Character Feature: Brigid Tenenbaum

Brigid Tenenbaum
bioshock wikia

I’ve been meaning to do this one for a while.

“That Tenenbaum ain’t what you think. Florence Nightingale, huh? That’ll all come crashing down ‘fore you can say ‘canned tomatoes’. I’ve seen good bunco, and I’ve seen great bunco. But, when you waltz through Rapture and World War Two without even a scratch? You got more than leprechauns watching over you.”

So says Frank Fontaine about one of the most interesting NPC ever created in and for video games. She features heavily in the first game but leaves the city early on in Bioshock 2 – I have yet to play DLC spinoffs Minerva’s Den and the Bioshock: Infinite spin off set in Rapture – Buried at Sea (due to the multiple universe theory that is at the core of Infinite, it is not clear whether this is even the same Rapture – or the same Booker DeWitt character)

Appeared in: Bioshock, Bioshock 2, Bioshock: Minerva’s Den

General character: Genius genetic researcher, Survivor of Auschwitz. Caring yet capable of and responsible for some horrific acts of science without ethics in Rapture. Systematic loner, bravery without limits… and possible war criminal and murderess.

Background: Born near Minsk in Belarus, she was just 16 years old at the break of WWII. As a Jew she had very little hope of survival and when she found herself rounded up and sent to a Concentration Camp – specifically to Auschwitz – there will little hope of survival for the young girl. Yet somehow she ended up in Rapture in the 1960s. How did she get there and why was she there?

During her time in Auschwitz, she found her way into the labs at the camp and observed some of the experiments there. Her life-long fascination with science probably saved her life when she pointed out some of the errors they were making. They eventually invited the young Jewish girl to partake in their experiments and her natural aptitude for science and the fledging science of genetic research in particular earnt her the name Das Wunderkind. Throughout the game, and as with any other character, we get insights into her psyche from the audio recordings left around the city. Tenenbaum gradually reveals  that she found the Nazi focus on creating a master race frustrating. She wanted to learn why person A was born short while his brother might have been born tall. She was indifferent to the Holocaust despite being Jewish.

“At the German prison camp they put me to work on genetic experiments on other prisoners. They call me ‘Das Wunderkind,’ the wonder child. Germans, all they can talk about is blue eyes, and shape of forehead. All I care about is why is this one born strong, that one weak? This one smart, that one stupid? All that killing. You think the Germans could have been interested in something useful.” – Brigid Tenenbaum

In the aftermath of WWII she disappeared from public life and like most other Nazi scientists, the world presumed that she’d ended up as a science advisor to one of the allied nations – the US, UK or the USSR. Some speculated that she was dead, killed in retaliation for assisting the Nazis. In fact, Andrew Ryan found her and petitioned her to work in Rapture.

Tenenbaum discovered ADAM, the substance on which the Plasmid and Tonic technologies are built. Few researchers in the city were interested in the bizarre stem cell found within the sea slugs – everyone that is, except Frank Fontaine. So began the horrifying tale of the Little Sister research. I won’t sum it up again, but if you want to know what that is, please return to my Bioshock summary. The rise of Frank Fontaine, his business Fontaine Futuristics, and of Tenenbaum herself within Rapture was purely because of their ADAM research. The substance was addictive. Fontaine and Tenenbaum knew this but so long as it made them rich, who cared? Rapture was, after all, a free market utopia without the “petty morality” of the world above.

“One of the children came and sat in my lap. I push her off, I shout, “Get away from me!” I can see the ADAM oozing out of the corner of her mouth, thick and green. Her filthy hair hanging in her face, dirty clothes, and that dead glow in her eye… I feel… hatred, like I never felt before, in my chest. Bitter, burning fury. I can barely breathe. And suddenly, I know, it is not this child I hate.”

Somewhere down the line, Tenenbaum grew a conscience and their working relationship broke down; Frank Fontaine faked his own death and Andrew Ryan seized Fontaine Futuristics. Tenenbaum worked for Andrew Ryan for a short time for but eventually resigned and began personal work on reversing the Little Sister conditioning that she had created, as well as to find a cure for the “ADAM Sickness” (the addiction). She established a sanctuary for Little Sisters and retired from public life. When Atlas arrived on the scene and set Rapture on its course into its civil war, she perfected the cure, eventually passing it on to “Jack” early on in the first game.

Complexities of character: Her sins, it seems, are limitless. She seems emotionally disconnected for much of her life, possibly because of her experiences in Auschwitz. She did what she had to do to survive but on her liberation from the camp in which she was curiously both a prisoner and a war criminal, she goes on to repeat her sins. Armed with her knowledge of what went on in the camps, she should at this point have used her skills for good and perhaps with the discovery of ADAM she saw the potential for this. Instead, she found her only champion in Frank Fontaine, a man who would and did use the technology for his nefarious ends.

She said nothing and despite seeing what it was doing to the city, she did nothing.

Yet when playing Bioshock we struggle to be angry with her. She sends you all the help she can and gets you out of some very sticky messes. In Bioshock 2 she similarly offers help very early on. Between the games she leaves the city but returns when she hears that young girls are going missing in similar circumstances to before. It is then that she suspects Sofia Lamb has filled the power vacuum of Rapture. During the course of Bioshock 2, she takes the Little Sisters that she has saved and leaves.

What we like about Brigid Tenanbaum is the ultimate attempt at redemption – something that fills us with joy in fiction. Scrooge’s sins are tame in comparison, and Tenanbaum has a lot of making up to do. As she leaves Rapture, she explains to Subject Delta that she fears the possibility that the nightmare will never end. She emphasises that she will die if necessary to stop that happening.

Perhaps, in a way, she represents the part of us that wants to feel that we will always have a chance to undo the hurt that we might have caused to others?

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