Just in time for Mother's Day (May 10): Stories of madness, control, and thwarted ambition. She'll love it!
It was a strange coincidence that the much-anticipated TV movie of Grey Gardens and former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl's fourth memoir, Not Becoming My Mother, should come out in the same week. While the differences are obvious - one's the story of fallen aristocracy, the other of mid-century malaise - both deal with thwarted female ambition, make one wonder whether fragile psyches can ever triumph over adversity, and, most of all, explore how these questions impact on mother-daughter relationships.
Most everyone - at least, readers of this site - knows the Beales' story: the New York socialites, mother and daughter, whose grandiose showbiz ambitions gave way to a life of delusion and squalor, made all the more dramatic by their family connection to Jackie O. The HBO film, while it broadens the focus, doesn't tell us much we didn't already know about their decline. To anyone who's read one of food writer and editor Reichl's memoirs, this one will not contain shocks, either: her neurotic, frustrated mother is a constant, infuriating presence in her books, her mental instability and scorn for her daughter's career a constant cross for Reichl to bear.
This memoir, title aside, is more sympathetic; Reichl explores the broken dreams that made Miriam Reichl the woman and the mother she was: her wasted education, her thwarted desire to become a doctor, her suffering through what Reichl terms "the worst possible time to have been a middle-class American woman." Reichl's writing is always curiously indifferent to whether the reader likes her, and this is no exception; despite her newfound understanding of her mother's struggles, the ambivalence is the memoir's third character. Miriam's disdain for Ruth's career choice may come from a desire to see Reichl do something more - and from a wish to protect her from crushing disappointment - but it's still cruel, and there were many mothers of the same generation who were able to muster far more support.
Then too, the main question we're left with at the end of the book is, how much was her? It's the same question that dogs Grey Gardens. Could Edith Beale have sung professionally, if not mired in the world of upper-class marriage? Or was it this very life which allowed her to cherish her illusions? Could her daughter have become a musical star without her mother holding her back, or were these women too damaged from the outset? Of Miriam, Reichl writes, "Was she crazy, or was she crazy because she had nothing to do?" As one reviewer puts it, "At times, Mim's mental health seems so fragile that the focus on her thwarted career seems misplaced: You wonder if she could have found satisfaction in any field or had condition, perhaps biological in origin, that would have caught up with her in any job."
Whatever the truth, the one certainty is that the daughters get sucked into the mythology; a daughter has to live her mother's reality, however damaged or damaging that may be. Reichl breaks free, Little Edie (of Miriam's generation) doesn't - but their mothers continue to haunt them, both with the realities and the realities they made. So, how do you break away? If you believe Reichl, the only way is to physically separate yourself from a personality that can dominate you; certainly the Beales show the danger of the alternative. Distance - not just physical, but emotional - is critical. You need to see a parent objectively. In Reichl's case, this meant a lot of anger, a lot of distancing, reducing her mother to a caricature. And then, ultimately, having the maturity to see her as more. In a sense, breaking this hold, as she tells it, is almost like the stages of grieving. And when one considers how domineering these personalities are, that makes a kind of sense. Together, this is an odd Mother's Day roundup, for sure - but certainly a potent one.
Ruth Reichl's Memoir ‘Not Becoming My Mother' – An Apple Falls Far From the Tree [One Minute Book Reviews]
"Not Becoming My Mother [New York Post]
Not Becoming My Mother