People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk

Moore, Lorrie

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey
  • Date of entry: May-31-1999
  • Last revised: Nov-23-2015


A mother (termed Mother in the story) discovers a blood clot in her young son's diaper and wonders "so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?" This discovery leads to a diagnosis of Wilms' tumor--a childhood malignancy of the kidney, and surgery to remove the diseased kidney.The parents are thrust into a new world--the world of pediatric oncology ("peed onk") and meet the Surgeon, the Oncologist, and the other anxious parents waiting in the Tiny Tim Lounge of the pediatric ward. Everyone is named by their relationship to the Mother or by their profession--Baby, Husband, Anesthesiologist.The reader is privy to the inner thoughts of the Mother--her anger, denial, protective instincts and dark ironic vision. The Mother is also a writer and advised to take notes of this odyssey in case they need money to pay the medical costs. She feels alien to the culture of the pediatric ward--only her artsy friends understand her hell. Notes one (Green Hair) "Everyone's so friendly here. Is there someone in this place who isn't doing all this airy, scripted optimism--or are people like that the only people here?"When the Mother is given the option of no post-operative chemotherapy for Baby, the Mother grabs the chance to leave the hospital, clutching Baby, and says "I never want to see any of these people again." The piece ends on the rhetorical and ironic question--where's the money for these notes, for the story?


The tone of the story is haunting--darkly funny, confrontational, witty with gifts of precise and lyric observation. This tone, which seems to be an extension of the Mother herself, underscores the terror of a parent whose child is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease.The view of medical personnel is not complimentary and the tone becomes biting during many of the descriptions of medical events and personnel. The Anesthesiologist clamps a mask over the baby's mouth, a medical student blankly examines a bloody naso-gastric tube on suction, and the Surgeon blithely asks the Mother to autograph a copy of her novel without the slightest understanding that he had just led her to believe he was preparing her for even more bad news.The story is also an intriguing meta-story and frequently comments on itself--such as the ending noted above. In the middle of the story, the narrator explains how impossible it is to write the experience itself: "The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things. The narrator is the one who has stayed home, but then, afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveler's mouth, in order to make the mouth work . . . All that unsayable life!"Nonetheless, this story goes a long way towards saying the unsayable. Because this is a story of love, the immensity of parental love, that love which says, begs instantly and without a second thought--send misfortune to me, but spare my child.Editor's note: An excellent close textual analysis of the story appeared in Journal of Medical Humanities, Vol.  27, No. 1, Spring 2006: "The Limits of Narrative and Culture: Reflections on Lorrie Moore's 'People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk' "by Pamela Schaff and Johanna Shapiro.  


First published in the New Yorker magazine, Jan. 27, 1997.

Primary Source

Birds of America



Place Published

New York



Page Count