The forty-something Mrs. Lisbon is the closest thing to a monster this novel has (besides suicide itself). She loves her five daughters, but keeps the girls isolated and overprotected. They don't have many friends, and it's clear that all the girls are a bit strange and different from other girls because they have so little social experience. The neighborhood boys really don't like Mrs. Lisbon because she's so strict with her daughters. They also find her pretty scary to look at:
Whenever we saw [her] we looked in vain for some sign of the beauty that must have once been hers. But the plump arms, the brutally cut steel-wool hair, and the librarian's glasses foiled us every time. (1.10)
Mrs. L's a devout Catholic, and makes many of her parenting decisions on the basis of a strict morality—no frivolity like cheerleading; no makeup; no dating, ever. Period. She's like a policewoman when it comes to her daughters. Every time the family heads out to church she inspects the girls. She's not the touch-feely type.
On those mornings, Mrs. Lisbon assumed a queenly iciness. Clutching her good purse, she checked each daughter for signs of makeup before allowing her to get in the car, and it was not unusual for her to send Lux back inside to put on a less revealing top. (1.10)
(The only time Cecilia wears makeup is when she's in her casket.)
She can't seem to tolerate any of the typical stuff teenage girls do. When Lux gets a crush on a boy named Kevin and writes his name all over her underwear, Mrs. Lisbon soaked everything in Clorox without telling Lux, to get out all the "Kevins." The result of all this isn't what Mrs. Lisbon hopes. The girls hide makeup in their rooms, think about boys, play rock music—in their own ways, trying to be just like any normal girl.
After Cecilia's first suicide attempt, Mrs. Lisbon seems to be in denial, referring to it as "Cecilia's accident" (1.24), and downplays it with the neighbors. But Mrs. Buell doesn't buy it.
"That girl didn't want to die," she told us. "She just wanted out of that house." (1.28)
Cecilia's psychiatrist concurs that Cecilia tried to kill herself as a rebellion against the repressive atmosphere in the house, and he suggests to her parents that they relax the rules a little. They do. The boys assume that both parents agreed to the plan, but years later, Mr. Lisbon tells them his wife really didn't—she just gave in for a while. She was still pretty worried about Cecilia. On the afternoon of the party, Cecilia spent a lot of time in the bathtub.
"We made her leave the door open a crack," Mrs. Lisbon said. "She didn't like it, of course. And now she had new ammunition. That psychiatrist had said Ceel was at the age where she needed a lot of privacy." (2.14)
She probably regretted that decision for the rest of her life, since Cecilia kills herself during the party she was allowed to have. Note that affectionate use of Cecilia's nickname. It humanizes Mrs. Lisbon a bit.
After Cecilia's suicidal party, it's shocking that Mrs. Lisbon agrees to let the girls go to the Homecoming dance. The sisters are ecstatic but she makes them wear baggy dresses. In fact, she sews them herself.
The girls wandered amid the racks of patterns, each containing the tissue paper outline of a dream dress, but in the end it made no difference which pattern they chose. Mrs. Lisbon added an inch or two to the bustlines and two inches to the waists and hems, and the dresses came out as four identical shapeless sacks. (3.115)
Mrs. Lisbon looks mighty worried the night of the dance. Joe Hill Conley thinks she's been crying. She gives the boys the third degree—"like a head nurse scanning the charts" (3.132) and lectures Parkie Denton about safe driving. She suggests that the girls let the boys pin on the corsages they brought.
Shmoop always gets choked up at this scene. Poor Mrs. Lisbon. She's scared to death. She's already lost a daughter. But she's letting the girls go out (against her better judgment, we'd guess), and tells her daughters, who've just been staring at their corsages, to let the boys pin them on. It's the first piece of mothering advice we've heard, advice about how to be a young lady going to your first dance. Watching your daughter get her first corsage is probably a tear-jerking moment for any mom. Imagine what it must have been like for this bereaved, worried woman.
Mrs. Lisbon takes a huge step by letting the girls go to the dance. It seems like she's trying to give them a little freedom despite her misgivings and fears. But any doubts she had about the dance were confirmed when Lux breaks curfew. After that, she puts them all on permanent lockdown in the house and pulls them out of school. She makes Lux burn all her rock records. Everyone figures she'd punish the girls for Lux's curfew violation, but no one expected such maximum-security isolation. But Mrs. Lisbon, talking to the narrators years later, denied she was being punitive.
"At that point being in school was just making things worse," she said. "None of the other children were speaking to the girls. Except boys, and you know what they were after. The girls needed time to themselves. A mother knows. I thought if they stayed at home, they'd heal better." (4.5)
She thought wrong.
After her daughters' deaths she becomes a woman ruined by grief:
Her tragedy hadn't made her more approachable, and in fact lent her the unknowable quality of a person who had suffered more than could be expressed. (4.5)
The boys still approach her, because they thought that, as their mother, she'd understand more than anyone why they killed themselves.
But she said, "That's what's so frightening. I don't. Once they're out of you, they're different, the kids are." (4.5)
Mrs. Lisbon tells the boys that she resents the idea that she's to blame for the girls' problems. When they bring up Dr. Hornicker's theory that Lux's promiscuity was a reaction to the need for love and comfort,
[…] she grew rigid. "None of my daughters lacked for any love. We had plenty of love in the house." (3.60)
Like her husband, she's clueless as to why her daughters chose suicide in response to what seemed to her to be a loving, if a little strict, upbringing. Like her husband, she's emotionally and physically destroyed by their deaths. Did she blame him for being too permissive and talking her into a disastrous decision? Is that what broke up the marriage? We never learn. After the boys interview her in the small town where she's moved, she leaves and that's the last we know of her. We guess she'd loved those girls in her own misguided way.