I flew to Paris a few months after my mother’s death to teach at the American University. While I’d looked forward to the trip, once I arrived I was disoriented. The airline lost my luggage. I had to teach my first class in the clothes I’d just flown over in and I didn’t have the books I needed for my lesson plans. Each morning on my walk down the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet to the metro station I passed shops selling tombstones and memorial plaques, stalls that sold flowers both real and plastic. My apartment was across from Montparnasse, the famous cemetery that holds Paris’s artistic elite. After my class was over, I walked past Baudelaire’s moss-covered stone likeness and Sartre and de Beauvoir’s tombstone, which was dotted with red lipstick kisses from adoring admirers.
I was still in the early, irrational phases of grief; I had the urge to buy flowers in honour of my mother and set them on a random grave. I bought white roses, walked stone to stone reading the inscriptions. None seemed right. My gesture was more about my own need for my mother to be a more sophisticated person than a tribute to the person she’d been. Also, I was still confused about the whereabouts of her soul. The question, simple, childish, but real – Where is she now? – was one I struggled with. There was something about the chalky belle époque buildings that made me feel they were constructed not of stone, but spirit. Once your material form was destroyed, who knew what travelling a soul might do? Maybe all spirits flew to Paris, not only French ones. Could you haunt a place you’d never been?
I was comforted by the thought that my mother’s essence might have been joined in some fundamental way to beautiful Paris. I also had a darker sensation. Whenever my mind was at rest, in the cracks between thoughts, I saw my mother lying dead on her living room floor. The police had found her after a neighbour noticed her newspapers piling up. I’d lived with this image for months but it was in Paris that I felt my body could no longer hold so much sadness. My darker self split off and followed, just behind me, as I walked in the Luxembourg Gardens, sat in the cafe drinking wine, walked through Notre Dame past the reliquary that held a fragment of the One True Cross.
It was not a completely unusual sensation for me. I’d been afraid much of my life. What was new was that the presence was closer and more familiar. Had my mother risen up from her spot on the floor to follow me? Or was my dark double tracking me? Were the two entities the same? All I know was that in Paris I felt haunted, like a double exposure photograph that shows a figure and then a milky specter behind. I felt stalked by a creature of my own making, a monster that was both my mother and myself.
Since I was a little girl I’ve been afraid of monsters. I’d put garlic on my window ledge to ward off vampires and sage in the corners to protect me from zombies. Even as a young adult I lay on my ratty futon surrounded by library books terrified someone or something would break into my apartment. After my daughter was born, my fear escalated. I’d check the front door several times a day to make sure the deadbolt was secure and the chain latched. At night I lay in the dark, my mind sending out waves of panic.
One night I was up so late with my daughter, who was teething, that my heart began to pound hard. My skin felt hot even as cold sweat came up and soaked my nightgown. I was pulled into the fantasy and carried along: My front door swung wide. In the dim light I could see a figure moving down the hallway, lumbering over the floor. The revelation was horrible but also holy.
Even in the dark I knew her face.
My mother stood before me in her quilted bathrobe, dark hair held back in a ponytail, her eyes sunken, grey. I felt like the narrator of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who, startled out of sleep, opens his eyes to behold the monster reaching out to him: ‘the miserable monster . . . held up the curtain of the bed and his eyes . . . were fixed on me. His jaw opened and he muttered some inarticulate sound while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.’ Dr Frankenstein’s horror is intensified by intimacy, by the bond and expectations between parent and child.
When an object of anxiety, a monster, comes too close the by-product is always horror. A monster, as Timothy Beal writes in his book Religion and Its Monsters, ‘exemplifies the outside that has gotten inside, the beyond the pale that, much to our horror, has gotten into that pale.’ A mother represents home, security, safety, warmth, love, nurturance and protection. Monsters are destroyers of home. They bring chaos and disruption.
My mother was both mother and monster. She was in many ways a conscientious parent. She read books on child rearing, set healthy diets, enforced regular bedtimes and took us to cultural events. She wanted to offer security but her misery foreclosed any possibility of us feeling safe. She promised love but her silent treatments lasted weeks. She was the person I loved most in the world, but also the one that most horrified me. She cultivated darkness the way some mothers design living rooms or plant gardens.
Her sadness showed itself in variation. When I was young she cried in a desultory, wrecked way, sobbing as if she were a sweet lost animal, a baby lamb or a white kitten. Eventually her melancholy swerved into rage. If I hurt her feelings she reverted to silence. If I tried to apologize while she did dishes or folded laundry, she’d keep her eyes straight ahead and pretend I was not there. As I grew older her displays of misery got bolder. In the summer when it was hot she walked around in a slip pulled over her breasts, with nothing underneath, so that whenever she sat down I could see the pink folds and wiry hairs of her sex. In her last years, living alone, she indulged her appetite for darkness by watching tsunami footage on television, listening to Dr Laura, collecting stories of rabid raccoons and baby-killing cats. She once mailed my husband a white envelope. Inside there was no note, just two newspaper clippings. One was about psychopaths. The other was about brain-eating amoebas lurking in freshwater lakes.
As a child I made a pact with my mother. I agreed that we were doomed, that she and I abided together in a cocoon of melancholy. This misery was a private place we shared. At the time I cherished these moments. I felt privileged. Sharing her sorrow meant she loved me. I remember sometimes in the middle of the night she got into bed with me and pressed herself against me, told me about how mean my dad was, about her drunken father, about our money woes. She hugged me tight and started to cry. At those moments I’d take my soul out of my chest and put it in the drawer of my bedside table.
As an adult, I tried every method I could think of to forsake the pact of doom I’d made with my mother, to separate myself from her and her memory. I felt I owed it to my own daughter not to pass on the dark particle that my mom had passed to me. I went to psychotherapists every chance I could get. I found a nun who served as my spiritual advisor. I immersed myself in the literature of fucked-up mothers, marking up the pages of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers (‘The daughter doesn’t realize that the behaviors that will please her mother are entirely arbitrary, determined only by her mother’s self-seeking concern.’) and Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power. (‘Rachel, age twenty-seven, is discouraged by her mother’s responses to good things in her life. She describes “the gloom that descends over [my mother] when I’m obviously happy.”’) I read Shelley’s Frankenstein with the hope of confronting my own obsession with monsters, knowing that Shelley had lost her mother soon after she was born, and that her iconic story of horror was, in one way or another, an allegory about absent mothers and flawed progenitors. Maybe I could bring the monster out of the fearful shadows and into my heart.
Mostly, I tried to deal with my mother by writing about my mother. All my writing life I’ve been obsessed with her. She’s affected not only my subject matter but also the tone of my work. In my second novel, Suicide Blonde, the main character, Jesse, is haunted by her mother’s misery. She becomes a sort of monster, a pain devil, searching for the love she’s been denied. Jesus Saves weaves the story of a young girl growing up in a family much like my own with the tale of a troll-like child kidnapper, the loving mother replaced with a twisted care-taking monster.
My friend, the writer Barry Hannah, once remarked that all my novels were about motherlessness. At times I’ve wished for a missing mother rather than a hostile one. It is not my mother’s absence but her raw pain that creates the anxiety and dread I’ve used as fodder in my fiction. After each of my books was finished, I’d feel for a month or two that I had done it. I’d got her out. I’d exorcised her. But as soon as I’d start a new project, like a horror-movie villain she’d sit up in that creepy straight-backed way and I would realize her influence over me was far from over.
Now that she’s dead I no longer need to cloak her in fiction. Now that my mother’s discombobulating presence is gone, I can try to hear her story. When Victor Frankenstein encounters his progeny on the icy slopes of Mont Blanc, he yells at him to go away. ‘Relieve me from the sight of your detested form.’ In response the monster simply places his hands over the doctor’s eyes. ‘Thus I relieve thee my creator,’ he says. ‘Thus I take from thee a sight you abhor. Still thou canst listen to me and grant me thy compassion. Hear my tale it is long and strange.’
In 1910 my great grandmother Emily Varney went to work for the Cox family as a housemaid. James Cox, Jr and his wife Margaret lived in a mansion at 762 Madison Avenue in Albany, New York. He owned the American Felt Company and employed at his home my great-grandmother and a dozen other servants. Emily was fifteen when she went to work for the Coxes, the same age as their daughter Margaret and, according to my grandmother, her mother Emily was the family’s special favourite. I have three photographs of my great-grandmother and all suggest life experience above her station. In the first, she is dressed in black-striped pants and a tuxedo jacket, singing next to a grand piano. In the second, taken on a trip with the Coxes to California, she stands next to an early version of a movie camera. The last one hangs in my hallway: a large black-and-white portrait coloured by hand. My great-grandmother wears a pink gown and sits on a velvet couch, a large oil painting of mountains behind her. All suggest a sort of play-acting, housemaid as lady. Eventually she married the family chauffeur. Their child, my grandmother, was named Margaret after Mrs Cox and spent the first four years of her life in the Cox nursery. When Emily died at age twenty-five in the great influenza epidemic, my grandmother was four years old. She went to live in a cold-water flat with her aunt, a struggling single mother with a child of her own.
My grandmother’s father, the chauffeur, died a few years after his wife in another wave of influenza. My grandmother referred to herself often and sadly as an orphan. For her and later my mother, wealth did not just mean fancy objects and privilege but emotional safety, a place where your mother was alive. Those early years were heaven on earth for my grandmother and she indoctrinated my mother, telling her about those years and their grandeur and making it clear that wealth was the only truly safe place.
My grandmother spent her life waiting to be discovered, recognized, taken from her current situation and placed into a higher one. Her fixation was on the royal family. She had books on the Queen’s jewels and ceremonial robes. My mother preferred her royalty closer to home. She was preoccupied with Marylou Whitney, grande dame of Saratoga. She’d talk endlessly about her house, her horses, the fancy party she threw every year at racing season.
The trance my mother went into when she was around luxury items had a religious intensity. Just before she died I took her to Dennis Basso’s fur store in New York City. My mother, like a lot of shut-ins, was an avid QVC watcher and owned several pieces of Basso’s faux-fur line. The store on Park Avenue on the Upper East Side shimmered, all white, silver and glass. The fox, mink and chinchilla fur glittered, each strain like a needle-thin piece of coloured glass. The saleswoman with high cheekbones and severe blond bun grimaced when she saw my mother in her extra-large snow jacket, orthopaedic shoes and cane. My mother didn’t notice. She was too far gone, lost in the ecstatic moment, her face flushed as she touched real fur.
Mary Shelley also longed for a life different, more secure and loving, than her own. From the time she was ten her father, the radical philosopher William Godwin, was mired in debt, always trying to borrow money to keep off creditors. Mary’s mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died when Mary was just eleven days old. As she grew into girlhood, Mary did not get along with her father’s second wife. Her teenage years were difficult. Fed up with his brilliant, recalcitrant daughter – she was ‘singularly bold, somewhat imperious,’ Godwin said – he sent her to live in Dundee, Scotland, with William Baxter, a correspondent he hardly knew. Mary enjoyed the companionship of Baxter’s four daughters, but she felt herself an outsider, a stranger in their midst.
The monster in Frankenstein, chased out of his first home, finds a hovel adjacent to a cottage where he spends his days observing, through a chink in the wall, the De Lacy family. He watches the family but like Mary is not one of them. He learns to speak and to read. It’s in proximity to the family that the monster grows emotionally and intellectually, nourished by the example of their day-to-day life and love for each other. Eventually, though, he wants more. He attempts to meet with the family patriarch, the blind De Lacy. All goes well until the children arrive, see the monster’s hideous form and, horrified, chase him off. The monster confronts his fantasy life directly and, denied, burns down the cottage. The monster’s actions are self-destructive but also freeing.
My mother lived her whole life angry. As she saw it, she’d been cheated, tricked, bamboozled. Her fury was almost murderous. She was devoured by envy. All of this was repressed, simmering, potentially explosive, but never, in actions, played out. I wonder: If my mother had confronted her fantasy life would she have been able, in killing off her fantasies of wealth and position, to actually inhabit the life she had with us?
For a time in her early teens, she rejected my grandmother’s values. Searching for a better life, she walked around the corner and sat by herself in the front pew of the neighbourhood church. She was thirteen years old. Her mother was unhappy and her father, while gentle and charming, was a heavy drinker. He drove a bakery truck and there was never enough money. The family lived in a walk-up apartment and my mother sometimes had to tell the landlady, when she came for the rent, that her mother was not home. Many days her mother sent her to drag her father out of the beer shop.
My father was the minister’s son in the church my mother walked into. He claims he was madly in love with her since that first Sunday he’d seen her sitting in the front row of his father’s church. They went on their first date when she was fifteen, and he tried to court her over the next few years, but she wasn’t that interested. She had bigger things in her life than a romance with a minister’s son. As she grew older she continued going to church, but she also edged back in the direction of her mother’s preoccupation with wealth and glamour. She became a fashion model and pageant girl. She’d been named Tulip Queen, Miss Albany and runner-up in the Miss New York State pageant. In the photo I have of her shaking hands with Nelson Rockefeller, a Miss Albany banner across her chest, she is tall, thin and radiantly beautiful. She had a weekly radio show where she talked about fashion and was a mainstay at the local department store’s Saturday afternoon fashion shows.
By the spring of 1961, though, her life had stalled out. She was nineteen years old, living at home and working at the phone company. Perhaps this was why, after brushing off the minister’s son for so many years, she agreed to begin dating him seriously. He was going to seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was poised to enter a life that, while not lucrative, seemed to promise to put him and his eventual mate into a position of respect in the community.
By the time he went back to seminary at the end of the summer of 1961, my mother was pregnant with me. He’d been at school only a few weeks when she told him the news. He took a bus back to Albany and they were married secretly by a justice of the peace. My dad went back to seminary. She went to her parents’ cramped two-bedroom house.
During these months, my father tells me, my mother had terrible morning sickness and was worried about her future. She called him on the phone and cried. At Christmas, when he came home on break, they told their parents. Both sets were unhappy, but my mother’s were devastated. While marrying into a minister’s family would be considered a step up for many poor families, my mother’s family had higher aspirations. Her beauty and local fame, they had hoped, would qualify her for marriage into a family of wealth and prominence.
A second public wedding between my mother and father was hastily arranged at my grandfather’s church, the same one she’d gone to years before as a girl. A photo shows my parents against a painted cement block wall, my father in his black shirt and white clerical collar and my mother in a brown everyday dress. Their smiles are wide but their eyes anxious.
I was born that spring in Sylvan Beach, on the shore of Oneida Lake in upstate New York where my father had his first church. Though my mother only accentuated the hard parts of those years, I like to think of that time in my mother’s life as an extension of her early openness to faith. Members of the congregation recall her as young, only twenty, but serious and dutiful. She baked birthday cakes for Jesus and was a member of the Ladies’ Guild. The phone in the rectory was the church line and it rang day and night for my father.
It was in the last year of her time at Sylvan Beach that my mother began to wake in the middle of the night with a sense of dread. The life of the spirit she hoped for was unsatisfying. The nights were dark and she felt frightened and homesick. The wind off Oneida Lake screeched around the house. Storms on the lake were frequent and hostile, the water looked like broken glass.
Mary Shelley was staying in a shoreline villa at Lake Geneva, a body of water known for its violent storms, when she began writing Frankenstein. ‘Lighting strikes from peak to peak, the surface of the lake shivers like a boiling cauldron.’ It was the summer of 1813, and she was two years into her life on the run with the poet Percy Shelley. She had been sixteen when she’d run away with him, a married man and rock-star poet nearly a decade older than her, prompting her father to disown her. She had lost one child, a baby daughter, and that summer was recovering from the birth of her second child, a son. During this time, Mary read her parents’ books over and over in an attempt to figure out why her father had rejected her. Her father’s memoir included details of Wollstonecraft’s affair and her illegitimate child, Mary’s half-sister, Fanny. Mary had been brought up to respect and cherish her mother’s memory. How had she misunderstood her parent’s radical ideas? Life with Shelley, meanwhile, had become more difficult. After the first flush of being ‘too happy to sleep’ Mary was beginning to realize how deeply unstable Shelley was, ‘a harp responsive to every wind.’
It was Lord Byron, a fellow house guest, who suggested, after several days of stormy weather, that they each write a ghost story. I think that even without his provocation her story of Frankenstein’s creation would have emerged. Shelley, lying awake in the dark, broken off from her family, in love with a man as unstable as he was fantastic, haunted by the death of her first-born, listening to the wind screech over the lake’s surface, would have had no choice in the matter. The monster would have come.
The monster’s first manifestation in my life happened after my mother had my youngest brother. I was four years old. She was twenty-five with three children and a husband busy with ministerial work. My baby brother got pneumonia in the hospital and nearly died. When she came home my mother had black circles under her eyes, her gaze blank, her pupils dilated. After my father left in the morning for church, my mother went back to bed and slept through the day. The baby cried till he was hoarse.
A bevy of theories exist about post-partum depression. Some have suggested that the mother is mourning the loss of being pregnant. I’m not sure about that; in the last weeks of my own pregnancy, all I wanted was for my daughter to come out. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Pinker claims that in an earlier phase of human evolution post-partum depression was necessary in the cases where a mother would choose to invest no further in her infant, either because the baby was defective or she lacked adequate resources to care for a child. Depression helped the mother move away from the baby she was about to abandon, allowing her to save herself and her other children.
I’ll never know how close my mother came to leaving us or even hurting us. But the potential violence of those long winter afternoons was real: my baby brother crying himself to sleep, waking only to wail some more. Snow gathering at the window, my beautiful blank-eyed mother moving around the kitchen. Her bare pink legs, her loose belly, her hair held back, a strand falling forward over her face. I had missed her so much while she was in the hospital. I wanted to smell her delicious scent, feel the warmth of her skin and snuggle into her lap, press my head to her chest and hear her heart. I touched the hem of her nightgown, and when she didn’t respond I grabbed onto her leg. She screamed and shook me off. I fled to the corner, huddling there until my father came home. He eventually got my mother help: counselling, a month’s rest at her parents’ house and electric shock therapy.
In Sunday school I heard a lot about angels but nothing about monsters. Frankenstein, zombies and the creature from the black lagoon were only in B-movies and cartoons, make-believe stuff. But while I had never seen an angel, I’d come close to a monster. Seeing my mother transformed, more than anything I learned in church, bought me close to crucial theological questions, showed me cracks in the world’s foundations. Her inability to do the work of mothering made me feel she was questioning God about her very existence. Why did you make me? Why did you put me here? What where you thinking? What kind of world is this?
Mary Shelley’s monster asks similar questions, opening himself to an abyss of unknowing. Are we not all rendered monstrous under God? Is our monstrosity in the image of God? What is God? Traditionally there are two ways of knowing God. The cataphatic, finding God through light, has been the most popular. The apophatic favours St John of the Cross: finding God through darkness, through unknowing. An encounter with a monster is the personification of the unknown. The path of unknowing reveals the incomprehensibility, rather than the emptiness, of the divine mystery. We must unlearn what we believe we know, not because what we believe in does not exist, but because what we believe in can’t really be known.
During my mother’s treatment my baby brother stayed with my aunt and my older brother David and I stayed with my grandparents. When she came home she was still tired, but more animated. She got down on the floor to play tinker toys with us and she moved around the kitchen lightly with a smile on her face. I watched her carefully to see if the monster had really been snuffed out and my real mother was back. She got out of her bathrobe in the mornings and dressed in peg leg jeans, Keds and a floral blouse with a Peter Pan collar. The black circles faded under her eyes and her cheeks grew pink. Her blue eyes followed my brothers and me around the room. When I asked her a question, she kneeled down to my level and looked directly into my eyes.
For those few years between my little brother’s birth and when we started to move around she was still sad, but her sadness did not overtake her. She was more mother than monster. I adored her warm, fragrant body, her beautiful face. Whenever she let me I put my hands on her cheeks and pulled her head close to mine and kissed her full on the lips.
After we started to move, settling a year here and a year there, so my father could get training to switch from being a minister to a hospital chaplain, my mother lost focus. I’d come home from school to find her sitting at the kitchen table staring out the window at the sparrows at the feeder. After we went to bed, my parents fought, their voices careening up the stairwell. Finally she started to cry again, and this time not just lying on her bed. Now her face was always wet as she dressed us and did the dishes, as she drove to the doctor and shopped at the grocery store. At the dinner table she stared at my father with unveiled hostility. Her anger was calcifying, embedding in her like barbed wire growing into a tree trunk.
As I got older my mother tried to mould me, not in her own image, but in the image she’d wanted for herself. She’d often say I wish I had two daughters, one I could control and then you. She’d given herself away, and in my teenage years she tried to get herself back through me. She believed a woman’s best chance at the good life was in marrying a wealthy man. She not only talked about rich people, but also wanted me to dress like them. She bought me linen skirts and straw hats and asked my dates if I didn’t remind them of Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Silk dresses, white leather shoes: she wanted me to look like I was always on my way to a garden party. These items hung in my closet, usually with the tags still on, until she took them back.
I had no interest in the wardrobe and plans she wanted for me. It was the late 1970s, and I wanted to wear clogs, corduroys, cheesecloth shirts, feather earrings. War broke out. She became obsessed with my curfew. She talked about slutty girls, girls that had gone to seed with a vehemence that was psychotic.
Our biggest fight happened on the day I moved into my first college dorm room. My mother was helping me unpack for my freshman year when she found my diaphragm. Our family doctor had suggested I get one before I went to college, and had helped me acquire it without my mother’s knowledge. My mother held the pink plastic case up. I tried to explain, truthfully, that I hadn’t used it, but she ran out of the room, got into our family station wagon and drove back to Virginia. I know now what was haunting my mother. She didn’t want me to get pregnant, to get married, to become her.
Whenever I called home during my first year of college my father sounded giddy and excited. He had started writing poetry and was going to expand our backyard garden. My mother was cryptic, only saying how crazy things had been around the house. When I came home for Christmas I saw her anger had turned to fear. She’d lost weight and was now interested in all aspects of my father’s life. We drove to his office basketball game and sat in the hard wooden bleachers. My mother wore eyeliner and mascara and her wrap-around jeans skirt. She accompanied my dad to his writing group, where I knew she was ill at ease. My father was as distant as ever, but my mother was now afraid of losing him.
A week before I graduated from college my mother called to tell me they were getting divorced. On the day of my graduation my parents stood far apart from each other, until my mother finally walked directly up to him. Are you sure you want to do this? My father nodded a sharp yes. That night my mother slept in my narrow dorm bed while I slept beside her on the floor. I started to cry and she grabbed my hand and said Why shouldn’t we cry, why shouldn’t we be miserable? A part of me wanted to comfort her but the stronger part was horrified at the thought of being swept once again into her sadness. I yanked my hand away and turned to the far wall, pretending to sleep.
After the divorce, my mother found a job in the gift shop of the local arts centre. She moved from our family ranch house to a condo. During that year she worked her way up to general manager. Finally she was living a life closer to the one she’d wanted. She was invited to parties at the homes of wealthy museum patrons. She loved her condo’s central air and dishwasher. When I came to visit I slept on a futon she pulled out of a closet. She took me to lunch at the Natural Foods Co-op, and we went to films at the local revival theater. She still hated my father and sometimes raged against him but for that year darkness and light seemed to have reached a balance in her life.
This period ended with her breast cancer diagnosis. The doctor told her the tumour had begun to grow two years earlier, just after my father left. She blamed my dad for the cancer. After taking sick leave to get a mastectomy, she began to miss first days and then weeks of work. When she did make it into the office she picked fights with co-workers and talked behind people’s backs. I went to visit her just after she was fired, and she told me as she drove to her condo from the bus station that she no longer wanted to live.
I suggested, as I had many times before, anti-depressants and therapy. They worked for me, I told her. She insisted, as she always did, that my father was the crazy one, she was perfectly sane, just honest. But you just told me you don’t want to live. She claimed her feelings were valid, given what she’d been through. Instead of addressing her own sorrow, she wanted to pull me into it, make me acknowledge and agree that her life had been terrible and that she should want to die.
If pain is what makes others real to us, there was not another human being more real to me than my mother. In the years after the cancer she grew darker and more unreasonable every year. Though it was fall and the mountains were radiant with gold and burgundy, my mother wanted to stay in the condo and talk. Our conversation roamed over my own and my brother’s lives and landed, as it always did, on my dad. She claimed he had bombed out her life. She ranted so hard that her face paled and her body was rigid with fury. She was bewildered: How had this happened, how had her life turned out this way? She wanted someone to blame. I started to pray to a God I was not in good relations with; I just said help me, and repeated the phrase till the sky outside my window turned from black to blue. In the morning I asked to borrow her car and drove to a nearby bookshop. Books, since childhood, have been objects of hope and light. They have a talismanic power. I bought a tiny book with a silk cover of Buddhist sayings. The book was small enough to fit in my pocket and for the rest of the weekend as she blasted me and my heart beat against my chest, like a small bloody animal caught in a trap, I kept my hand in my pocket touching the tiny book.
Sometime during the visit when her rage moved into hysteria, I’d leave her condo and walk into a strip of woods between the parking lot and the road. I’d even my breath and try to calm myself. I felt that the fate of my very soul was in jeopardy; I was fighting a spiritual battle between darkness and light. I’d watched her through the window, as she moved around the kitchen making a cup of tea. I’d wait until she went to bed before going back. She’d come out eventually and stand in the dark in her nightgown. She’d say I was an adult now, that I had to stop believing that life was happyhappyhappy. I had to see things as they really were. What was so monstrous was that my mother was my maker, my creator, and she was saying she’d created me to live in the dark. That, as far as she was concerned, was my destiny. I did not respond. There was nothing I could do, because there was nothing I had done. It was not my behaviour that triggered her fury, but my very existence. She stood there for a while, her large body lumpish and fragile in the hall. Have it your way, she’d finally say, before going back into her room and slamming the door.
The last time I visited her condo she was getting ready to move back in with my grandmother. Most of her possessions were in boxes. She’d always been slow getting up in the morning, but now her routine lasted into the afternoon. I made the mistake of mentioning that I’d seen my father and my mother began to rage. Because of him she had nothing. He’d given her cancer. I pulled out the futon, but she was so agitated she wanted to talk late into the night. I went again to stand in the woods and wait until she was in her room.
The next night I decided to try and deflect her rage. Basic Instinct was playing at the cineplex. All I knew about the film was that it was getting raves. In the theatre, every few minutes I’d check her face, which had one of her signature expressions, imperious disapproval. She hated what she called slutty women, and I knew Sharon Stone’s character disgusted her. I also knew the sex scenes would repel her and she’d find the plot morally repugnant. I realized I’d made a huge miscalculation. I’d wanted to distract her, but I saw now that the film was going to make her even worse. I whispered to her that we should leave. She glanced at me, her eyes silver-bright, and shook her head. The film was giving her fuel. I could almost feel her taking the story in and turning it into rage. Once it was over she’d berate me. I started to think of things to say that might counteract her anger. I’d agree it was a horrible, stupid movie. I’d say the film was a sign of the world’s moral depravity. I’d rush to say everything I knew she’d say and in that way cut her off.
As we left the theatre she was quiet. But back inside the condo, she started in about what a slut Sharon Stone was, how the plot showed the world was beyond help. The detective reminded her of my father. I hadn’t anticipated that, but now I saw why she’d been so deeply upset. In her mind Michael Douglas, whom she already hated for leaving Brenda Vaccaro for the nineteen-year-old daughter of a diplomat, was like my father, someone society respected but who was corrupt.
It was too late for me to go out in the woods and, besides, it was raining. She raged on. I tried to think of her fury as a storm that rose up with rain and hail, grew to a hurricane but then eventually subsided. When I finally insisted I had to sleep she stomped angrily into her bedroom and slammed the door.
I lay in the dark on the floor listening to her move around her room. I heard the clock in the kitchen ticking and footfalls in the condo above my head. My heart started to beat fast. My head was damaged. I felt a cold spot at the back of my skull. I got up, got a glass from the cabinet and ran the water. Should I go out to the woods and sleep like an animal, or some outcast monster? It was still raining, but I could take my blankets and a few plastic garbage bags. I could hear the rain at the window. I went into the kitchen and opened the silverware drawer and took out the fat chopping knife, the serrated bread knife, the steak knives. I wrapped them all in a dishtowel and stuck them under my futon. I lay there thinking how the movie had spooked me. I was worried someone might break in. I was afraid that my mom would hurt herself but also that she might hurt me. I know it sounds crazy but I was afraid my mother might kill me. I went into the bathroom, turned on the faucet and cupped water into my hands to splash my face. Nietzsche warned that ‘whoever fights with monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.’ When I looked up my features were wet, raw, wolfish.
After losing her job, my mother moved back home to Albany, to the house she grew up in. She was a greeter at the history museum and eventually worked as an intake clerk in the angioplasty department of a nearby hospital. She cared for my grandmother until her death. Her temperament grew increasingly dark. She cut out stories from newspapers and magazines and mailed them to my brothers and me, wanting to make sure we were aware that the world was a place filed with murderous rampages, rat infestations, flesh-eating viruses.
Whenever I tried to offer another reading of the world or her life, a more positive one, she became enraged. Once, after my youngest brother and his wife had a baby, I tried to convince her that we were having a positive period in our family. My mother’s face blanched. I thought she might hit me. Things are not good for me!
My brothers and I celebrated her seventieth birthday with her at a fancy Saratoga hotel. I ordered a special birthday cake and each of her grandchildren made her home-made gifts. We paid for her to have a massage and mineral bath at the motel spa. In the moment she seemed happy but afterwards quickly reverted back to doom. My mother did not mellow in her last years. She remained vehemently, almost joyously, unhappy. Rejecting healthy pleasures, she sunk deeper into darkness like a mystic pushed toward light. During phone calls her misery often reached a sort of glittery nihilistic ecstasy. She’d tell me her money worries, her health issues. She’d remind me that people were dying again of small pox and tell me I should be careful, evil men lurked everywhere, I needed to protect my daughter from kidnapping and rape.
Like my mother, Mary Shelley’s melancholy nature caused her to obsess on the darker aspects of life, until they blocked even her sustaining relationships. ‘Loneliness has been the curse of my life,’ she wrote in her journal. But unlike my mother, Mary had another resource, one I know as both mysterious and nourishing, a place where the deepest sorrow has the possibility of transformation. ‘White paper,’ Mary wrote, ‘wilt thou be my confidant?’
At first after she died I felt guilty writing about my mom, yanking her sorrow into the light. But I couldn’t help myself. I needed to do the work my mother was unable to do, to try and transfigure her pain. My writing, oddly enough, was the single subject we both agreed on. After she read my first published story, a tale about a dark mother at war with her daughter, I was terrified of her fury. Instead she was surprisingly supportive. ‘You write what you have to,’ she said, ‘and I’ll deal with it.’ She was never willing to confront her sorrow directly but she was willing to let me work out what I needed to in my prose. She was proud to have a writer daughter. When my first novel came out she used her own money to throw me a book party. When my memoir Easter Everywhere was published I worried again that writing about our difficult relationship would infuriate her. At first she didn’t have much to say about the book, but after I read at a local college she told me I’d captured the textures of our early family life. I was worried you’d be angry, I said. My mother shook her head. I haven’t always acted my best.
I returned to Paris in July 2012. This time, instead of staying in an apartment across the street from a cemetery, I stayed in a suburb, Nogent-sur-Marne, a pretty village with stone country houses along the river. I lived with the Renouil family. The father, Germond, was a successful television producer and the mother, Karine, was running for town mayor. They had three children: Paul, seventeen, Sestine, fifteen, and ten-year-old Elliot. Once, as I came back from the bathroom in the middle of the night, Elliot asked me in broken English to leave on the hallway light. Perhaps, I thought, he was worried about monsters too. The Renouils invited me to their family dinners where we ate, among other delicacies, honey-infused goat cheese and pear tarts. I envied the way the whole family, even the children, stayed at the table talking and luxuriating over their meal. Every morning I walked down to the RER station for my commute to the American University of Paris, passing fruit and newspaper stands, a hardware store, an Indian restaurant, a hair salon, a post office and a supermarché, the ordinary stuff of life. The stone Beaux Arts buildings with their swags and shields were no longer made of souls and I felt, as I walked along the Seine, no angry spirit stalking me. I’m still not sure where my mother is, but I do know she’s no longer furious. What’s left of the monster is benevolent, wispy, even loving, a sensation of eternity stuck into human time.
Photograph courtesy of Margot Gabel