Oh, the daughter-memoir, fraught thing. How do you write honestly about your mother when your mother is still alive, part of your life, and probably not going to appreciate the portrait?
Daughters who go on record tend to have truly crazy mothers (and even then, the mothers are often dead by the time the daughter puts pen to paper). The latest literary sensation, Domenica Ruta's With or Without You -- which I haven't read yet -- is an acclaimed example of the genre (1), detailing the drug-addicted mother's highs and lows, and the in-her-footsteps self-destructive daughter's eventual recovery.
If your mother is crazy enough (that was the title of my friend Storm Large's wonderful daughter-memoir (2)), it de facto gives you permission to write about her. Permission has been taken by daughters from Mary Karr in The Liar's Club (3) and Ruth Reichl in Tender at the Bone (4) -- both of whom wrote about their mothers' attempts to (sometime inadvertently) poison and kill them -- to Jessie Sholl, whose Dirty Secrets about growing up with a hoarder was a sleeper hit of 2011 (5).
I've enjoyed many of these books. A few more classics in the genre are Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle (6), and Lies My Mother Never Told Me by Kaylie Jones (7).
But by far the most thought-provoking mother-daughter memoir I've read is Alison Bechdel's 2012 book Are You My Mother?, in which the graphic novelist responsible for 2006's amazing Fun Home and the Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip grapples with writing about her mother in an honest way that's also respectful of the ongoing relationship.
Bechdel tells us that the book took four years to write, had to be re-started from scratch at least once, and caused her ongoing agony. It's not the tale of her mother's life so much as it's the tale of how her mother's identity and issues formed Bechdel's own identity and issues. What results is a complex, uncomfortable work that lays bare Bechdel's insights from years of analysis... insights that will illuminate, resonate or scare the pants off many daughters with difficult mothers.
In many ways, this nuanced story strikes me as more difficult to tell than the strangely socially acceptable, black-and-white narrative of addiction and recovery.
Bechdel identifies her mother as Donald Winicott's "the good-enough" mother, a mother who does her job well enough to pass, but has ambivalence about the role.
And Bechdel's damage is more along these lines:
"My mother's editorial voice -- precisian, dispassionate, elegant, adverb-less -- is lodged deep in my temporal lobes."
"Indeed, my foremost difficulty is the extent to which I have internalized my mother's critical faculties."
The graphic novel is a scrapbook of memory, dream, therapy session, quotes from works on pyscho-theory, quotes from journals by writers like Plath and Woolf, and conversations between Bechdel and her mother, as she writes the book. It's a surprisingly clever and original way to learn about a mother-daughter relationship in which nothing scandalous happens but which caused plenty of damage none the less.
Other mother-daughter memoirs to recommend? Tell me in the comments.
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