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When Our Parents Define Us: In Her Wake

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The day my mother killed herself, she had just finished preparing her house on Marlborough Street for the anticipated return of her children after a fierce custody battle with my father. There were six of us and much to do.

I tend to read very fast, often too fast. While reading In Her Wake I forced myself to slow way down, because I didn't want to miss a sentence, or let a single thought go unread or undigested. Nancy Rappaport's gripping story is entwined with a depth of easily understood research, so much so that as I followed in Rappaport's wake, as she uncovered her family secrets, so to did I begin to understand some of my own.

Who doesn't continue to examine their past through out their life? When my mother was in her late seventies, she asked me to find information about her lost father -- still seeking reasons why he'd chosen to have two families. My mother went to her last days puzzling on her father's bigamy.

Nancy Rappaport didn't wait this long. Her mother committed suicide when Nancy was barely four. Many years later -- the author now herself a mother -- sets out to discover why her mother left her in this manner. She takes us on her discovery in such an up close way, we feel as though we're walking beside her, also anxious for clues, for truth, for some morsel of closure.

This is an achingly honest read -- the only times the author flinches at revealing facts and feelings is when she tells us that she's flinching. So embracing is her writing, that we understand and sympathize. Her father, her stepmothers, her eleven brothers and sisters (siblings connected through a variety of parents) are reading over her shoulder and are often unhappy about the family ground being turned over.

Silence has weighed down Nancy Rappaport's family since before her mother's death. Family silence can wrap each member tight enough to choke out life and love -- but Rappaport finds and shows the tender love she feels towards her father, even as she examines his role in her mother's decline as she devolved from a woman spinning in circles of achievement to a mother finding her final answer in a handful of pills.

Rappaport is a grieving daughter searching for the comfort of reason. She is also a child psychiatrist, schooled in investigation, comfortable in teaching, and excellent at synthesizing research. In Her Wake is a book for any who've had divorce, death, infidelity, and neglect touch their lives. I thought of my sister and I sneaking into my mother's purse and remembered being nabbed for shoplifting on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn (after my father's death,) when I read this passage:

When I think about my 'sticky fingers,' the observation of revered British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott--that when an adolescent steals, she is looking for something that she has a right to, that she is making a claim on her mother and father because she feels deprived of their love--seems a plausible explanation for my impulse to steal . . . I stole rock candy and Sugar Babies on the way home. I stole pencils and colored flair pens. I did Christmas shopping at the Harvard Square Co-op--coming out with a well-packed duffle bag of records, paperbacks, a scarf and socks, all unpaid for.

When I was seventeen I walked out from Macy's in San Francisco carrying a stolen small sewing machine on which I never sewed a thing.

In a testament to Rappaport's skill with words, she weaves into her family history, not only pertinent and fascinating psychological and sociological information, but also a mini-history of a slice of Boston's history, including her family's discomforting connection to the loss of the West End (an entire neighborhood in Boston) and shines a light into the inner-working of Boston politics through the connections of her mother and father to that world.

The mark, for me, of a truly wonderful book, is that it that holds up bits of mirror where one's own secret tears and thoughts are reflected. With this, one feels less alone. In Her Wake was this book for me. Despite the lack of factual similarity, the amount of emotional resonance, coupled with eye-opening information on divorce, infidelity, suicide, and more broke down the walls between the book and my life and I sank inside.

A parent's problems, if they rent too much space in a child's mind, can crowd out everything else. Nancy Rappaport's journey to uncover her mother's sadness seemed designed to help the author finally claim her own soul, even as she mourns her mother. As she does, she teaches the reader and allows them pages and hours that can engender their own self-reflection.

Faced with the horror of a colleague's suicide, Rappaport reports, "My therapist told me that when someone kills herself it is as if she puts her skeleton in her closet. I did not want this skeleton and I resented the intrusion."

Passages like this allow those clicks of recognition that make In Her Wake a universal read while telling an intense and personal family story, which reads at times like a mystery.

This is a book generous and comforting because of the truth. It is a book that clarifies one's own thoughts on the meaning of past and family. It is deeply moving.