A novelist, poet, and writing teacher mourns the tragic loss of her tormented mother.
In this raw memoir, Brandeis (The Selfless Bliss of the Body, 2017, etc.) begins with her 70-year-old mother Arlene’s suicide in 2009, which coincided with the birth of her son Asher. Desperate for answers, she and her sister fruitlessly scoured their mother’s bedroom, which, much like the woman herself, appeared “lovely and elegant on the surface, total chaos underneath.” The author’s reality soon became even more complex: she wrestled with the grief of her mother’s sudden death, processed her complicated history of paranoia, suspicion, and delusions, and nurtured her newborn. This frustration bleeds into the text as Brandeis recounts episodes where her mother’s inexplicable accusations wreaked havoc on her pregnancy and her marriage. The author then reveals her mother’s history of psychosis, which seemed to stem from the author’s pregnancies, with which Arlene became obsessed. The book’s title comes from a documentary her mother, an artist, was producing about the rare inherited illnesses she believed plagued the family. Her daughter was skeptical, however, believing the film to be a “noble, misguided project.” Whether they were psychosomatically induced or not, Arlene attested that the illnesses had been repeatedly dismissed or misdiagnosed by the medical community; even the author herself admits to suffering, as a teenager, from a combination of malingering and factitious disorder. Urged by her therapist, Brandeis penned letters to her deceased mother to hopefully exorcise the demons haunting her and to transfer unexpressed feelings about their complex relationship into words. These resonant missives combine with exchanged emails, transcripts from her mother’s documentary, and evocative, retrospective narration detailing the author’s own medical maladies, youthful memories, and her love-hate relationship with a woman she seemed to empathize with in hindsight. Brandeis’ emotional struggle to truly understand her mother is searing and poignant. “I am aching to understand you now,” she writes, “to figure out your story, the path that led to your unraveling.”
A uniquely graceful, gorgeously written and composed collage of grief, misunderstanding, love, and an attempt at familial closure through art and prose.