THREE DAUGHTERS by Anna Mitgutsch


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Mama meant safety and peril; she could protect me from just about everything except herself."" This knife-tip scrutiny of the nightmare core of child abuse not only affirms such contradictions, but traces the terrible legacy of violence through three generations. In adulthood, a childhood victim narrates. Whether mother Marie's horror tales of her own childhood in a large Austrian peasant family were true or not--the beatings, the humiliations--she ""had learned in slow lessons how to cultivate, extend, refine and sublimate hatred"": hatred for her mild and unlanded husband, whom she resignedly married after WW II; and for imperfections in her home, clothes, public person, her child, or anything that would cause shame in Marie's struggle to cross the caste line from working class into the bourgeoisie. Just when the beatings began, Vera, her only child, couldn't remember, but ""this is what hell must be like: pain and pain and pain."" Now herself a mother of a girl, Vera reconstructs not only the early history of this monstrous woman so locked into her own rage, but Vera's own journey through childhood terror and odd dependency, through the false dawn of ""independence"" as a college student, and then onto the clammy realization that her own unhappy child (cosseted and loved, she thought), ""sits in my brooding shadow, in the shadow of my avenging mother."" A merciless probe of the screaming nightmare of ritual child abuse with some chilly speculations: ""Was [Marie] one of those people whose careers are made in torture chambers and concentration camps?"" Mitgutsch's first novel also illuminates the mores and modi of a harsh rural community both before and during the Nazi era, and of a later transitional village society. Yet Marie defies a simple tag of either product or victim. In all: a severe yet crisply narrated account of the sinister, horrible tragedy of a child trapped by a pathological sadist--who happens also to be her mother.

Pub Date: April 10th, 1987
Publisher: Jovanovich Harcourt Brace