There is just so much to unpack with Amma: She’s beautiful. She’s infantile. She’s manipulative. She’s a social tyrant. Oh yeah, and she’s a cold-blooded killer.
Oh, you want to dig a little deeper? Well, fine. But we won’t pay for your psychiatric care afterwards. (←official, totally legally binding disclaimer.)
Aside from the obvious she-kills-people-she’s-jealous-of-and-uses-their-teeth-to-build-a-dollhouse issue, Amma is cruel in a number of ways. The whole town is acutely aware of the tight hold she has on the pre-teen and teen population. Well, now that we mention it, she seems to have power over some of the adults as well. With a single look, she could make or break someone’s social status, and in a small town like Wind Gap, that power can be devastating. At first Camille brushes off the reports of Amma being a bully as typical teenage behavior. But then she follows her to the pig farm, where Amma takes delight in watching the torture those animals are put through, and she starts to realize exactly how sick her little sister is:
Amma. All this time I’d had little real interest in her. Now I did. What I saw at the farm kept my throat clenched. My mother said she was the most popular girl in school, and I believed it. Jackie said she was the meanest, and I believed that, too. Living in the swirl of Adora’s bitterness had to make one a bit crooked. And what did Amma make of Marian, I wondered? How confusing to live in the shadow of a shadow. But Amma was a smart girl—she did her acting out away from home. Near Adora she was compliant, sweet, needy—just what she had to be, to get my mother’s love.
But that violent streak—the tantrum, the smacking of her friend, and now this ugliness. A penchant for doing and seeing nasty things. (8.1)
It turns out that’s just the tip of the iceberg. While talking to Katie Brucker, Camille learns of some of the other terrible things Amma has done in the name of “fun:”
“Oh, she and those three girls, those little blonde things with the tits already, they rule the school, and Amma rules them. Seriously, it’s bad. Sometimes funny, but mostly bad. They make this fat girl get them lunch every day, and before she leaves, they make her eat something without using her hands, just dig her face in there on the plate.” She scrunched up her nose but didn’t seem otherwise bothered. “Another little girl they cornered and made her lift up her shirt and show the boys. Because she was flat. They made her say dirty things while she was doing it. There’s a rumor going around that they took one of their old friends, girl named Ronna Deel they’d fallen out with, took her to a party, got her drunk and … kind of gave her as a present to some of the older boys. Stood guard outside the room till they were done with her.” (14.143)
Sweet mother of pearl. That’s terrible. How did we not realize she was the killer all along?
Amma doesn’t save the torture solely for those of her own gender. She’s an equal-opportunity tormenter…but the methods change when it comes to men. Instead of humiliation and degradation, she uses sex to entice them, manipulate them, or just entertain herself.
Amma stayed up, staring down John, rubbing suntan oil on her shoulders, her chest, breasts, slipping her hands under her bikini top, watching John watching her. John gave no reaction, like a kid on his sixth hour of TV. The more lasciviously Amma rubbed, the less flicker he gave. One triangle of her top had fallen askew to reveal the plump breast beneath. Thirteen years old, I thought to myself, but I felt a spear of admiration for the girl. When I’d been sad, I hurt myself. Amma hurt other people. When I’d wanted attention, I’d submitted myself to boys: Do what you want; just like me. Amma’s sexual offerings seemed a form of aggression. Long skinny legs and slim wrists and high, babied voice, all aimed like a gun. Do what I want; I might like you. (10.130)
Camille might admire Amma’s self-confidence for a minute, but she soon realizes that her little sister may not be as in control as she seems:
“I don’t think you should let boys do things to you, Amma. Because that’s what it is. It’s not reciprocal at your age.”
“Sometimes if you let people do things to you, you’re really doing it to them,” Amma said, pulling another Blow Pop from her pocket. Cherry. “Know what I mean? If someone wants to do f***ed-up things to you, and you let them, you’re making them more f***ed up. Then you have the control. As long as you don’t go crazy.” (12.122)
Unfortunately, we’re pretty sure Amma went crazy. She crossed that line when she started killing girls and pulling out their teeth to make a floor for her dollhouse.
Amma, along with her other charming qualities, is terrified that her mother might pay attention to someone else. This probably has something to do with Marian’s martyrdom (having a dead sister who will always be considered saintly can’t be easy), but we think it’s also because she’s nuts. In a rare moment of honesty she asks Camille:
“What if you hurt because it feels so good? Like you have a tingling, like someone left a switch on in your body. And nothing can turn the switch off except hurting? What does that mean?” (12.183)
This should’ve sent up some major red flags.
But Amma didn’t kill those girls just to satisfy that tingling sensation. She killed them because she feared she would lose her mother’s full attention. She knows that her mom drugs her, but instead of being repelled by that knowledge, she finds comfort in it:
She shrugged. “I don’t mind. Sometimes I don’t take it – just pretend. Then we’re both happy. I play with my dolls or I read, and when I hear her coming I pretend to be asleep. (13.40)
Poor girl. When Adora starts tutoring Ann and Natalie and getting close to them, Amma just can’t stand it. So she abducts them, plays with them a bit, kills them, and then pulls out their teeth. You know. So she can have a real ivory floor, just like her mother.