Assumptions in the Closet

February 9, 2012

I got a copy of Rona Maynard‘s book, My Mother’s Daughter the week my mother would have turned 82. A January baby, she liked – well, insisted upon – being fussed over at the very time of year when I was most exhausted and most broke. Now, it’s the time of year I miss her most.

My Mother’s Daughter was the ideal read when days were short and thaw alternated with deep-freeze as my emotions followed suit. So much of this book resonated with my own experience: the Jewish mother, the WASP (artist!) father, the memories of being the responsible foil to a more flamboyant elder, but most of all, growing up in a family which considered itself special.

I started thinking about the challenges of writing about one’s own family, not just the decisions about what to say and what to hold back, that eternal balancing act between writing honestly and preserving the dignity of your subject. These are important decisions, but something deeper and more pervasive came to mind as I read Maynard’s book. It’s the challenge of deconstructing the assumptions and habits on which a given family’s culture is based … and she does it well.

It’s necessary, I think, whether or not we end up writing about our families. These days, there’s all kinds of consternation about when and how kids physically leave home. To me, it’s immaterial. The real maturity comes from seeing the behavioural “home” for what it is, and building a new one based on choice. This is superbly dramatized by Marni Jackson in Home Free, which looks at three generations of her family. Did going off to war necessarily mean you were grown up? Did having babies? Did risking your life hitchhiking across Europe while your parents were beside themselves with worry? Or is the slower, less visible process of today’s supposedly “pampered” youth a better road to maturity?

When it comes to writing, detachment from assumptions makes the difference between a sob story and a useful narrative, a character assassination and a compassionate analysis. We all benefit from stepping outside our habits, and a good book can give us the courage and imagination to do it.

It is a deeply subversive act, and it can feel like a betrayal. As I drafted Outside the Box, it was not any skeletons in the closet that kept me awake at night, but the prospect of identifying and making public my family’s assumptions, revealing them as assumptions. (The idea that we were special for instance.)

Maynard extends the exploration into adulthood, trenchantly describing how the conditions of her childhood home manifested in her working life: “I thought Maclean’s would take me forward; in fact it was pulling me back to the overheated dreams and incessant competition of my childhood. Like my mother’s house, the magazine was a place where women went hungry – for respect, for opportunity, for presence in next week’s issue. An extra page for my section meant one less for someone else’s, and there were never enough pages to go around.”

Maynard eventually became editor of Chatelaine. As she herself points out, Chatelaine has always been thought of as the magazine of the ordinary Canadian woman. For a person whose family rejected the ordinary, this could be seen as the ultimate act of “leaving home.” Paradoxically, it was also an exceptional achievement. I hope she writes more about her career on Chatelaine and what she learned from discovering and sharing the stories of Canadian women.

I was also riveted by Susan Olding‘s Pathologies, particularly the essay “Mama’s Voices,” in which Olding grapples with the taboo against writing about one’s own children. She doesn’t draw any conclusions or at least doesn’t hit us over the head with them, and I think this is a strength.

As I’ve already ranted on this blog, though: I disagree with any suggestion that holding back information or indeed feelings is physically unhealthy. Olding does suggest this, however obliquely. This premise makes me very, very nervous. It’s great to pay attention to the connection between mind and body, but so many people who do this, also go around feeling afraid that life and its complications will harm them. In my Feldenkrais practice I see many people who feel unnecessarily afraid for their health. To the point where – frankly — they could make themselves sick.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for self-expression. But it’s not always possible. For ethical or tactical reasons, we sometimes need to keep things to ourselves. In speaking, in writing, in blogging. It’s hard enough to do that without the threat of cancer hovering over you.

So glad to get that out of my system!

Back to the story. Olding treads a dangerous line in Pathologies, not only by describing her young daughter’s behaviour, but in sharing her story prior to adoption. In future years, Maia may not want the world to know any of this. As far as I’m concerned Olding shows herself to be a responsible narrator (and mother) simply because she gives herself a hard time. She weighs the issues and leads us through her process, giving us a path we can follow in undertaking our own.

She never mentions the greater good that is surely served by writing about this subject. The world will understand Maia — and kids like her – better, when they’ve read the book. To me, this is an example of the healthy editorial rigour she displays: framing the writing not as her daughter’s need, but as her own.

And Olding tells her own story first. I trust her, as a narrator because of this. She’s talking about Susan when she’s talking about Susan, and she’s talking about Maia when she’s talking about Maia, and where the line blurs, she talks about this too.

The other book I admired from this point of view was The Boy in the Moon, Ian Brown’s memoir about raising a son with a severe disability. He reveals his own struggles with such candour that no one can doubt the respect and love he feels for his son, and Walker is seen, not as an extension of his parents, but as a person in his own right.

I feel qualified to comment on this because my writer-grandmother wrote a lot about me when I was a child. She also wrote from my point of view. Yes, I felt exploited. And still do. This is because I felt my grandmother was not depicting me, but a projection of herself, of what she wanted me — and our relationship to be — without coming out and saying so. I know my grandmother loved me, and left a wonderful legacy, but on these writings, I take a tough stance. It’s been the only way to recover from them.

It did not create the same kind of lasting damage when I came across journals and letters revealing my mother’s ambivalence about caring for me when I was a toddler. They were shocking to read at first, and others were quick to criticize her, but I’m glad I had access to them. I thought about all this again when I read Kerry Clare‘s story “Love is a Let-Down,” deservedly collected in Tightrope’s Best Canadian Essays of 2011. In stark detail, she invokes the first weeks of her daughter’s life, when she didn’t know whether early motherhood was a passing storm or “whether your life has just descended into an all-enveloping hell.”

Like Clare, my mother faced her ambivalence, yet carried on with the business of mothering. I respected and loved her more, knowing how many good choices she made, despite the difficulties. In the long run, knowing this helped me to look after her when our roles were reversed. It was hard and most of the time, I didn’t want to do it. I did it anyway, though. And I think I navigated the experience better than if I had been given an idealized view of what caring for a vulnerable human being really means.

I guess that means I can see lots of reasons to be honest in writing. I just don’t think health is one of them.

2 thoughts on “Assumptions in the Closet”

  1. Terri Favro says:

    I hope Rona Maynard reads — or has read — “Outside the Box”. She would find much in the book that she would recognize and identify with, I think. And I wonder if she and Mona ever crossed paths? Maynard’s editorship at Chatelaine might have been too late in the game, I suppose. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

  2. Rona Maynard says:

    Maria, this perceptive post will stay with me. I particularly liked your observation about the difference between leaving home physically (such a slow business these days) and separating oneself from familial assumptions. Like you, I admire and have recommended Marni Jackson’s Home Free. And I’m delighted that you’ve connected with my memoir as I have with Outside the Box.

    Mona wrote for Chatelaine long before my time but all the magazine’s regular contributors –whatever their era–have been part of the great conversation that joins Canadian women to their world and to the best of themselves. It’s an undervalued profession. And I say that as a former freelancer who has watched the writing life get progressively tougher in the Internet era.

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