Circling My Mother By Mary Gordon, Pantheon Books, Hardcover, 2007, 254 pages, $24
Usually when I read a memoir, I look forward to deep insights that come from reflection and a retrospective view. Often the writer integrates lessons long suffered and shares wisps of melancholy, tenderness, or nostalgia. A good memoir brings the reader into the world of another, gestalt pictures of complex relationships and patterns over time, sometimes over generations. There is little of this in Mary Gordon’s book, Circling My Mother. The best part of the book is the title, which aptly describes the writer’s attempt to understand her mother, circling around her life and never penetrating it.
Mary Gordon approaches her subject by stacking up one-dimensional views, each chapter viewing one angle of her mother’s life; as if you could add up single dimensions to get a whole person. Her inability to access her mother, Anna Gagliano Gordon, can be understood in part by how quickly each chapter moves from a few paragraphs describing her mother to many pages about herself. A narcissist writing a book about another’s life. No wonder it falls flat.
Ms. Gordon seems to inhabit a world of pure physicality. People are to be understood by a peculiar physical characteristic, what clothes they wore, or how ugly their furniture was. In the author’s construct, adornment and beauty are inextricably linked with happiness. Caring about yourself means you wear beautiful, expensive clothes. She cannot understand her mother, so she researches her mother’s perfume. A most pitiful passage illustrates the author’s profound limitations. After first stating that she was mortified and mildly enraged to see her parents kiss each other passionately, she then wonders, “How did my father react with passion to my mother’s misshapen body, misshapen to the point of being distressful to look at, perhaps even grotesque?” (Her mother was a polio survivor).
The author unrelentingly looks down on her mother. “She had an excellent ear for speech that was false, a cover-up.” She complains that singing is inefficient (her mother loved to sing), while whining that her mother didn’t know how to have flowing conversations about things like food. Mary Gordon is disgusted by her mother’s deterioration in old age: her rot, as she put it. How difficult it was for Ms. Gordon to spend 30 minutes each week in urine-infused air of the nursing home where her mother lived the last 11 years of her life.
Ms. Gordon complains bitterly about the awful women in her family without realizing she is of course one of them. She seems proud of the fact that she hates most of the people she describes, as if her disdain elevates her above it all, making sure the reader knows that she didn’t attend their funerals. “If I think of her as a type, a character in history, a character in fiction, I can become sympathetic.” But, alas, these are real relatives and there is no compassion. She holds on to her hatreds and resentments. She takes revenge, reflecting the same pathos that she so despises: resentful, judgmental, spiteful. She saves her most unforgiving bitterness for her aunt, Rita, whose cruelty is shockingly revealed: she made the author spend every Saturday cleaning the apartment! Wow, call child protective services!
The reader suffers through startlingly narcissistic passages such as Mary’s recall of one of her mother’s close friends whom she sees as more like herself – the opposite of her mother. She has no inkling of how these women could be good friends and proposes that perhaps her mother’s close friend really hung around to be friends with her, the daughter. This same woman, one of the few characters that Mary Gordon likes, also becomes an enemy never to be forgiven.
The result of all this is a view, not of the mother, but of the author through shards of a broken mirror: an accomplished writer still whining that everyone had a normal childhood except her and her birthright was supposed to be perpetual comfort and beauty. It’s too bad, because her mother does seem like a fascinating woman: daughter of Italian and Irish immigrants, a fervent Catholic who married a converted Jew, a crippled polio survivor who was a financially self-sufficient working woman from the 30’s onward. But we can only circle around the mother ourselves, trying to get an authentic whiff. The following passage offers a rare gem of disclosure: “Was her funeral my last theft, my last withholding? My last refusal to allow her to be who she was, instead of a citizen of the world I inhabited…”
No, this book is.