Let’s see: When she was ten, her father wrested her from her mother’s negligent, alcoholic grip; later, her older sister left the family and ultimately became a foster child; her father died in a plane crash; one of her husbands…well, enough spoilers, for this memoir is filled with surprising and dramatic turns, many for the worse. It’s a wonder that Katie Hafner is still in one piece, to say nothing of enough in possession of her faculties and enough perspective to write such a poignant, honest, and complex account of such difficult, too often tragic family matters. On the scale of modern memoirs about familial dysfunction and deprivation, Mother Daughter Me may not quite rank with, for example, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, but it’s way up there, alongside The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
In 2009, Ms. Hafner bought a house in San Francisco, where she was working as a writer and living with her daughter, Zoe, so as to try to make real a fantasy of hers. She wanted to bring her erratic mother, Helen, seventy-seven, and herself and Zoe together under one roof, after decades of turbulence and collisions that had CERNed away any earlier hope of a nuclear family. Using this “experiment in intergenerational living” as her central narrative, Hafner tries to come to terms with and find the patterns in her disrupted childhood, her brilliant father’s and equally brilliant mother’s catastrophic marriage and separation, her own rocky romantic history, her sister’s estrangement, and more than one sudden and shocking death. And to make sense of the failure and lessons of this “experiment” itself.
As the children of two highly accomplished, self-absorbed scientists, Katie and her sister found themselves uprooted from the Northeast and taken away to Florida to live with their binge-drinking mother, after she obtained a quickie divorce in Juárez, Mexico. She promised the children “oranges,” but what they ate, often for dinner, was candy while Helen “began to ricochet between involvements with various men,” each of which was followed by “a succession of sodden days.” Hafner says of this Florida sojourn, “We became the closest thing I can imagine to urchins.” Then Helen yanked her children away again, to California, where she enrolled as a graduate student at UC San Diego and continued her drinking and manizing. Finally, after Helen made a gesture toward suicide with pills, Katie and Sarah were whisked away yet again, to Amherst, where her father was living with his new wife and her three children. And Helen finally lost custody of her kids.
Understand that this is just the beginning of a series of traumatic events that Hafner and her sister suffered through, as children and adults. And that these events, vivid as they are, serve as a backdrop for her efforts to have “a year in Provence” with her mother in the San Francisco house when she is the parent of a daughter herself. But, as Hafner comes to realize, they also serve to explain why her grand cohabitation idea ran into such trouble.
Trouble: At dinner one night:
My mother has said nothing. I wish I could pass [her] some cue cards under the table, prompting her on how to ask questions of her granddaughter….
My mother finishes her dinner in silence, then gets up from the table and, without a word, goes downstairs.
“Is she mad?” Zoe asks.
I roll my eyes.
“What?” she asks, feigning innocence.
“You speak only to me, then wonder she feels excluded enough to leave the room?”
I’m awakened by a tap on my back. It’s Zoe. She’s crying and asks me to come into her room.
I climb into her bed. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
“Grandma Helen said I suck at cello.”
“She said I have good technique but my intonation sucks. She said I should take up the piano.”
And there’s a lot more — Katie and her mother arguing over money and possession of a Steinway piano, Katie neglecting a promise to Zoe in order to hang out with her new man (of whom her mother obnoxiously disapproves), a restaurant argument over lettuce that devolves into all three generations hating each other. After a while, you begin to realize — as Hafner herself comes close to saying — that she wanted her mother to be with her so she could ultimately be without her. She says, “It’s possible that Zoe was tuned into something of which I was unaware: the almost umbilical hold my mother had on me, the emotional energy of unfinished business.”
Hafner and the reader come to understand the archaeological layers of difficulties that have led to this disastrous experiment, which turns out not to be a disaster but a blessing after all. Her efforts to find the patterns in her mother’s and father’s lives — and her own childhood and romantic history and parenthood — and to learn from them and ultimately try not to re-create the darker patterns deserve respect and admiration. The writing is generally strong and straight: “I now see that it’s far easier to imagine a future we can invent than to reckon honestly with a painful past.” And the narrative is usually engrossing. There are rare lapses into psychobabble — how could there not be? — and sometimes Hafner seems to fall a little short of the goal of full comprehension of her own behavior, especially when she breaks a promise to Zoe. She also mixes a metaphor here and there: “A whorl of emotions…streaks through me”; “it triggers a cascade…”
So how indeed has Hafner been able to emerge from these six or seven personal maelstroms and write about them with overall lucidity? She answers the question herself, when she says of one episode in her childhood:
I was beginning to develop a protective ability to distance myself, which made me much more adaptable to new situations than Sarah was and turned me into a lifelong observer. The ability to stand outside a scene eventually helped me become a journalist.
And a good and honest memoirist, I would add.