Instances of Head-Switching (Teresa Milbrodt)

Reviewed by Liz Whiteacre

Teresa Milbrodt’s latest short-story collection, Instances of Head-Switching (Shade Mountain Press, 2020), invites us into worlds that are fantastic—worlds that allow a character to “negotiate with [their] body, making allowances to deal with its shifting form and abilities” (“Feet,” 129). Milbrodt’s unicorns, dreamlords, arthritis witches, and an omnipotent administrative assistant provide concrete representations of abstract emotions (like pain or love) and conditions (like arthritis or a blood-borne virus) that offer insights into how we engage with illness, aging, disability, and each other. It is Milbrodt’s imaginative worlds grounded in science, myth, and magic that make this collection so delightful, and it is her characters, grounded in realism, that leave readers considering their relationships with their bodies.

I had the opportunity to read Milbrodt’s collection at the onset of the COVID-19 quarantine and was struck by stories that explore people’s responses to catastrophes. “The Monsters’ War” is a story of rebuilding after great trauma and highlights the resilience of people returning to a fragile sense of normalcy when they know “normal” no longer exists. Unnoticed by their parents, children sacrifice body parts in “In the Dim Below” during a military conflict with a neighboring community and weigh their price for safety. A woman with a blood-borne virus tries to cultivate a connection with her kidnapper in “The Hostage” who refuses to see her humanity. I appreciate Milbrodt’s ability to introduce a fantastic element that is centered in a world with cultural contexts that we instantly recognize. This technique allows us to align what the characters are experiencing with our own lives, while the fantastic elements in the story exaggerate something to make it more tangible and allow us to study how we feel about a complicated situation or emotion (like practicing compassion towards a faceless enemy, adapting to life without a limb, or fighting prejudice against someone with a disease).  

In addition to exploring cultural responses to disability, disease, conflict, sacrifice, and healing, Milbrodt’s collection creates interesting metaphors that explore our relationships with our bodies. In “Marbles,” the narrator’s ability to isolate and enhance emotions through swallowing her grandmother’s marbles helps her control her emotional responses, and as she tries out different emotional “cocktails,” she experiences philosophical and physiological responses that make her question her choices. When Milbrodt personifies pain with “spirit companions,” like a back gremlin or an elf that encourages a boyfriend’s mania (52), she makes invisible chronic pain visible and raises the questions: how does pain shape our personalities? and how might pain help us? And, in “Costume Control,” when an amulet is all that is needed for a thirteen-year-old daughter to “cure” her blindness and deafness, the daughter’s response to it makes us question if we would change anything about ourselves. These questions are explored further in other stories too, like “Switching Heads.” Its narrator is a teacher who is very adept at switching out her eight heads (literally) in response to the type of personality she feels might be needed to handle the situations she expects during her day (like a faculty meeting, parent-teacher conference, or detention) in order to maintain the status quo. She struggles with learning when to exert her control: “I shouldn’t get so upset at other people for using the wrong head, but maybe it’s because I think so much about which one I need to wear that I forget other people might not have the same awareness” (70). Milbrodt’s graceful use of metaphor, personification, and the fantastic helps guide readers through the daily decisions we make and their consequences—the surreal elements feel very real and provide a framework in which to discuss what’s often hard to put into words.

Milbrodt uses these techniques to explore relationships too. “The Pieces” explores a typical family argument—a father riding his adult daughter because he doesn’t feel she is seeking her “best” life. His daughter is suddenly put in control of the situation when she must deal with her father’s pieces after he falls apart (literally). A woman working in “The Dreamlords” uses her sense of duty to justify destructive behavior that has her losing her sight as she confers with her dead husband and mother. In “You May Mistake This for a Love Story,” an administrative assistant at the high school accepts whatever time she has with people, because she can see exactly how much time that is with her omnipotent, blind left eye: “[t]his is where my farsightedness is lacking. I can’t see how to avoid the split, find a different trajectory, another curve in the path. Perhaps this the blessed curse of knowing the future—knowing you can’t change it, settling with the inevitable, continuing to walk with that knowledge in still-comfortable silence” (178). What strikes me in each story’s extraordinary circumstance is how relatable the characters’ conflicts are. I appreciate how something we could see as a liability (like an omnipotent eye attuned to love statuses or packing our dad’s head and torso into the back of our car to take him to a coffee shop to talk) allows us to look at familial, romantic, and even self-love from different perspectives.   

Instances of Head-Switching offers readers many different ways into conversations about our relationships—with our bodies, loved ones, the environment…this collection offers a lot. I teach an introduction to creative writing course at a university, and early in the term, we study fairytales to learn about the tenets of literature. Students then re-vision these elements for their first stories. In addition to stories about mental health, self-motivation, and relationships that students would find generally engaging, Milbrodt offers excellent re-visionings of fairytale worlds and elements that we can use as models when studying craft. Stories like “The Mirror,” “Berchta,” and “White as Soap” deal with disability, patriarchy, identity, social class, gender, age, environment, altruism, caregiving—all big issues that students are eager to write about but have a hard time getting started talking about in specific, concrete ways. Milbrodt’s collection offers a great primer in using familiar archetypes in unexpected ways to capture readers’ attention and explore modern social issues. Tackling an issue like homelessness through a story’s sub-plot of a dragon who is welcomed into a woman’s apartment and given a job helping BBQ at a local Italian restaurant can provide a filter for readers to approach the dragon’s situation with an open mind. What would we do to help someone out? This is definitely a collection I will use to model storytelling in future classes.

Careful attention to detail, compelling characters, and humor mixed with fantastic elements that present familiar themes in new ways create engaging reads in Milbrodt’s collection. Instances of Head-Switching is memorable, and I look forward to returning to it in the future. 

Title: Instances of Head-Switching
Author: Teresa Milbrodt
Publisher: Shade Mountain Press
Date: 2020

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About the Reviewer

Liz Whiteacre is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis, where she teaches creative writing and co-advises Etchings Press. She is the author of Hit the Ground (Finishing Line Press) and co-editor of the anthology Monday Coffee & Other Stories of Mothering Children with Special Needs (INwords Press). Her poems have appeared in WordgatheringDisability Studies QuarterlyThe Healing MuseBreath and Shadow, and other magazines.