WHAT MY MOTHER and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence is a tight, polished book exploring particular manifestations of the relationship between mother and child, particularly in what is spoken and what is, sadly, left unsaid. Editor Michele Filgate’s powerful, brave short essay captures the suffocating energy in a house where denial and betrayal fester. Originally published in Longreads in 2017, this essay has become the kernel of the series of essays by authors such as Brandon Taylor, Leslie Jamison, Nayomi Munaweera, and Alexander Chee, among others, due out from Simon & Schuster on April 30, 2019. Filgate and Dylan Landis (author of Rainey Royal and Normal People Don’t Live Like This) discuss their two essays as well as the layers of nuance surrounding their mothers. Never sentimental or longwinded, these essays encourage the reader to look at her own secrets that long for expression.
TAYLOR LARSEN: Each of your essays deals with the enigmatic figure of the mother. Can you tell me more about the genesis of these essays: how they came to be and were they difficult to write?
MICHELE FILGATE: I started writing my essay over a decade ago as an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire. At the time, I thought I was trying to write about my stepfather abusing me. It took me many years of therapy and many years of writing to realize what the real story was about: the fracture this caused in my relationship with my mother. This was the most difficult essay I’ve ever written, because writing it meant I needed to relive deeply painful experiences — and it also meant I had to grapple with the truth: my mother chose her husband over me. On a personal note, I’d like to add that I would never have finished this essay if it weren’t for you, Taylor! Thank you for forcing me to take a break from the internet and be alone with my thoughts. I’ll never forget how you helped me finish this essay by lighting a candle, taking my phone away from me, and “locking” me in your parent’s dining room. I spent a lot of time (more time than I’d like to admit) avoiding completing this essay. Looking back on the process, I think it’s because I hungered for a deeper relationship with my mother. But that’s also what led me to write this piece in the first place.
DYLAN LANDIS: My mother began telling me a riveting story years ago, when I was a teenager. It was about a life she once led, and a man she had once known. But she told it her way: out of order, over the decades, in bits and pieces, and with tantalizing gaps.
Her story had a secret at its heart. She took it to her grave. All I could do was piece the fragments together, make a chronology, research what I could like a newspaper reporter, which I used to be. I did all this, and the writing, at the kitchen table of my novelist-friend Natalie Baszile. We often work together, but she’s taught more, she’s written more personal essays. After four days, I slid 5,000 words across the table, proudly, and finally she said, “You’ve written the skeleton. I want the heart. I want the music.” Then she gave me a 15-minute MFA course on the personal essay.
I was so juiced. I wrote the second draft from the basement, with Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth by my laptop for inspiration.
Michele, the ending of your essay breaks my heart. “‘I love you past the sun and the moon and the stars,’ she’d always say to me when I was little. But I just want her to love me here. Now. On Earth.” Can you elaborate on why you chose to end the essay on this particular note?
MF: This essay is ultimately about longing for a relationship with my mother. It’s not about anger or resentment — it’s about craving a deeper connection and mourning her absence, mourning the ghost of the mother she could be. This particular phrase that my mother used to say to me is imprinted in my heart. I want to believe that she means what she says, but when the person who gave birth to you denies the most traumatic experience of your life, words lose their meaning. I want my mother to mother me, not to just say she loves me. I want my mother to call me, to celebrate milestones with me, to visit me. I want my mother to admit that my stepfather did in fact abuse me. That’s how you love someone. By believing them. By being present instead of absent.
Dylan, your essay delves into the mystery behind your mother’s day-to-day life as a housewife and then it goes into more complex territory as the presence of Haywood Bill Rivers adds the element of race to this intriguing portrait of a mother’s secrets. Did the figure of Haywood Bill Rivers haunt your life? You write: “The Bill Rivers story is a parasitical worm that swims beneath my skin.” Please elaborate.
DL: When I was a young teenager, something erupted from my mother. She felt compelled to inform me that she was not just a housewife-mother. That once upon a time, a circle of important artists, and one in particular, had found her smart as a whip, possessed of a “rapier wit.” They had prized her company, she said. She wanted me to know that her mind had glittered among those artists in a way I could not perceive, as she served and cleared, balanced the checkbook and shopped for groceries.
She began to tell me, in snippets, about her special friend, the painter Haywood Bill Rivers. How they exchanged special “pet names.” How they sat in bars, laughing and talking for hours. How he gave her a painting, which is a big deal from a working artist.
I was fascinated — and confused. I’d never seen this other mother. My mother was tethered to her family by mundane and thankless tasks. Her hours seemed as long as my father’s — he was a psychoanalyst — but what had she done with her glittering mind?
I never learned the underlying truth, if there was one. Did she love this artist? Did he love her? Did she keep talking of him throughout her life, never with my father present, because of some yearning she could not contain?
Haunted doesn’t begin to express it.
Michele, when you read Dylan’s essay, which parts stuck out to you the most and made you want to have this essay as part of your anthology?
MF: The first time I read Dylan’s essay, it was a transcendent experience. I started shaking because I knew that I was reading something that was so stunning and perfect, and I couldn’t believe that she wrote it for my book. I immediately wrote to her and told her that her writing reminded me of one of my mentors: Jo Ann Beard. It turns out that Jo Ann Beard is who she had in mind as she was working on this! She had my attention with the opening sentence: “The wives of my father’s friends do not iron shirts.” It’s hard to choose just a few moments because “16 Minetta Lane” feels as rich and layered as a painting. I love how tenderly Dylan portrays her mother, and how she talks about the life she lived and wonders about the life she could have lived.
I like how your essays are very layered. Dylan, your interest is piqued when you watch your mother dance. It’s a subtle but powerful moment when you realize there is much more to her than you initially could tell. The work seems to end on the note of “What about the children?” as it relates to her own choices and also your choice to marry a man of a different race.
DL: Oh, but I didn’t choose to marry a man of a different race. I chose to marry a man; he happened to be of a different race. That was my naïveté. I had not yet learned that colorblindness is simply blindness, that for a black man, race defines everything. I’ll never finish learning this; my eyes are opened anew daily.
Race barely came up in my mother’s Bill Rivers story. My parents were civil rights activists who said they believed in being colorblind. But the way she reacted to my engagement to a black man in 1984 — “What about the children?” — made me wonder if she had torn herself from a romance with Mr. Rivers in 1949 because of race.
I wish I’d thought to ask her then, “I don’t know, mom, what about the children? Tell me what you’re worried about. Did this ever come up for you?” Instead, being young, ardent, and stupid, I got angry.
Michele, your essay explores sexual abuse and also emotional abuse. What is it you hoped your readers would take away from your essays about the complex nature of betrayal?
MF: I’m hoping my essay will help other people who have been in similar situations understand that it isn’t their fault — and that sometimes breaking the silence is the hardest but most important thing you can do. Burying your trauma inside of you leads to shame, anger, resentment, despair, and a bunch of other ugly feelings. I also wanted to show how emotional abuse can be just as awful as sexual abuse, and how living in a house where there’s more fear than joy can make a person feel like they are completely alone in the world. No one deserves to live in that kind of environment.
When I think of family secrets that harm the child in any particular way, I think of shame. Shame is a heavy thing to carry around with you. Shame tricks you into believing that you’re less of a person than other people, or that something is fundamentally wrong with you. Shame eats away at you from the inside. Not talking about family secrets allows shame to multiply across generations. Brené Brown talks a lot about shame in her work, and one thing she said on her website really stays with me: “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” If we’re made to feel unlovable, that becomes a pervasive belief that takes a lot of work to dismantle.
Did these early experiences make you interested in becoming a writer?
MF: I believe that every single artist is influenced by their childhood experiences. I knew I wanted to be a writer before my stepfather came into my life — and thank God that I had books and my writing as something to ground me when I was in high school. But all credit for becoming a writer goes to my grandmother. We used to go for long walks, and I’d make up stories about my surroundings: a monster that lived in the pipe in our backyard, a rock that looked like a giant, ghosts that lived on the bottom of the lake in our backyard. Back then, writing felt like magic. By the time my stepfather was in the picture, writing felt like a way to bear witness, as well.
DL: Childhood gave me the sense that truth was slippery. I never knew what I’d learn next, abruptly, as if a secret had fallen from a shelf. That my parents had been in brief marriages before they met each other; that my mother had changed both her nose and her first name, which seemed to me like becoming a different person; the terrible details of how my grandmother beat her.
But fantastic mysteries lingered in the gaps. What were those first marriages like? Why didn’t they tell me, before they died, that they had lied about the date of their marriage for 59 years so I would never learn I was conceived out of wedlock?
And why did we have scrapbooks of snapshots of my father as a young man, an adventurer in Europe — but not one picture of my mother as a young woman that’s clearly taken before her marriage to my father? I think being a writer let me fill in those gaps, with empathy, research, and imagination.
What has it been like to share something so personal with the world?
MF: It depends on the day. Sometimes I feel a sense of relief, but there are many days when I feel nauseated, anxious, and sad. Sharing your truth isn’t something that leads to a complete sense of freedom. My hope is that my essay and all of the essays by the extraordinary 14 other writers in this anthology will help people have important conversations with their loved ones.
It helps to know that I’m not doing this by myself. I’m buoyed by the fact that this is a collaborative project. As I say in the introduction: “[D]oing this as a community is much easier than standing alone on a stage.” What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About has something for everyone: people who are close with their mothers, people who are estranged from their mothers, people who have always been unmothered, people who no longer have a mother. Whenever I share the title of my essay and now book, the first reaction is: “I have my own story to tell.” I want people to feel empowered to share their own experiences.
DL: I’m terrified. I fear I’m violating my mother’s sacred space — she always made clear that anything spoken within the family was private. I don’t want to misrepresent a man I never got to know. And in the end, I don’t know what really happened between him and my mother.
Finally, I don’t want to imply that my parents were not in love — they were. They sat in their adjacent wheelchairs holding hands, bowing their heads toward each other.
But I’m a writer. I write.