JANUARY 9, 2020
LITERATURE IS LOUSY with monstrous mothers. From Medea to The Joy Luck Club, they kill their children purposely or accidentally in order to strike back at their husbands; in Lolita and Bastard Out of Carolina, they avert their eyes from sexual abuse of their daughters; sometimes, as in The Lover or The Bluest Eye, they are abusers themselves. The memoir form has also — at least since Mommie Dearest — trafficked in abusive or sociopathic mothers; indeed, it is hard to move through the crowded tell-all arena without knocking a highball out of some terrible woman’s hand.
Onto this crowded playing field strides Malabar, the glamorous, high-functioning, alcoholic, narcissistically manipulative mother of Adrienne Brodeur’s debut memoir, Wild Game. Charismatic, beautiful, Radcliffe-educated, and married to a fabulously wealthy older man, Malabar seems to have it all, at least from a certain WASPy point of view. Within the book’s early pages, however, she not only rocks her privileged boat by starting an affair with her semi-disabled husband’s also-married best friend, but also wakes the then-14-year-old Adrienne from a sound sleep to announce the affair and to enlist her daughter’s aid in enabling her double life for roughly the next decade.
Purportedly fetching an enormous advance at auction, Wild Game’s extraordinary success is not unrelated to the public’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for stories of terrible mothers. And indeed, Malabar seems destined to join the reviled ranks of Queen Gertrude and Joan Crawford; in perhaps the book’s most chilling scene, she says to Adrienne, “Has it ever occurred to you, Rennie, that I don’t want you anywhere near me?” Yet what makes this text fascinating is Brodeur’s radical empathy for the mother who hurt her, an attitude so rare as to be almost subversive. Unlike stories in which “victims” triumph over their “perpetrators,” Brodeur resists such neat delineations. Paced like a thriller, the first half of Wild Game exploits the reader’s interest in Brodeur’s scheming mother, who exists at the center of young Adrienne’s world. Further, Brodeur does not require of Malabar either teary repentance or blood sacrifice; in fact, one of the book’s more radical aspects is its surprisingly happy ending.
As the author put it, in an interview with me:
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that my mother’s affair resulted in a different outcome than that of your typical literary adulteress? Perhaps it’s because she’s a real flesh-and-blood person and not a fictional creation. It’s true that Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Hester Prynne, just to give a few examples, all paid a severe price for their desires, while my mother was ultimately rewarded with an ending worthy of Jane Austen.
Indeed. Nobody is throwing herself in front of any trains here, thank you, and those who hunger to see a misbehaving woman punished for her crimes can move along. Yet Brodeur also adds,
Some might find it refreshing to see a woman who lived life on her own terms — as my mother did — get what was for her a happy ending. The flip side to this, of course, is the effect her choices had on me. Her decision to involve me in her affair and to compel me to lie for her impacted my life profoundly.
And how could it not? Painting what could be seen as a “feminist” portrait of a problematic woman does not, of course, sweep all her negative traits and their fallout under the rug. Rather, Brodeur offers one of the most humane looks at a profoundly flawed mother that I have read, and the feats of empathy and generosity it must have taken to do so, given the damage her mother did to her psyche and life, are as impressive as Wild Game’s storytelling prowess.
Believe me. I know.
In July 2012, about four and a half months into an extramarital affair (the only one in nearly 23 years of marriage), I was busted by my 12-year-old twin daughters, who found my phone unattended and went snooping. What they discovered was a series of intimate and deeply embarrassing texts between my lover and me. Things only got worse from there. Even once my daughters knew, I still failed to tell their father, instead promising the girls that I had ended the affair — a promise I kept for only a handful of months, during which time I did hideously selfish and overcompensating things, like inviting my lover and his wife to stay in our basement guest suite, in some delusional effort to show my daughters and myself that we were all “just friends” now. During this period, I also shredded all my journals about the affair, telling myself that this episode was done, that I had erased it — and a part of myself with it — from history. My daughters and I never spoke of the affair again … until, nearly three years after being caught, I — surprise? — left their father for this same man.
Welcome to the Monstrous Mothers Hall of Fame!
For years now, I have been writing, in various ways, around the vortex of that central crime — the biggest mistake of my life: allowing my daughters to hold such a toxic secret “for” me and from their father. My own forthcoming memoir, Blow Your House Down, deals in part with that period of my life. I have wished, to the point of frenzy, to somehow turn back the clock — have wanted to march straight up to my ex-husband and thrust my incriminating phone into his hands, so that the time my daughters spent alone in their knowledge might become all of three hours and not three years.
Reading Wild Game, I yearned to blithely conclude, Well, at least I didn’t tell them on purpose; at least I didn’t use them as alibis; at least I didn’t confide in them like a priest or a girlfriend, and yet I couldn’t find that particular solace. Rather, I read Brodeur’s book with my heart pounding in my throat, because once you know what you are capable of, it is not hard to imagine being capable of something just this much worse.
My conversations with Brodeur about her book came about after I messaged her on Facebook, probably five minutes after finishing Wild Game (on the recommendation of Emily Rapp Black, who was reviewing the book for The New York Times and who had called it, on social media, the “memoir of the decade”). I felt ravenous to discuss the text with the author, to understand how she had portrayed her mother with such depth and compassion after the ways Malabar had hurt her. Brodeur told me:
If I had a single goal in writing Wild Game, it was to portray my mother and our complicated relationship in a nuanced way. If you take as a given — as I do — that the stories of our lives start before we’re born, my life story is inexorably tied to a mother who experienced a desperately lonely childhood, a thwarted career, and tragedies of the highest order. I could not tell the truth of my story without telling the truth of hers. And by placing my mother in the context of her life, I developed more compassion for her as I was writing. I started to more fully understand what she’d been through. I did hope that readers would see my mother as you have, the whole of Malabar. Some have understood that she was an incredibly complex woman; others see her as purely narcissistic and destructive. What I’ve learned is that every reader will view this story through their own particular lens.
This is certainly true. While critical and popular reception of the book has been almost unilaterally glowing, several of my friends who have read it have taken what might be seen as the usual glee in “loving to hate” Malabar. In my own anecdotal experience (and in perusing Wild Game’s reviews), I have found it notable that readers and critics seem far less preoccupied with Malabar’s lover, Ben, though his transgressions are no less than hers. This perhaps epitomizes age-old double standards regarding how the behaviors of women versus those of men are judged. In fact, researchers at Cardiff Metropolitan University have revealed that most wives tend to blame the other woman for marital infidelity, whereas most husbands see their own cheating wives as the guilty party.
This is only compounded if the woman is a mother pushing 50. As Kim Brooks writes in her 2017 essay “The Emancipation of the MILF,”
The exploration of a mother’s midlife sexuality might not seem groundbreaking, until you think about how few people are doing it, particularly when compared to the destigmatization and taboo-smashing tell-alls younger women have been enacting in recent years.
Brooks goes on to explain that
some women, some young women, have more sexual freedom than ever before. It’s sort of okay now to not get married. It’s sort of okay to say you don’t want to have kids. It’s sort of okay to have sex with other women, or to have sex with men and women, or to be into kink, or to be sex-positive, or polyamorous, […] but at the same time, the vast majority of women who choose marriage and motherhood choose to do it in a deeply traditional and all-consuming way. We expect so much from marriage, so much from motherhood. […] [W]e continue to insist these roles are not just important, but the essence of everything we are, the fundamental measure of our worth in the world.
Brodeur would seem to agree, recalling a time when Malabar grew irritated with her when, freshly in love herself for the first time, she attempted to explain to her mother how it felt. “Just because I’m in my fifties doesn’t mean I fall in love differently,” Malabar told her. “Feelings don’t change, passion isn’t different, simply because you’re older.” Brodeur says she has never forgotten that moment. “My mother refused to go quietly into the night of invisibility,” she told me. “In fact, I’m convinced that she became the fullest and most realized version of herself in her forties and fifties. Playing by the rules had not gotten her where she wanted to be, and somewhere along the way she decided to put herself first no matter who was offended by it.”
As a woman whose extramarital affair began in my 40s, and whose own “happy ending” has seen my former lover relocate to live with me in the Midwest, I understand this profoundly sticky terrain. Because what’s at stake goes beyond such feminist issues as self-actualization and the claiming of personhood, or the underlying misogyny of the selfless-martyr tropes that surround motherhood, but extends, crucially, to the integrity and care for others that should be expected from any adult who has chosen to parent. These disparate pieces of ourselves often do not fit together neatly in the puzzle of who we are.
While both Malabar and I broke socially constructed rules for mothers, for Women of a Certain Age, we also committed genuine trespasses against both our children and others who trusted us. Grappling with these issues is important, especially given what a recent General Social Survey has revealed about contemporary patterns of infidelity: women between the ages of 18 and 29 are actually marginally more likely than their male counterparts to be unfaithful. The same survey also found that infidelity rates increase in middle age for both men and women and that, contrary to social and literary stereotypes, women reach their highest levels of infidelity in their 60s.
Something being true doesn’t make it right. But it sure as hell means something.
It does not take a new memoir — much less any research study — to tell us that we have a cultural need to investigate who women are sexually as we age, and to dispel the pervasive and persistent myth that motherhood and sexual desire somehow cancel one another out. But while we’re at it, we also need to interrogate why marriage in particular changes women’s roles and — surprisingly or unsurprisingly, depending on your perspective — their levels of happiness so radically.
While it’s been known for some time that wives initiate almost 70 percent of divorces, researcher Michael Rosenfeld recently made the surprising discovery that no such gender gap exists when it comes to the break-up of live-in but non-marital relationships. Rosenfeld also found that, although married women have long reported lower levels of satisfaction with the quality of their relationships than have married men, those in non-marital relationships reported equal levels of quality. These results, Rosenfeld claims, “support the feminist assertion that some women experience heterosexual marriage as oppressive or uncomfortable.”
Is this due to an outdated belief that marriage is supposed to somehow magically transform the core of who a woman is and how she behaves, in ways not expected as radically of men? Or is it that fewer women cohabitating without marriage have children? As someone whose three kids have been the single greatest source of joy in my life, I believe it’s more complicated than simply seeing motherhood as “hard,” or seeing the parenting “burden” as falling more on women, and has to do with who mothers are expected to be outside of their relationships with their children. While it may be perfectly reasonable to expect parents of any gender to put their children’s needs front and center, it is entirely less rational to believe that motherhood magically erases a woman’s need for a complex social and romantic life, including the need to be seen, loved, desired, and perceived as interesting in her own right in the larger world, whether she has chosen to stay at home or continues an outside career. It also may have something to do with the levels of guilt we heap on women who cannot seem to stay inside the lines of what we take motherhood to mean, and the implication that mistakes or deviations from the norm make a mother not just flawed but, hyperbolically, monstrous. We don’t judge men’s failings as parents to be an indictment of their holistic failure as human beings.
“While my mother was and is a deeply flawed person,” Brodeur told me,
I don’t think she qualifies for a Monstrous Mother Hall of Fame, no. Definitely not. And not just because she endured terrible heartbreak and the death of a child. She absolutely modeled positive things for me, too. She was daring and adventurous, and always encouraged me to try things — travel, food, new experiences. She nurtured those she loved by creating beautiful meals, which is something I love to do for family and friends as well. My mother also happens to be one of the gutsiest women I’ve ever known, someone who set her sights on her goals — professional, personal, or social — and went after them without apology. I’m not sure I would have decided to switch careers in my late 20s and plunge into the literary world without my mother as a role model.
Brodeur went on to talk about her mother in relation to Virginia Woolf’s famous speech “Professions for Women,” in which Woolf instructed her audience to kill the “Angel in the House.” As Brodeur put it:
Whether or not my mother would identify herself as a feminist in the truest sense of the word, I do think Malabar had to kill this long-suffering domestic phantom in order to live the life she wanted. She was not a demure, self-sacrificing housewife. In fact, one of the great symbolic gestures she made was that she built her home around her kitchen because she saw cooking as performance art and wanted to be on view, not hidden away.
Brodeur pointed out that her mother’s refusal to “put the needs of others before her own” took a considerable toll. “I had to kill an angel too — the deferential and dutiful daughter,” she said of herself; yet she maintained, “I’m not sure it would have been possible to write my story of triumphantly breaking away from my mother without also telling her story. They are entirely interwoven.”
By the second half of Wild Game, Brodeur has stepped out from the shadows and is no longer “a supporting player to my mother’s leading lady.” Like Malabar, though profoundly more ethically, she begins to insist on her own subjectivity. “I start to live on my own terms,” Brodeur stipulates, and while she is in a happy marriage and is a completely different kind of mother than Malabar — illustrated by the book’s deeply moving final scene — it may be no accident that she, too, is meeting with newfound success as a debut author in her early 50s. Like Malabar, Brodeur (who, incidentally, possesses a more relaxed version of her mother’s natural glamour) shows no signs of going quietly or surrendering her story, instead continuing to evolve well into middle age, yet also showing that it is possible to kill the Angel without sacrificing others, to live a full life beyond the confines of what is often expected of girls, of daughters, of mothers, of women no longer young. If Malabar’s story is inextricable from Brodeur’s, Brodeur also demonstrates that it is possible to change the inter-generational narrative … something I find myself hoping for my own daughters.
Stories are inescapably generational. In my case, my stay-at-home mother was an anti-Malabar, self-sacrificing to an extreme degree, in a sexless marriage to my father, who was 11 years her senior and suffering from both physical and mental illnesses that plagued their 61 years together. Though I entered my teens promising myself that I would lead a wholly different kind of life — and in many ways I did — somehow I found myself repeating many of my mother’s gendered patterns of self-sacrifice and emotional labor. Coupled for 22 years with a man to whom my “intensity” posed problems from the get-go, working unpaid nonprofit jobs that granted me no financial autonomy, and eventually caretaking both my elderly parents, I strove to be the perfectly loyal daughter, devoted wife, and mother.
By the time I was in my mid-30s, I had come to rely on the worlds evoked in my novels to take the place of many of my actual emotional needs. With my affair, I ended up slaughtering my own Angel beyond repair, while also releasing myself from any ability to live up to the expectations others had of me. The considerable body count that resulted was in part because my younger self held an ingrained belief that my emotional needs were not valid: that I was already monstrous for daring to want more, long before I ever trespassed with infidelity.
These days, what I dare to hope is that all three of my children can avoid my mistakes, not by constructing their own shadow Angels to slay but rather by sidestepping the Angel altogether. I hope they never learn to play a role, as though their lives amount to a kind of performance art. I dare to hope that, for younger women, authenticity will be more of a “given” and, whether or not my children marry and become parents, that they, like Brodeur, can chart a new way. I also hope that, when they are Brodeur’s and my age, they will still look upon me with as much compassion and care as Brodeur has for her mother, with whom she remains close and loving despite their difficulties, even as Malabar, now 88, has fallen deep into dementia.
In the words of Adrienne Rich, “Honesty in women has not been considered important. We have been depicted as generically whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating. And we have been rewarded for lying.” Moreover: “Women have been forced to lie, for survival, to men.” But Rich does not mean that this makes a dishonest woman some kind of rebel feminist badass either. “The liar lives in fear of losing control,” she warns. “She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means for her the loss of control. The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.” How painfully this warning reminds me of Malabar, and of my former self.
I wish Wild Game had existed when I needed a book like this most, and I am relieved for the world that this memoir is getting the attention it deserves, so that women like me — and my daughters — can find it. I hope too, fervently, that some woman who finds my forthcoming memoir can take from it something she needs to save her own life.
Perhaps nothing is so emblematic of American repression as the fact that adultery remains illegal in 17 states and yet occurs in at least one-third of all marriages. I hope that shattering the secrets and taboos around mothers who cheat will make it possible for fewer women to follow in Malabar’s and my footsteps, because they are able to know and advocate for themselves better and can thus avoid getting to the point where their behavior will do damage, including to the young women who look to them as role models. Perhaps, once we lose our hunger to point fingers at the Monstrous Mothers of history and literature, women will be more empowered to become their core selves without secrecy and lies.
Gina Frangello is the author of four books of fiction and a memoir, Blow Your House Down, forthcoming from Counterpoint in 2021. She is the faculty editor of The Coachella Review and teaches at the University of Illinois Chicago and Lake Forest College.