Vasilisa knows enough to know that not every question needs to be asked, that not every question has a good answer. And Vasilisa walks out of Baba Yaga’s place completely unscathed. She walks out carrying the light that will burn through all the complicated violence she's been taught to call love.
— Ariel Gore, The End of Eve
IN THE SLAVIC legend of Baba Yaga, who was known for trapping her visitors in a hut made of bones, a girl named Vasilisa survives her encounter with the witch unharmed. Somehow, her trials with Baba Yaga earn her wisdom and a greater capacity for love.
No wonder journalist Ariel Gore was inspired by the story. Like Vasilisa, she enters into a frightening and disorienting situation with an older woman, her mother, Eve — who is dying of lung cancer — for whom she’s compelled to serve as the primary caretaker. In The End of Eve, a sharp-witted and surprisingly upbeat memoir, Gore chronicles that two-year period of sacrifice, challenge, and love.
The book opens with Gore’s decision, upon Eve’s diagnosis, to move herself and her family from Portland, Oregon, to New Mexico. Criticized by some friends for being codependent, she does this to provide her mother with a home, as well as to satisfy her girlfriend’s wish to live in Santa Fe.
Yet before she proceeds to tell of the adventure that tests her self-reliance, not to mention her sanity, Gore recounts a memory of childhood abuse, of a time when Eve surprised her during the night, brandishing a knife over her bed. With restraint, the author uses this, and selected anecdotes later in the book, to give shape to this particular mother-daughter relationship. Her mother’s vindictive and delusional mood swings frequently resulted in threats of eviction, child protective services complaints, and financial trouble.
This life material requires a delicate balance — this is, after all, a memoir of Gore’s experience with her mother’s death, not the history of her mother or a story of abuse. Gore brilliantly executes a tightrope performance, resisting the past as the main storyline, even as she acknowledges the unique emotional circumstances and challenges of her caretaker role.
One way she achieves this balancing act is through recurring images and repeated references to that old Slavic legend, which serves as muse and mantra for Gore during her mother’s illness and decline. In popular versions of the story, Baba Yaga stands for the dark side of knowledge, the wild woman who understands the secrets of life and death and who holds such power that a person lives or dies depending on how they behave on her threshold. It’s rumored that those who do not reappear from her house of bones have been cooked and eaten. But though she is deadly, Baba Yaga also possesses great wisdom. Vasilisa, an innocent girl in the legend, is sent on an errand to find light in the form of fire from the old hag’s hut. Because she listens to her intuition, because she doesn’t succumb to fear, she is granted what she comes for, and she survives her ordeal. So it is for Gore: because she doesn’t succumb to fear in the present or the recollected trauma of the past, she is able to fulfill her daughterly obligations — not only for her mother’s sake, but also for her own.
This is not to say that Gore is devoted to a single interpretation of her experience; one of the strengths of The End of Eve is that it is crowded with a wide range of cultural references, which act as handholds for Gore and other family members in difficult times. Eve herself, for example, is a huge fan of film noir, and Sunset Boulevard, The Maltese Falcon, and Dark Passage all have parts to play.
As do the author’s literary influences: Susan Sontag, Katherine Arnoldi, Mary Oliver, and Clarissa Pinkola Estés, to name a few. (Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a version of the Baba Yaga stories was collected and interpreted by Estés — a Jungian psychoanalyst and poet of whom Gore has written admiringly in her Psychology Today blog.) Gore frequently pulls a book from her shelves, as if a random line on a random page could tell her fortune. “Should I or should I not agree to live with my mother … move my family and my life … change everything?” she asks, and then opens The Upanishads, a collection of Vedic texts that she admires. Her eyes fall on these lines: “Live with me for a year. Then you may ask questions.” Gore repeats this found passage frequently and refers to the book as her “oracle.” Such influences signify for her just as strongly as the layered riddle of Baba Yaga.
Ariel Gore has written extensively on the cultural and political aspects of motherhood. She is the founder of the recently relaunched Hip Mama Magazine, founded in 1993 and credited with launching the “alternative” parenting movement — one that talks back to traditional, two-parent, heteronormative familial units. Her Hip Mama Survival Guide encapsulated the ethics of the magazine in how-to book form. An award-winning journalist, she is also the author of seven books that span fiction, memoir, and nonfiction.
Which is to say that The End of Eve was accomplished by an experienced journalist and writer across genre — her prose is both eloquent and spare. Gore is an expert at plunging into the sensory specifics of a narrative moment and staying only long enough for the characters to have a compelling exchange — plus, she never wastes a detail of description that doesn’t resonate on a larger thematic level. The memoir’s recurring images and seamless transitions in time reflect her prowess at integrating scenes into a book-length arc. Within the long period of taking care of her mother, whose behavior is erratic and confounding, Gore manages to build suspense around her own impending breakup and the budding hope of new love on the horizon. Yet she doesn’t stake an inordinate amount of emphasis on any one narrative: instead, she keeps her focus on what peace of mind she is able to win and keep for herself — as a daughter of abuse, yes, but mostly as a person who takes responsibility for inventing her life.
Though the prose, itself, is clear and succinct, Gore doesn’t simplify: rather, she admits to her failings and ambivalence, and acknowledges the contradictions and inconsistencies in her life. For example, in New Mexico, she buys a house — because it makes financial sense and to satisfy Eve — except she finds she cannot actually live there with her difficult mother, and winds up renting a cottage for herself and hiring home health aides for Eve. To care for her mother without compromising her own mental health requires an excess of financial burden.
In stories about illness and death, writers are sometimes tempted to romanticize the dying process, or, at the other extreme, to wallow in the frightening details of a body’s deterioration. Gore does neither. She includes just enough details about her mother’s physical illness to illustrate the prolonged pain and frustration of Eve’s slow death. And just as she is honest about her conflicted feelings, she acknowledges the gray area her mother occupies between life and death during her decline: “It was hard enough explaining why I didn’t live with my mother anymore. Had she finally died? Not exactly. Was she healing? Probably not.”
During her last months of life, Eve herself narrates a memoir in the form of a screenplay to the various nurses and aides who provide round-the-clock care. Despite her demands, Gore is not present to take dictation for the final scene. It is after Eve’s death that a health worker gives her the transcription, which she tucks away, only remembering to read it days later. In the scene, Eve and a mountain lion make their way into the snow-covered foothills behind Eve’s house. A shot rings out — and both suddenly become ghosts and continue to walk up the mountain together. Was this Eve’s last message to her daughter? Did she mean to imply that the legacy of abuse, that inherited menace, would die when she did? A plausible interpretation, perhaps, for throughout the book Gore conveys the idea that even within dysfunctional patterns there is room for reinvention. However, she doesn’t actually instruct the reader to derive anything so heavy-handed about her mother’s last words. Ultimately, The End of Eve is Gore’s story — an account of the imaginative strategies she employs to survive and create — in which she demonstrates how, much of the time, for her anyway, surviving and creating are one and the same.
“You have your own life,” Eve angrily accuses just days before her death, as if it were an affront to acquire such a thing. And it’s true: Gore does have her own life. Indeed, it is her ability to imagine her life — to create community, family, work, and art — that enables her to take care of her mother in spite of their troubled history. It turns out that both life and art are balancing acts. In one as in the other, Gore seems to be saying that even as we acknowledge past traumas, we cannot let those wounds dictate our actions in the present. The End of Eve is a product of bravery, love, and hard-won wisdom. In sharing it, Ariel Gore invites her reader to bask in the light she has found.
Alison Barker (@labdog77) is an educator and writer. She blogs at Nola Studiola: nolastudiola.com.