“A friend once told me that it was frankly a little bit exhausting to hear me talk about how much I loved my mother,” Leslie Jamison writes, in what passes for a confession, in her tender contribution to the anthology What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence. The two women don’t often discuss her mother’s first marriage, which broke up before Jamison was born. When her mother’s ex-husband writes a novel based on their passionate ’60s relationship, awash in acid trips and free love, Jamison, author of The Recovering and The Empathy Exams, relishes the chance to get a fuller view of her mother’s young womanhood, which her essay, “I Met Fear on the Hill,” conveys with affection.
Jamison’s uncomplicated adoration for the woman who begat her makes her something of an outlier in this always compelling and sometimes devastating collection. The title essay is by Michele Filgate, who also edited the volume. Her wrenching piece, 14 long years in the making, describes her mother’s unwillingness to protect her from her abusive stepfather. Filgate writes longingly of the parent who effectively abandoned her: “‘I love you past the sun and the moon and the stars,’ she’d always say to me when I was little. But I just want her to love me here. Now. On Earth.” The essay was originally published on the website Longreads, and on the 2017 day that it went live, Filgate recalls in the book’s introduction, “it felt like I had set fire to my own life.” Breaking the silence can be daunting.
Even so, many of the contributors, like Filgate, write courageously about these formative and often fraught relationships. In “Mother Tongue,” Carmen Maria Machado, author of the acclaimed short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, confronts her hesitation to have children by exploring, with searing honesty, her rift with her difficult and unhappy mother. What they don’t talk about: “That I have not regretted our estrangement for one single second; in fact, I keep waiting for the regret to appear and being surprised when it doesn’t… That I miss what we had when I was a kid, but I’m not a kid anymore, and I will never be again.” The essay’s kicker, in which Machado confesses her fear that she’s in fact very similar to her mother, will resonate with many a reader who has battled those complicated feelings.
After years of regarding her traumatic childhood as a “shameful secret,” novelist Nayomi Munaweera, the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants, writes candidly of growing up with an erratic, unstable, and manipulative mother. Her mother was prone to violent rages and equally agonizing silences that would last days; Munaweera and her sister became expert at reading her shifting moods and “learned to ignore our own feelings until we didn’t feel them anymore.” She describes her slow path to healing, which involved distancing herself, physically and emotionally, from both her parents. In doing so, she learns “that we can make lives that we couldn’t even have imagined when we were little and that we can carry the little ones who we were into these new and luminous lives.”
One fascinating thread throughout the book involves the contributors’ mothers gaining insight into their children, and the topics they avoid, by reading their words; these sons and daughters are writers, after all. (Munaweera even includes her mother’s moving response to a draft of the essay that she sent her in advance of the book’s publication.) Alexander Chee’s powerful essay, “Xanadu,” recalls his attempts to protect his mother from the pain of knowing he’d been sexually abused as a child. She learns of the abuse when he warns her that she’ll read about it in his debut novel, Edinburgh, based on events from his childhood.
Melissa Febos, whose close relationship with her mother deteriorated when Febos disappeared into drugs and dysfunctional relationships, is the author of a 2010 memoir, Whip Smart, that detailed her years as a professional dominatrix. “I’ve had my own experience of it,” her mother tells her, alluding to awkward comments she’d fielded in the wake of its publication. “I had made a choice to tell the world the things I couldn’t talk about,” Febos reflects in her affecting “Thesmophoria.” “In doing so, I had forced myself to talk about them, though I still barely could with her. My choice revealed those things to her and simultaneously forced her to have a conversation with the world.”
Kiese Laymon’s 2018 memoir Heavy is written in the second person to his mother; his provocative contribution here, “While These Things/Feel American to Me,” is also addressed to her. In it he includes the response he received after she read Heavy, a raw rumination on growing up black in the American South. She tells him, of raising him as a single mother, “I lived in fear, when, perhaps, I should have willed myself to live with more courage, less tough love, and more conviction. I took some of the wrong chances.” In his essay, Laymon asks how these conversations will make them better at loving. “That is the only question that matters to me right now,” he writes. “Can you tell me what questions matter to you? Can we spend the rest of our lives talking about those questions?”
Alas, such dialogues will not be possible for all of the contributors. Filgate wonders what it would be like to present her mother with this, her first book, “to say: Here is everything that keeps us from really talking. Here is my heart. Here are my words. I wrote this for you.” But the exchange exists only in her imagination, as the distance between them remains heartbreakingly insurmountable.