The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.
― Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter
IN CONTRAST TO its name, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is not a sensational book of secrets, but rather a whisper, an exhale after a breath held too long. Edited by Michele Filgate, this is a collection of intimate and authentic personal essays, with each piece telling its own heartfelt story of silence. They explore the reasons behind the difficulty of the authors’ opening up to their mothers, the personal taboos most of us interject into our relationships. The idea for this book originated from Filgate’s essay of the same title, published in Longreads in 2017 shortly after the start of the #MeToo movement.
Fifteen writers from different backgrounds remember their youth and reflect on how the lack of communication (or in some cases the overflow of information) has altered their lives. Each author attempts to grasp the unspoken, the kind of disquiet which erects barriers to empathy and acceptance. In each essay, the absence of communication has dominated an important period of the writer’s life that they no longer have access to, but one which they can’t leave behind. This silence has shaped their understanding or misunderstanding of the world and the way they build their inner truth. But life moves on, and with the passage of time, the intensity of these memories of silence fades away, sometimes pushing them apart from their mothers, sometimes bringing them closer.
Reading a collection of personal essays is not like reading a memoir. Going from one to another can be challenging if the reader doesn’t stop for a pause at the end of each essay. This break gives the reader the opportunity to digest the meaning — and sometimes the meaninglessness — of the author’s life experience. This is the time to draw conclusions, to feel empathy and admiration (or not) for this piece of writing. Each essay is a complete experience in itself, with its own arc and epiphany. Even though many essays share the same theme, they are written by authors from different worlds, and each deserves our full attention.
Mothers have an extraordinary hold on their children at every age. The way they interact with them, like a constant subliminal message projected between the scenes of their lives, affects everything. It defines who they are, and who they can’t become. This book is a testament to the struggle of these authors to move beyond these definitions.
Michele Filgate writes about the verbal and sexual abuse inflicted by her stepfather. Abuse, in its different forms, is one of the main themes of this anthology. Filgate explains the source of rupture with her mother wasn’t the abuse itself, but rather that her mother didn’t believe her.
I long for the mother I had before she met my stepfather, but also the mother she still was even after she married him. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to give this book to my mother. To present it to her as a precious gift over a meal that I’ve cooked for her. To say: Here is everything that keeps us from really talking. Here is my heart. Here are my words. I wrote this for you.
In many cases, abuse has led to the silence between a mother and her children. Often this silence comes from anger, but sometimes (as in Alexander Chee’s case) it is born out of love. In his internal conflicts, on one side a man had sexually abused him, while at the same time, in Chee’s memory of that 12-year-old biracial misfit, the social pariah at his school, the life as a choir boy with a recognized and admired gift for singing, appeared like an opportunity to finally be seen, loved, and accepted. Only through this experience, had he found his niche, his community of queers, his people, and most importantly himself. He chose to remain silent and kept the secret from his mother for years, not out of shame, but to shield her from more grief. Chee movingly shows that silence, sometimes, stems from love.
Other times there may be no possibility for communication. In her powerful essay, Nayomi Munaweera talks about her mother’s undiagnosed borderline personality disorder, questioning whether the wounds of a childhood shadowed by mental illness ever heal. Now as an adult, could she ever move past the painful confusion of witnessing constant fights and her mother’s multiple suicide attempts? “This is the saddest part of our story. My mother remembers a different life than the one we’ve lived with her,” she writes.
In many cases, socioeconomic factors play an important role in creating the silence. When Bernice L. McFadden writes about the pain, she also writes about its memory etched through generations, as daughters, generation after generation, run away from homes where there is no love. They escape fathers who beat them, and mothers for whom love doesn’t have a tangible form or meaning. What is stunning in McFadden’s narrative is the inevitability of the disaster, and how these generations of daughters, despite running away, have never succeeded in escaping. Or when Kiese Laymon reflects on his childhood growing up as a fat black kid, the sexual abuse by his babysitter doesn’t add to his feeling of loneliness and marginalization. “Even if Renata was choosing to harm me, at least she wanted to touch me.” Thirty years later, in Heavy, a memoir addressed to his mother, Laymon looks back at his life and discovers a pattern of abuse inflicted on those he has loved. If Renata abused him, he also abused her, and not only her but many other loved ones. Laymon not only questions himself, but the whole American society, where people don’t know how to love:
[T]he problem in this country is not that we fail to “get along” with people, parties, and politics with which we disagree. The problem is that we are horrific at justly loving the people, places, and politics we purport to love. I wrote Heavy to you because I wanted us to get better at love.
Sari Botton reflects on her mother’s change of mothering style through her multiple marriages, where the definition of “giving” morphs following her different socioeconomic lifestyles. She considers this change as covering up her mother’s own rebellion and issues around self-worth, and hopes her mother will finally rediscover her independence.
For Brandon Taylor, the opportunity to open up to his mother is already gone. He writes with love and empathy in an attempt to understand his late mother: “She had a kind of brutal mystery about her, as if nothing stuck to her, could stand to be near her without being torn or blasted in fragments. […] My mother was not the kind of person to play games with children.”
Regret is one of the sentiments expressed throughout the book, like an aftertaste of looking back at their lives; they recognize how they have missed seeing their mothers as people dealing with their own problems. “I was so interested in my own feelings about her that I couldn’t leave room for her feelings or for what she wanted from life,” Tylor writes.
Carmen Maria Machado doesn’t regret her estrangement from her mother, but she does ponder whether her mother (a woman who was always angry, embittered by dissatisfaction with her life) ever loved her. Her fear of motherhood is rooted in her fear of becoming like her mother, trapped in the conflict between loving her daughter and her resentment of the way motherhood had prevented her from finding her own identity and happiness. Lynn Steger Strong suggests there is a world of differences between a child’s expectation of how a mother is supposed to act and the conduct of a mother dealing with life’s challenges — something children at a young age hardly catch and comprehend. “[O]ur mother does not match up with ‘mother’ as we believe it’s meant to mean and all it’s meant to give us,” Strong writes.
There is a common trait in many of these essays: mothers who keep certain secrets affect the child’s perception of themselves and of life itself. This lack of communication in many cases leads to children’s loneliness, and following their mother’s behavior, they end up having secrets of their own. Melissa Febos writes about her journey in the world of BDSM and addiction as well as her return to the land of living. She makes a parallel between her life and the Greek mythology of Persephone and Demeter.
But everything in What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is not tainted with pain. Certain essayists write to solve a certain mystery about their mothers. Cathi Hanauer reflects on her father’s controlling behavior with humor, and speculates on the root of her mother’s submissive refusal to stand up for herself. Of course, from her father’s point of view, “She’s happy. Don’t make her think she’s not.”
Both Leslie Jamison and Dylan Landis question their mothers’ early relationships. Jamison goes after details of her mother’s first marriage, an explosive, hippie kind of love. Through the reading of the novel written by her mother’s ex-husband, she discovers a new side of her mother. Similar to Landis who depicts the contrast between her mother’s two sides: one is the ordinary housewife, the other the young flamboyant woman with artistic vocation, a rebel. The latter is the mother Landis wants to have. Landis imagines different narratives to her mother’s failed love story, the heartbreak that has consumed her mother her whole life. The real question of these essays is not who their mothers were, but who they really wanted to be.
Julianna Baggott doesn’t regret becoming her mother’s confessor, because through listening to all these (true or false) family stories (as she calls them a shared humanity) and how they evoked her closeness to her mother, she developed a passion for writing and storytelling and a taste for magical realism with a hint of absurdism. André Aciman’s essay is a love “letter” to his deaf mother, and how living with a mother who never listens has taught him a new kind of language, one not made of words, but of perception through tactile movements, physical touches, and immediate gestures.
Filgate has done a magnificent job of gathering pieces written with love and passion. But I am not sure the physical aspect of the book conveys this high quality. If I had seen this book on the shelf of a bookstore, I would have assumed the book was more in the genre of chick-lit or much lighter kind of literature. Of course, with a second glance, I might have remembered the women’s march, the pink pussy hats, and link the color of the book cover to that movement. Still, it is not obvious that every reader would go that far.
If writing fiction needs a significant amount of dreams and vision, the personal essay form flourishes on immediacy and vulnerability. If literature defines and defies the human condition with imagination and freedom, a personal essay reveals one’s concealed truth — usually something inadequate and judged harshly by the society — these secrets act like an obstacle, even a prison, to the person’s happiness.
Reading each personal essay is like starting from the end and going backward through unfamiliar reminiscences of one’s life, uncovering an understanding of what has happened and how you have morphed into the person you are today. Unlike reading fiction, where the reader is carried safely into the realm of a new world (while all along aware of the fictional nature of this temporary shift) reading a personal essay can be dangerous, like real life. It removes the safety gap between the author and the reader through palpable details of a stranger’s most intimate revelation, and it opens reader’s eyes to a shared universal truth, lived both through the act of reading and the narration itself. In this sense, what is said is as important as what is unsaid — the silences in hope of reaching closure to the past. And this is how the mere concept of the “book” itself disappears, and, for the reader, what remains is the astonishment of unimaginable emotions.