Mother Daughter Me

( 13 )


The complex, deeply binding relationship between mothers and daughters is brought vividly to life in Katie Hafner’s remarkable memoir, an exploration of the year she and her mother, Helen, spent working through, and triumphing over, a lifetime of unresolved emotions.
Dreaming of a “year in Provence” with her mother, Katie urges Helen to move to San Francisco to live with her and Zoë, Katie’s teenage daughter. Katie and Zoë had become a ...

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Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir

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The complex, deeply binding relationship between mothers and daughters is brought vividly to life in Katie Hafner’s remarkable memoir, an exploration of the year she and her mother, Helen, spent working through, and triumphing over, a lifetime of unresolved emotions.
Dreaming of a “year in Provence” with her mother, Katie urges Helen to move to San Francisco to live with her and Zoë, Katie’s teenage daughter. Katie and Zoë had become a mother-daughter team, strong enough, Katie thought, to absorb the arrival of a seventy-seven-year-old woman set in her ways.
Filled with fairy-tale hope that she and her mother would become friends, and that Helen would grow close to her exceptional granddaughter, Katie embarked on an experiment in intergenerational living that she would soon discover was filled with land mines: memories of her parents’ painful divorce, of her mother’s drinking, of dislocating moves back and forth across the country,  and of Katie’s own widowhood and bumpy recovery. Helen, for her part, was also holding difficult issues at bay.
How these three women from such different generations learn to navigate their challenging, turbulent, and ultimately healing journey together makes for riveting reading. By turns heartbreaking and funny—and always insightful—Katie Hafner’s brave and loving book answers questions about the universal truths of family that are central to the lives of so many.
Praise for Mother Daughter Me
“The most raw, honest and engaging memoir I’ve read in a long time.”—KJ Dell’Antonia, The New York Times
“A brilliant, funny, poignant, and wrenching story of three generations under one roof, unlike anything I have ever read.”—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
“Weaving past with present, anecdote with analysis, [Katie] Hafner’s riveting account of multigenerational living and mother-daughter frictions, of love and forgiveness, is devoid of self-pity and unafraid of self-blame. . . . [Hafner is] a bright—and appealing—heroine.”—Cathi Hanauer, Elle
“[A] frank and searching account . . . Currents of grief, guilt, longing and forgiveness flow through the compelling narrative.”Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle
“A touching saga that shines . . . We see how years-old unresolved emotions manifest.”Lindsay Deutsch, USA Today
“[Hafner’s] memoir shines a light on nurturing deficits repeated through generations and will lead many readers to relive their own struggles with forgiveness.”—Erica Jong, People

“An unusually graceful story, one that balances honesty and tact . . . Hafner narrates the events so adeptly that they feel enlightening.”Harper’s
“Heartbreakingly honest, yet not without hope and flashes of wry humor.”Kirkus Reviews
“[An] emotionally raw memoir examining the delicate, inevitable shift from dependence to independence and back again.”O: The Oprah Magazine (Ten Titles to Pick Up Now)
“Scrap any romantic ideas about what goes on when a 40-something woman invites her mother to live with her and her teenage daughter for a year. As Hafner hilariously and touchingly tells it, being the center of a family sandwich is, well, complicated.”Parade

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a curiously optimistic but ultimately doomed experiment in communal living, journalist and author Hafner (The Well) invites her 77-year-old mother, Helen, to share the household she and her teenage daughter set up together in Lower Pacific Heights, San Francisco. All three have high hopes (“How Chinese of you!” exclaimed one friend, in admiration), despite some intergenerational emotional baggage: namely, Helen’s drinking and inability to take care of the author and her sister as children; the death of Hafner’s husband, Matt, eight years before, which left their only daughter, Zoe, with intense fears of abandonment; and the grudges and resentful interdependence to which all three women are prone. Old patterns swiftly reemerge. A pianist and former computer programmer, Helen voices subtle but insidious criticism of Zoe’s musical intonation, and secretly harbors suspicion that her daughter asked her to live with her only because of Helen’s money. Meanwhile the author is frankly appalled by her mother’s frostiness and efforts to exert control, especially over the men Hafner dates. And 16-year-old Zoe displays shocking brattyness and ill manners toward her grandmother. Their year of living together elicits enormous spiritual growth, though not necessarily the way they envision. Sadly, the narrative is tedious, but some well-intentioned familial reckoning emerges. Agent: Jim Levine, Levine Greenberg Literary. (July)
From the Publisher
"Heartbreakingly honest, yet not without hope and flashes of wry humor." ---Kirkus
Kirkus Reviews
Technology journalist Hafner's (A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, 2008, etc.) one-year "experiment in multigenerational living," which forced her to confront her past and understand its impact on her present. After her 84-year-old companion unraveled, the author's mother, Helen, made it clear she wanted to live with her daughter and granddaughter, Zoë. Thinking that she and her mother were "as close to the mother-daughter ideal as could be," Hafner agreed and rented a house in San Francisco where all three women could cohabitate. It was only when they all came together under one roof that she realized she had totally misjudged the situation. In a narrative that skillfully moves between her present predicament and her difficult childhood, Hafner offers a compelling portrait of her remarkable mother and their troubled relationship. Helen was the product of two brilliant but narcissistic parents who grew into a woman hungry for attention. When Hafner's father didn't give it to her, she had ill-concealed affairs, which led to divorce. Then Hafner and her sister Sarah watched as her mother "ricocheted between involvements with various men," drowned herself in alcohol and lost custody of her daughters. The "lucky one" in her family, Hafner eventually found true love. But when her husband died suddenly, she and Zoë, who was the first to sense "the emotional energy of unfinished business" that tied the author to her mother, became traumatized. Desperate to bring peace to a feuding household, Hafner engaged the services of a family therapist, and their sessions revealed the extent to which both she and her mother denied the reality of their situation. It would only be after Sarah's sudden death, however, that both women would finally solidify the bonds they had forged anew in the painful fire of truth. Heartbreakingly honest, yet not without hope and flashes of wry humor.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

Daniel Menaker is the author, most recently, of A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation and of the novel The Treatment, as well as two books of short stories. Menaker is the former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker. His reviews and other writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and\ Slate.

Reviewer:: Daniel Menaker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812981698
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 331,862
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Katie Hafner is the author or coauthor of several books, including A Romance on Three Legs, The Well, and Where Wizards Stay Up Late. She is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times, covering healthcare and technology.
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Reading Group Guide

1. Do you find Hafner’s mother to be a sympathetic character? Why or why not? Do you think the author herself is a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

2. Hafner often finds herself in the middle of arguments between her mother and her daughter. Do you think it was possible for her to effectively mediate, while also working out her own difficulties with her mother?

3. Money plays a significant role in the book. Discuss why money can be such a flashpoint for families. Why do you think it was a point of contention in Mother Daughter Me?

4. Objects, such as the piano, also held great emotional significance throughout. Did the piano and other gifts carry different meanings for Hafner and her mother? How did their different understandings of the symbolism of those tangible objects lead to conflict?

5. Hafner is a longtime journalist who turned to memoir writing. How do you see her skills as a journalist employed in the writing of Mother Daughter Me?


Memory—and the presentation of memories—can be tricky when writing memoirs. Many of Hafner’s childhood memories emerge during sessions with the therapist Lia. Others surface when she finds letters and other documents from the past. How do you think Hafner handles the reliability of her own memories, especially from her early childhood? How do you think she handles the issue of memory when her recollections differ from her mother’s?

7. In its piece on Mother Daughter Me, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of children of parents who drink, “While their parents black out and forget, they remember, and their memories, their stories, matter. More than assigning blame, this is Hafner’s point—and her memoir is a brave manifestation of it.” Do you agree with the writer? Do you think Hafner steers clear of assigning blame? To what extent do you think it is necessary make a parent confront the details of a difficult past?

8. After Hafner’s husband, Matt, dies suddenly, Hafner tells the reader, she quickly does everything wrong. Instead of waiting to make any big changes, she acts hastily and, as she admits, inappropriately. What is your opinion of Hafner’s hasty decision to make large life changes? Are you sympathetic?

9. Bob, the man Hafner starts to date during the year chronicled in the book, is an anchor of sanity and stability throughout the book. How do you think Hafner was able to let another person into her life in during this year of such chaos and tumult? What role did you see Bob playing as he entered the family?

10. Hafner discusses the difficulty that subsequent generations often have in not repeating the mistakes of their parents, especially when it comes to inflicting trauma on one’s children. Do you think Hafner succeeds in breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma that her own mother was unable to break?

11. Hafner discusses the long-term effects of divorce on children, citing Judith Wallerstein’s book The Legacy of Divorce. Why do you think she chooses to discuss divorce at such length, when alcohol might seem to be the bigger problem?

12. Hafner’s father comes off as a complex, much-loved, but muted character in the book. Why do you think Hafner chose to keep him in the background of the narrative?

13. Do you think Hafner has created a balanced view of herself and her mother? Was she even in a position to do so? Are there examples of why or why not?

14. Why do you think the author’s sister had a life that was so deeply troubled, while Hafner herself, despite coming from the same background, was able to make different, healthier choices earlier in life?

15. Despite being in many ways a typical, occasionally difficult teenager, Zoë also shows herself to be surprisingly adult and insightful at times. What role do you think she plays in the choices that Hafner makes once Zoë’s grandmother comes to live with them?

16. Hafner describes in detail her relationship with her daughter, and the fierce attachment between the two. What do you think drew them so close? Does their bond add to the challenges they faced that year?

17. The mother-daughter relationship is inherently complicated, which Hafner makes very clear in the book. What are your thoughts on what makes the mother-daughter bond so complex, and often so fraught?

18. Toward the end of the book, Hafner states that instead of feeling the need to act as the constant pleaser and appeaser, she can finally “have relationships with all of the people that I love without having to connect the dots between them.” Does this insight seem like a good life lesson? Is there a contradiction in loving two people while knowing they may never reconcile? How does Hafner confront this question?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 13 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    A truly remarkable book about family relationships. With three g

    A truly remarkable book about family relationships. With three generations of women living under one roof , the author embarks on a quest to overcome once broken mother-daughter relationships. It is very well written and a hard book to put down. I finished it in three days. Highly recommended.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 16, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Katie Hafner has a very nice writing style. It is easy to read a

    Katie Hafner has a very nice writing style. It is easy to read and digest. In her book Mother Daughter Me, she details a year of working with her mother to solve unresolved issues between them. I found the book to be excellent.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    A complex look at the relationships between mothers and daughter

    A complex look at the relationships between mothers and daughters. This is well written and easy to enjoy.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2013

    For anyone who has struggled with their mother, read this book!

    Fabulous memoir, written for anyone who has struggled with their relationship with their mother. Am writing a book myself about my relationships with my mother who lives on the east coast while I I be on the west coast. Since her Alzheimer's diagnosis our relationship has shifted in some ways. What was a distant (and yet strangely intimate) relationship has become more real, more honest. Sometimes to the point of raw, sometimes less so.

    Mother Daughter Me was not easy emotional reading, but it was healing as Katie shares her journey with both her mother and daughter under very difficult circumstances. If you have ever yearned for a better relationship with your mother, no matter what your background, this memoir will ring true as it poignantly shares the ups and downs of a daughter's reconciliation with her mother.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2013

    Well written assessment of the author's relationships, and how t

    Well written assessment of the author's relationships, and how they change in light of new discoveries.  I raced through it in a few hours.

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  • Posted August 2, 2013

    An interesting read and well written

    I found the daughter to be less than lovable, but both her mother and grandmother, although as flawed as all of us, had a history and some wisdom with which to deal with their mistakes.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2013

    Well written, intriguing story

    Did the author mean to make everyone involved in this family seem selfish and self absorbed?
    Her daughter is portrayed (unwittingly) as a whiney brat.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted July 9, 2013



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    Posted August 26, 2013

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    Posted September 19, 2013

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