In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechtel quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which she reports that her great novels about her parents, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse could not have been written while her parents were still alive.
That Woolf reports this as a matter of simple, unsentimental fact seems another thing that depends upon the absence of her parents. For Bechtel, the irony is clear: that her mother is still alive is what makes Are You My Mother? a looser and messier book than Fun Home, her elegy to her absent father and investigation into his absence. Her mother keeps popping up, challenging the story, shifting out of place.
Woolf lost her mother at 13, an event which underscores the longing romanticism with which she paints the mothers in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. To my mind, there’s still no more devastating passage of loss than the parenthetical by which we learn of Mrs. Ramsey’s death: “(Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.)”
More often, however, it is the case that women marry older men and outlive them, that fathers leave and mothers stay, and that fathers’ inner lives are a bewilderment to their children, and that writers write books about absent fathers and present mothers. Another contemporary writer, the criminally under-read Mary Gordon, has produced in The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother a pair of memoirs that explore the legacies of an absent father and a present mother. Like Bechtel’s father, Gordon’s used intellectual pretension and artistic ambition to crush the residue of their secrets: in the case of Bechtel’s father, his attraction to men; in Gordon’s, his Jewishness.
Bechtel and Gordon wonder what it might mean to use words differently than their fathers who used them to dissemble and conceal, and both struggle with mothers who might prove to have a more unshakable relationship to language and belief than their daughters. When Gordon helps her mother, a devout Catholic, endure the terror of undergoing invasive tests while suffering from dementia by reciting the rosary she wonders how it is that there are no words in which she might find similar comfort, despite her whole sense of self being that of a writer and reader.
Part of the poignance of Gordon’s books is that her mother’s dementia places her in a limbo where self-disclosure is neither forbidden nor permitted. At one point, she decides not to escort her mother on an excursion – in part because she’s not sure if she will enjoy it but in part because she is working on her book and would rather write about her mother than spend time with her. Sometimes I wonder if those with abusive or absent parents become writers or artists not because there is more material there, but because they are “liberated” sooner from the desire to please, placate, from the requirements of decorum. In a piece I wrote a while ago on Alison Bechtel, I talked about the ways therapy promises to essentially, kill off our parents without killing them: to kill Woolf’s angel of the house, to kill the need to please, and allow for truth. And yet, it seems to me, this is often cold comfort indeed, not only for those who mourn but for all of those, who, like Gordon and Bechtel’s absent fathers and present mothers still seek the comforts beyond truth of art or faith or beauty: that is, for all of us.