Despite the centuries old and universal topic of the mother-child relationship, the dyad of all dyads, Michele Filgate’s anthology reminds us the subject never grows stale. Rather it is perfectly-flavored dressing atop the most flavorful edible garden. It must mix anew and in multiple forms, always refreshed and yet a reminder that the most fundamental relationship can either bloom flawlessly, or more likely, swell with the complexity of the soil that brings it forth.
What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break The Silence
(Simon & Schuster, 2019)
Filgate opens the book with her own heart-wrenching story, originally published in Longreads. Without giving it away, it is a sober and deeply necessary catharsis, equally gentle, punching, and healing. The newly reinvented evil stepfather story. I could immediately relate (and not relate). Its urgency demands to be sowed. As a generally unconventional reviewer, I must confess that I recently returned to my childhood home in Michigan for the memorial of the woman who became my surrogate mother after my father died when I was fifteen. I had known her since I was two, so the transition was not really a transition. With my mother remarrying so quickly after my father’s death, my family quickly fell apart. When home for the memorial, my mother told me “[My stepfather] no longer loved me.” I phoned my brother. Understanding, he replied, “when did he ever love you?” Like many readers will see, Filgate leaves me simultaneously speechless and inspired.
The essay sets a framework for a profound read by 15 gifted writers, and yet it is also hard to live up to. Some of the hottest writers publishing today grace these pages, as do the blurbers. Some of the authors write as assigned, some deep dive into their pasts like journalists of memory, and a couple scribe through literary metaphors. The newcomer in the book, Brandon Taylor, puts himself far on a dangling branch with an honesty and insight that is rare in life, let alone in publishing. He faces himself and his mother as a fully flawed person.
André Aciman presents a full grasp of his mother with tempered observation, complexity, and compassion. He describes growing up with a “deaf” mother. A veteran writer across genres, he perpetually enchants. He offers a most beautiful story, but also attends to more formal concerns of writing, rather than swiftly gushing out a confessional. He commands literary reference as metaphor:
[My mother] was acutely discerning and had a flair for people and situations—from the Latin verb fragrare, to scent. Her radar was always on: whom to trust, what to believe in, and how to read an inflection. She made up a scent when she had lost her deafness. She taught me spices, naming them in a grocery store by dipping her palm into the burlap bags and letting me sniff each handful. She taught me to recognize her perfumes, the smell of damp wool, the smell of leaking gas. When I write about scent, I am channeling not Proust but my mother.
Likewise, Melissa Febos employs engaging storytelling technique to her memoir-essay. Like Aciman, Febos reminds the reader that exciting memoir writing is much more than message, but flourishes with an imaginary structure most similar to analogy). It is content, a revelation, after the fact. The information needs to be shared (to heal and redeem), yet a pattern makes it most memorable in the end. Febos reinforces this idea, “the memories of stories are changed with each telling, they are irrevocably changed with each conquer, each colonizer, each assimilation of one people into another.” Febos’s essay, “Thesmophoria,” emerges from Greek myth, at the level of the grand story of Persephone and her personal relationship to it. She further expands the titular emphasis of the anthology into a hermeneutics between a mother and daughter that is layered between both points of view in memory and in their personal and psychodynamic use of texts. The textual and the personal are not merely straightforward confession, but allegorical and interpretive. It triumphs as an innovative expansion on the confessional essay. It would be fascinating to see Febos develop her essay.
Nayomi Munaweera painstakingly researches and grapples with her mother’s personality disorder and its implications on her own development. Not quite psychological research, and not entirely gushing essay, it stands as brave personal journalism which pushes the discipline’s boundaries.
Filgate does an excellent job of curating a diverse range of writers to capture just about anyone’s attention. Filgate, herself, opens with such a profound story. With resilience, she emerges out of one of the worst family dynamics anyone would want to find themselves in. The presence of the book itself stands as testimony that she (and anyone) may bud out of tainted soil and find themselves flourishing in a garden of healing delights, which is easier said than done. May this book shine upon her as the beginning of a lifelong journey to face the evils of a less than idyllic stepfather. May it be used to create better art. May those of us who long to get out of the weeds, seek Filgate (and these writers) as our guide.
Sorry self-help writers; skilled literary artists compose a preferred mulch. There will never be too many stories about mothers and their children. The possibilities grow perennial.