, not Mara, who has seemed to lose her human identity here. And the house itself has the potential to be Kathryn’s own way of caring for Mara: She frequently talks as if she plans to leave the property to her caregiver, an offer that Mara is reluctant to accept or count on.

Mara relies on distance to understand her own place in the world, reflecting that “our fantasies and daydreams … required a tribute to our essential differences.” She struggles to disentangle herself from her memories of Ana, and resists Kathryn’s awkward, half-joking attempts to cast herself as a mother figure. Even so, Mara’s sense of self is deeply intertwined with the women she has cared for, to the point that in scenes from her present-day life outside of work—the moments when neither Ana nor Kathryn influences her thoughts and choices—her emotions seem flatter, her dialogue more stilted. In one interlude, she hesitates to deal with “invasions” of ants in her apartment, admiring the insects’ devotion to their colony. In another, she has a surreal encounter with a man who harasses her on the road, threatening to have her deported, and realizes “that to him I wasn’t an individual”; the incident prompts a political discussion with her two roommates, also Brazilians, in which each character articulates a different sense of belonging, or lack of it, in America. The thread of these scenes is an uneasy negotiation of boundaries—who is welcome, where—and in each case, Mara finds herself unmoored, uncertain where she fits amid surroundings she can’t control.

Ultimately, though, Mara’s self-actualization lies not in freeing herself from the caregiver’s role but in recognizing its flexibility. Caring, after all, is a reciprocal relationship—a dyad, as Mara puts it, in which “the sick person awakened the healthy person’s desire to care.” Care can provide its giver with a purpose and place in the world—and in this way, even needing someone else can be an act of caregiving. When Ana leaves for her ill-fated revolutionary mission, Mara is so frightened for her mother that she throws a tantrum in an attempt to stop her from leaving—demanding to be cared for, in order to keep her caregiver safe.

The work of a caregiver, then, is not merely depleting, but also an act of transference: a gift of care, that the receiver can give back and give to others. A gift—in the fragile, constantly shifting world of Park’s novel—that can always be called and counted upon, though the relationships surrounding it change. “My mother’s biggest gift had been to teach me … how to be mothered,” Mara reflects in an epilogue. “I would be loved again and again, and it was because she’d taught me how.”