NOVEMBER 16, 2018
IN KIM ADRIAN’S glossary-memoir, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, the final three entries fall under the ampersand. She explains that the mark is a “graphic contraction of the letters e and t or et: Latin for ‘and,’” which was considered the 27th letter until the middle of the 19th century. For Adrian and her reader, the ampersand becomes a metaphor: “I have told a story and I have not touched it,” she writes. That story, full of contradictions and circular logic, is about her relationship with her mother and her mother’s unraveling mental health, and the ampersand “brings together things and ideas and people and moods and realities to cover more than one possibility, a verbal umbrella.” It is an apt symbol for a tale that must hold multiplicities (though perhaps it is a missed opportunity to have not titled the book with the mark itself). The ampersand’s presence also indicates that this is a story with a shadow half. If the text of the book is what follows the &, what came before? This ambitious memoir glints with poetry and wisdom, but that ever-present blank also gives it a hollowed-out feeling — something aching, endless, unresolved, and extremely compelling.
The glossary is a clever choice of form. Like mental illness, a glossary impedes forward momentum (if one is compelled to flip forward and back), but it also provides a logic that real life doesn’t offer. As meaning accumulates, readers may become pleasantly ensnared in terminology. In “Albatross,” Adrian writes that her story is “complicated in the same way that mental illness is complicated. It has no *boundaries. There’s no up or down to it. No right or left.” Flipping ahead to “Boundaries,” we learn that this is “[a] word my mother puts in air quotes.” Like the ampersand then, the structure allows different truths to exist at once.
The glossary can also become tedious, though, especially when the writer revisits similar moments from her past. She has smartly meshed a chronological narrative with the alphabetical sequencing, but that means the less plot-driven entries often seem superfluous. For instance, her frequent descriptions of old family negatives detailing facial expressions, clothing, houses, cars, et cetera, are not as compelling as the keenly observed scenes that make up the story’s arc. These more descriptive entries might convey some of the family’s emotional complexities, but Adrian’s novelistic attention to scene works even better.
Either way, her prose is lyrical and funny, often in the same moment. These elements serve as counterpoint to each other, and to the heaviness of her account, as in “Float (1),” for example, when she describes “floating” in yoga and compares it to the Buddhist concept of being present in the moment, also called “float.” “[I]t is entirely possible to float,” she explains, “while doing the dishes or designing a website or driving in heavy traffic or even, theoretically speaking, while talking on the phone with one’s mother about the worms in her eye (although this last example would, obviously, constitute a very advanced form of floating).”
Echoing her mother, Adrian obsesses over the grotesque and the absurd. In “Ab Ovo,” her mother visits her in the hospital after she has given birth to her son. Instead of offering congratulations or asking how her daughter is doing, her mother explains why it has taken her so long to visit, and then relays the story of how she “leaked fecal matter from her vagina” upon giving birth to the Adrian’s sister. Her mother is consumed by the many peculiar excretions of her body, both real and imagined (worms in the eye, swellings, discharges, irritations). There are DIY excavations of all kinds, and invisible ailments that only her mother can perceive. Adrian often relays these anecdotes in her mother’s words, in all their visceral detail. In “Hidden Contexts,” she explains that her mother kept a “booger board” on the wall of their basement and says it “counts as evidence of my mother’s arrested development […] her need to be constantly purging herself of one thing or another,” and she links this to a need to excavate the years of sexual abuse committed by her mother’s father. “[T]he roots of the word incest, which in Latin essentially means ‘impure’ or ‘unclean’ […] whatever my maternal grandfather did to my mother on those nights […] made her feel so contaminated inside that to this day she remains determined to work the filth out of her system by whatever means necessary.” By writing this memoir, Adrian too appears to be purging herself — of verbal and emotional abuse inflicted by her mother, and of all the unclean effects of her mother’s illness on her life.
Part of the absurdity here also comes from the shifting borders that characterize the relationship between the two women. Readers may sometimes feel unnerved by the writer’s inability to maintain firm boundaries, as she variously serves as her mother’s analyst, defender, lawyer, social worker, innkeeper, companion, nurse, personal assistant, and chef. Take the time when she returns from a two-week vacation to find her mother watering plants in her garden and realizes that she has been living there during the family’s absence. Instead of yelling or kicking her mother out, or even allowing herself to feel angry, she feels conflicted. “I sigh,” she writes. “But it is not a simple sigh. It is a sigh with many things in it. Resignation, disappointment, guilt, anger. Other things, too, but I’m not sure what they are.”
Her mother asks her if she knows she is growing a strawberry plant and some tarragon, which goes well with chicken. “‘I know,’” Adrian says. “It sounds very harsh. Too harsh, I think, so I add, ‘I love tarragon with chicken.’” Again, this scene is absurd — both the situation itself, and Adrian’s response; her continuing dissolution of self in her mother’s presence, when she otherwise appears to be a well-adjusted and loving adult, may frustrate readers. But if the writer sometimes seems unaware, or evasive about the emotional fallout of her childhood, it is this very evasion and frustration she is writing about. And when she explains that a misremembered Eckhart Tolle teaching has become her preferred way of thinking about mental illness — that it is a “reflection of a wider, vaster, deeper illness in the human species as a whole and, for this reason, should be understood as an indication of humanity’s lack of compassion or insight or maturity because we are all connected” — she is acknowledging the possibility that her mother’s mental illness is also, in some ways, her own.
Finally, she is neither naïve nor unquestioningly devoted. She is capable of refusing her mother’s requests and enduring the repercussions. In “Would-Be,” for instance, when she says no to running an errand, her mother retorts, “You are a deeply bitter person […] because you’re just a wannabe, would-be writer. You have no hope of ever becoming a real writer.” In this way, the book attempts to document the messiness of disentanglement, the gargantuan effort required to maintain both distance and tenderness.
One might also think about absurdity as impossibility, and this is an impossible story. One day, when the writer and her sister are quite young, their mother kidnaps them. She has just returned from a two-year absence during which time the girls have been living with their father and his parents. Their mother promises the girls a new house with pink shutters on a new street with lots of new children to play with. When they arrive, her mother says, “Aren’t we going to have fun?” and Adrian replies, robotically, “Yes […] It will be like a party every day.” Readers know this is a false story, an impossible one, and the girl does too, though she wants it to be true. It’s the ampersand at work again — her mother’s wishful thinking is in some ways accurate, and must be included. Adrian’s search for the right way to tell the story is her own form of magical thinking she says in “Detective”: “Not the almost words in the almost order but the exact ones in the exact order […] Once I get everything in just the right place, I’ll simply tunnel my way back […] I’d finally be able to give up this fucking *albatross.”
For the reader, anyway, Adrian has accomplished her goal. Her glossary, in making a place for everything, has provided a way through this harrowing tale of the toll of generational trauma. That she has managed this with generosity, honesty, and insight shows she has become a real writer after all.
Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.