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Seizes the true complexity of a human relationship
on January 16, 2016
I was just as blown away by this book as I was by its predecessor. Now I'm exhausted from reading it but feeling like I need to capture the effusiveness, so here I go with a review. This book is not just about a mother or about a daughter or about their relationship. Even though it zooms in on that particular relationship consistently throughout, examines specific conversations and attitudes and parallels they have experienced, it also still puts these events into a macrocosm that holds up a mirror to so many connections that we, the reader, will see in ourselves. The relationship between dreams and reality--what we want, what we fear, how we've failed and been failed. The relationship between fiction and real life--how a stage play can mean different things to different people or to the same person at different times in our lives (relevant because Alison's mother was an actress). The exploration of therapy, of caring for others and being cared for, of artistic envy and anxiety and depression. All of these experiences are tied together so we can see how they are a life still in progress, and the skill with which this was managed was so amazing considering that it also oozes with honesty and lacks the pretentiousness of many other authors' attempts to relay these truths.
What I like MOST about Alison's work is the way it so beautifully handles the microculture of family. Don't we all have those little terms and phrases based on our shared experiences that don't make sense outside the family? It's not just silly nicknames based on what your brother couldn't say when he was a baby. Families develop their own languages and in-jokes that probably seem bizarre to outside observers without explanation. But this artist captures those in such a believable, accessible way that you can find familiarity in their "foreign" rituals while you remember yours.
Also, there's a ton of discussion of therapy in this book and a feeling of trying to get to the bottom of something dreadfully wrong--to find the answer, and to repair it. I've never had that broken feeling, but I related to a lot of what Alison was searching for and the things she tried to do and cared about in the book. It kind of made me feel like maybe I'm more screwed up than I thought I was, and that the way I let other people's problems affect me might not be as separate from me than I thought they were. It's weird that I can still like a book this much when reading it made me question some of my constants. (Or maybe I just know other people who have these problems so well that they feel like they're my problems. I'm always trying to solve someone else's problems, feeling like my own problems are either nonexistent or manageable, but maybe that's just another false self, huh?)
Here are some other things I admired about it.
There's a clear timeline of the author's life. The book acknowledges the existence of the previous book and the fallout that occurred surrounding publishing a book about her father that spread so many secrets about their family out into the world. How it affected her mother. How it affected her relationship with her mother. And what's going on now that she's writing this book about her mother. The book itself contains references to how its existence is perceived by the people it's about. That's some meta stuff.
I love the reference to how a mother's eggs represent infinite regression--you're born with all the eggs you'll ever have, and so was your mother, and so was her mother, etc. And I liked how Alison referred to herself as a terminus in that line because she will not have kids. Me too.
I love Alison's consistent references to journal-keeping, and the fact that her mother did/does it too. Especially interesting was the time Alison's mother had to help her write in her journal to combat her anxiety. She got attention from her mother through needing that help, which sort of encouraged the symptoms. Also, Alison's journals record internal and external life, but her mom claims her journals are only external life--what happened.
I love her "brook" dream.
I love that her discussion of "undoing" is unfamiliar to me but she makes it feel familiar.
I love the bit where snapshots are recreated featuring baby Alison bonding with her mother and the last one features her being broken out of the trance by the man with the camera.
I get chills reading about babies and their mothers being one. And seeing that mixed with the idea of a period making someone not a child anymore (and that being heartbreaking) juxtaposed with Alison discussing her own menstrual cessation.
I loved the joke in there where Alison is complaining to her therapist about how her mother doesn't want to hear about her life, as if she fears that any word Alison gets in edgewise will be "cunnilingus." (Her mother is uncomfortable with her being a lesbian.) I have been lucky enough to have a supportive mother, but I also related to how Alison discussed feeling ashamed and disappointed when her mother kept bringing up how she should publish her "lesbian cartoons" under a pseudonym. As if she should be ashamed of what she writes, as if it isn't really her, as if she should be doing something more "respectable." It all makes you think her mother feels like this is "ruining" who she is, while Alison feels she is EXPRESSING who she is. I've felt that too when I've encountered disapproval from people close to me who don't agree with my queer activism or who think it's shameful. It really feels like a rejection of who you are and no matter what it pretends to be, it represents that they don't actually respect or accept you. Like they love you in spite of who you are, but don't actually love the you you know you are.
I related in an uncomfortable way to the discussion of accommodation--how children try to become what their parents want, or try to adhere to their parents' perceptions of them--and how the children then experience abandonment because who they REALLY are is being moved to the back and kept in the dark. I know there's sometimes a discrepancy between who I think I am and who I actually am, and that's exacerbated by how consistently people praise me and tell me I'm strong and good, so I feel like I should be those things. Maybe the me that isn't particularly strong or good wants to be allowed to be weak and bad sometimes. I don't like relating to this but I have to say I do.
I love the story of Alison's teddy bear that's "her but not her" was left out in the yard sometimes because she took a sadistic pleasure in subjecting it to abandonment and elemental pummeling; now she has the bear and keeps it, but notes that it has a tooth mark from where a dog dragged it but though you can see its stuffing, it's intact.
I love Alison's "offices." Boy do I make those.
There's a story here of how Alison's mother tried over and over to call her and couldn't reach her, and it was because she was calling her old dorm room's number. Alison felt guilty for not being there for her mother. Even though her mom was reaching out in the wrong direction. "You needed me and I wasn't there" is a familiar feeling for me too, and it sucks that we can feel that way when we have no way of knowing what the person needs until after the fact.
I love the spotlight on how her mother was willing to tell her brothers what their private parts were called but there was mystery surrounding the word "vagina" and her mother pretended she didn't know the right word for it. And I love that her mother wrote poetry about the woman as a subject and not an object. (And the joke about penis envy was great too. Laughing about WHO'D WANT ONE OF THOSE?? sounds like something my mom would do, too.)
I also like built-in distance arrangements. And I hate how people insist that I should want company more than I do, or insist on interpreting me as lonely if I want solitude. They're doing me a favor by interrupting me and forcing social interaction on me, and if I claim to like being alone I'm just covering my real feelings. It's weird. I love built-in distance.
I related to her experience sending a piece out to two journals and getting rejection and criticism from one and acceptance from the other. I had the same thing happen, and after the critical comments from the first place I sent it, I felt almost embarrassed that anyone had offered to publish it and didn't advertise it when it happened because I kinda almost didn't want anyone reading it after what the criticism had revealed about it. Weird how many parallels there are here.
There's a bit where women's writing is discussed, and how a female poet's work was dismissed as "bitter" and "personal" (in a negative way) and necessarily indicated sacrifice of "real" worthwhile poetry if the woman had elected to tackle female-specific life experiences. Male critics seemed anxious to dismiss her experience as irrelevant and such a shame after she'd written better work. A woman couldn't possibly have personal, female-specific experiences that are worthy of everyone trying to relate to, huh? But of course we get to read male authors' poetry that frames women as objects to yearn for and deify, seeing that men see us that way when they are attracted to us, and feel othered and distanced by this treatment only to be told having someone feel that way about you IS A COMPLIMENT period the end.
I love the discussion of loving what you perceive a person to be, and admiring that quality, but not actually loving the person who HAS those qualities. I have experienced that and it's not pleasant.
I look like my mother. Sometimes she talks about how she was never pretty or she was plain or she doesn't like how she looks. I know I look like my mother, and she knows I look like her, so it's weird that she thinks I'm beautiful. This book has some discussion of that dynamic in it, where Alison's mother has to wear makeup to feel presentable and that Alison hated things about herself that her mother observed about her, like her paleness.
I loved Alison's emotional outburst when she realized what she wanted from her mother just wasn't there to be had. The catharsis and relief there was wonderful.
Oh, and I liked that her mother chooses different perfumes for the different characters she plays on stage.
I related heavily to this story and the way it was told. Especially the way Alison describes living fully when she is "writing" about experiences she's had even as she's living them--that she understands what she's going through more fully by writing about it, and that's one of the many reasons she has to do it. Other people don't really understand this, but for me, it's sort of even why I write book reviews. I have things happen in my head while I read and I want those experiences to be somewhere outside my head the way the book that inspired them is. I don't want them to fade or be forgotten, either. I love documentation, and I could take or leave the sharing part of it but there are lots of good experiences to be had in sharing the documentation too.
Recently I was delighted when my mom read me a list of things she likes that she had randomly written down. I love hearing about what she feels because she doesn't talk about what she likes or what she thinks about certain things. I'm amazed and excited when she shares a childhood story or a snip of her history that I didn't know before, and the entire underbelly of her life outside of being a mom and before she was a mom comes into view for a second. I always want to be more than people think of me, even when they know me very well. Relating to how Alison told this story and the roots of why she needs to really hit home with me. I'm so glad I read this book.