Difficult Mothers: Vivian Gornick and Mira Bartok

Our mother was normal. Of course we didn’t think she was. Why did she wear a tartan skirt and snow boots with her hair in two plaits on the top of her head? Why did she think she was so funny when she said at dinnertime, ‘I don’t want that dog wiping its boots on the table.’ Why did she say when we had friends visiting, ‘ Do you tell your mother what to do, Mary Biggs? I’m so lucky. I’m such a stupid old creature, but I have all these brilliant minds telling me what to do.’ And the visitor, staring at the floor in embarrassment, would say in a whisper, ‘Yes Mrs D, no Mrs D’ and we would say, ‘Oh Muuum,’   and get as far away from her as we could.

I wanted her to have red fingernails, and high-heeled shoes, permed hair, a cigarette between her fingers like other mothers. That would have been normal.

But as life went on I came to realise she was normal in all the essential ways. She wasn’t clinging, but she was always there to cool the brow if one was feeling feverish. She was proud of our achievements, but soon forgot about them. She wasn’t given to hugging us and telling us she loved us as parents do now. We would have been appalled if she tried anything like that. One could have a good row with her, but it passed over quite quickly. And she didn’t expect us to be her best friends. Her job was to get us fed and educated, so we could live our own lives. And in due time, one left home to be a beatnik, another for the wilder shores of New Guinea, another to marry at the age of twenty-two and so on. We knew she was all right. We could live our own lives and didn’t have to feel guilty about her.

The authors of the two books below have quite different mothers.

Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick’s highly praised memoir of her life with a volatile and demanding mother is described as an account of a lifetime struggle to gain independence from her mother. Gornick grew up in the Bronx in an almost totally Jewish world. Her parents were Communists and mother had the passion and outspoken wisdom we expect from Jewish women in literature. She is also inconsistent, she believes in the evil eye, and she is a powerful figure in the life of the tenement:

Here in this all-Jewish building, she was in her element, had enough room between the skin of social presence and the flesh…(to) express herself freely, be warm and sarcastic, hysterical and generous, ironic and judgemental…

Vivian is the only girl in the little family of two parents and two children. Her brother is not part of the claustrophobic closeness that exists between her and her mother. She likes to escape with her friends but her mother, quite reasonably afraid of the dangers for a young girl roaming free in the Bronx tries to hold her back.

But then her father dies fairly suddenly and the mother becomes totally possessed by her grief. It as if she steps on to the stage to fulfil a role she has been waiting for all her life.

Wailing women and frightened men surrounded my mother all that day and night. She clutched at her hair, and tore at her flesh, and fainted repeatedly…

Periodically, my mother’s glazed eye would fasten on me. She would then shriek my name and ‘An orphan! Oh, God, you’re an orphan!’ No one had the courage to remind her that according to Jewish custom you were an orphan if your mother died, only half an orphan if your father died.

Gornick’s book is a powerful look at one kind of suffocatingly close relationship. Her mother was argumentative, histrionic, and one can’t help thinking very like Gornick herself. The account of their struggle is well worth reading, even though she later said that some of the walks in New York she took with her mother were creations of her imagination. But not all. And it’s true that a woman in her forties, walking through the city arguing with her mother, in such a fiery relationship that her mother says to passers-by, This is my daughter. She hates me, is never going to escape.

The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok is an account of life with a mother who has untreated schizophrenia. Mira and her sister, two years older, are mostly responsible for their mother. Her grandmother tries to care for them and their mother, but their sadistic and bullying grandfather makes this neither safe nor possible. At the ages of eleven and thirteen Mira and her sister are forced to move with their mother into a cold-water flat. Their mother is incapable of looking after the girls or herself. She lives entirely in another r world:

Our mother said she needed the gun for protection. Protection from whom? I asked. Kidnappers, of course. How could I be so naïve?… She finally confessed she needed it to kill my sister’s best friend John. He’s a Nazi. You can tell by his name John Heilman. Heil Mann, my mother said. See? A man who salutes Hitler. It’s right in front of your eyes.

Of course the mother gets a gun and uses it to shoot out of the window at garbage bins for target practice. For once their grandmother comes to their aid and takes the gun back to the store and yells at the owner who sold it. He gives the money back and said he was sorry. But they know he’d do it again.

All through this time, as their mother becomes sicker and more violent and deluded, she is put into hospital for shorter and shorter periods. This book is an indictment of the mental health system in the days of the Reagan presidency. On one occasion the mother is taken by the police after an attempt to suicide by jumping from a window. She is held only a few hours. On another occasion, she is returned by the police after attacking one of the girls with a knife. There is no system to treat the seriously mental ill or anywhere for them to stay. Their mother won’t take medication and there is no way of making her. Mira’s sister tells her the only way they can escape is by working hard at school and getting into college. This they do, but the guilt is unbearable.

This book is a testament to that guilt. Mira constantly feels guilty about not being able to fix her mother and abandoning her. The girls leave her with no address. They have experienced their mother turning up at the school screaming out that her daughters have been raped. On the public subway system she once shouted at her daughter, ‘Is that sperm on your leg?’

The book contains letters from their mother. She becomes homeless but keeps writing to an accommodation address when she can. There is a great deal about Mira’s development as an artist, which could really be in another book. The story of her mother is too big to be compressed. We find that her mother was a talented concert pianist who developed her illness around the age of seventeen. We also discover (no spoiler from us) that one persistent allegation she makes turns out to be quite true.

Bartok’s book is an account of a tragic life, leaving a legacy of deep guilt. The story of a mentally-ill woman with nowhere to turn is heartbreaking, and the mark it leaves on the lives of her children is indelible.

Mira’s thoughts revolve around her mother all throughout her youth:

If my mother died somewhere, how would I find her bones?

 After her mother dies she writes her story.

There are so many different mothers, but as we were advised in the Eighties, the ‘Good Enough’ mother is probably the best. Neither too perfect nor too flawed. In fact, just like our own annoying, embarrassing mother.

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21 thoughts on “Difficult Mothers: Vivian Gornick and Mira Bartok

    1. When we’re no longer vulnerable it is possible to take a more compassionate view. I used to think adults were so old. Now I’m older than they were and still feel like a child. They didn’t know what they were doing half the time.

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      1. That is very true. I remember listening to my mother many years ago when she was upset with her mother for things that happened before I was born, and thinking that I needed to find a way to engage with her so that I didn’t carry her burdens and my own for so many years. I also realized that if I didn’t resolve some of that, it would pass onto my daughters, and they would have to straighten out their relationships with me — and they might not think it worth the effort! That was all at least partly successful. Still working on it!

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  1. I think that children’s view of mothers change as they grow up. From the unconditional love of the toddler to adolescence when the flaws of the mother are the focus. My children had to cope with their middle class mother moving to a Lesbian relationship when they were teens. It was tough for all of us but over two decades later both my partner and I have a warm close relationship with them and their families. I believe that all parents love their children but sadly some cannot provide stability that children need.

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    1. It is a very good point that our views of each other change as life goes on. One does miss the stage where the child gives that uncritical adoration. They become much more judgmental later, but as Teri says it is a cycle that goes on through the generations.

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      1. It is one of the great things about living for a number of decades — we have the luxury of the time and ability to see things differently, and maybe to resolve/change the dynamics that weren’t so fruitful in our earlier experiences.

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            1. Some of our siblings regard it as despicable to write about anything that took place in the family. We just have to keep it quiet in the knowledge they are not interested in reading blogs or anything other than Greek and Latin.

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    1. I know what you mean Dorothy, and I try not to read books that have too much graphic violence like American Psycho or A Little Life. But when the protagonists fight for their freedom and have an awareness of their situation, then I find them inspiring.

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