Outing your mom

Can you survive an insane mother with your own sanity intact? The latest in a spate of mad mom memoirs, Jacki Lyden's "Daughter of the Queen of Sheba" proves you can.

Published December 9, 1997 5:08PM (EST)

Mothers cast a potent spell. Whether yours failed you or not, you will try to get away, and she will reel you back, yo-yo-like, from unexpected corners of your life. Good god, it's her, you'll think when some weirdly familiar yet alien swatch of babble comes tumbling out of your mouth as you speak to your children. Or her face will materialize for a flickering second in the silvered light of the mirror as you turn to leave the room. It's not magic -- it's just your mom: your role model, your first love, your blueprint to womanhood, the stone you can never get out of your shoe.

It's a hard job being a mother, and not everyone is up to it, even if they'd like to be. Which is why so many of us spend years dissecting our mother's frailties and faults with our friends and mates and therapists. But would you feel justified or fair in writing down the story of your mother's stab at motherhood for any stranger (or worse, her friends and neighbors) to read?

Most of us adhere to an accepted code of family loyalty and live privately with our experiences and our hard-won insights. Now, however, the new age of literary memoir -- heralded by Mary Karr's fiercely honest, unapologetically loyal "Liar's Club," a reminiscence, at its heart, about her mother -- has joined the prevailing tide of cultural self-examination and made it acceptable, even fashionable, for writers to take their family skeletons by the hand and lead them out of the closet and onto the page. (Acceptable for the reading public, that is; what the mothers think may be a different story.)

The moms caught on paper in five recent memoirs by daughters -- NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden, poet Mary Karr and novelists Kathryn Harrison, Jamaica Kincaid and Linda Gray Sexton -- are not your run-of-the-mill specimens. In fact, they are a rather horrific lot, which makes these books a good test case for the possibility of, to paraphrase Wordsworth, recollecting daughterhood in tranquillity. If these daughters survived, so, with our mostly garden-variety mothers, might the rest of us.

What they survived was none too pretty: a mother so spectacularly insane that she thought she was the queen of Sheba, complete with eye-pencil hieroglyphics scribbled up her bare arms (Lyden's "Daughter of the Queen of Sheba"); an alcoholic mother so tormented by secrets and loss that she tried to kill her children and married seven times (Karr's "The Liar's Club"); a mother so withholding that her daughter started an affair with her father, both to punish her mother and to get her attention (Harrison's "The Kiss"); a mother so mysteriously powerful, cruel and uncaring that her children consider her "evil" and call her "Mrs. Drew," her married name, and will not eat the food she makes (Kincaid's "My Brother"); a mentally ill mother so self-absorbed and lacking in restraint that she sexually abused her young daughter (Sexton's "Searching for Mercy Street").

All five of these mothers have certain traits and circumstances in common: All were considered by their daughters (who now range in age from their mid-30s to mid-40s) to be attractive, smart, even gifted, and all five found their dreams thwarted in some way -- whether through culturally accepted sexism or romantic disappointment or poverty or small-town backwardness. Remarkably, despite having experienced childhoods of sometimes nauseating trauma and violence and fear, these daughters -- with the qualified exception of Harrison -- have written books that are honest, fair and free both of self-pity and vindictiveness. Somehow, the power of their first love for their mothers, flawed and handicapped as those mothers were, prevails.

Lyden, who has spent much of her professional life living in and reporting from some of the most chaotic places in the world (thereby mirroring the familiar chaos of her girlhood), writes in "Daughter of the Queen of Sheba": "You could say that my life as her daughter, the life of my imagination, began with my mother's visions ... Her madness was our narrative line." Her memoir is an artful, empathetic portrait of a woman whose mental illness was a logical and even ingenious response to heartbreaking circumstances. Lyden's mother, Dolores, was living in a tiny Wisconsin town and married to her second husband, a handsome, cold-hearted doctor whose underhanded abuse of her daughters was starting to take a heavy toll. When Lyden was 12, Dolores had her first "nervous breakdown," appearing in the doorway as the queen of Sheba, swaddled in yellow bedsheets, wearing a toy tiara and bequeathing a country apiece to each of her three daughters.

Lyden's tragicomic recollection of her stepfather's first encounter with her real father, who became deaf and virtually mute in a fluke accident when he was 29, portrays the doctor's malevolent nature. Pushed to his limit by the dissolution of his marriage and by finding another man caressing his wife in the house he built with his own hands, Lyden's father
rushes at the doctor. The doctor meticulously removes his camel hair coat and elegant fedora, scribbles a variety of insulting words -- "fathead," "pipsqueak," "loser" -- on his prescription pad, then stuffs them into Patrick Lyden's shirt pocket before pushing him into the Christmas tree.

Dolores' ill-fated second marriage was the last straw in a lifetime of disappointments. Though beautiful, talented and intelligent, her working-class parents refused to allow her to attend college, sending her instead to work in a bakery the day after high school graduation. She married Patrick Lyden because her father had insisted and she'd been too intimidated to admit she wasn't in love and found herself with three tiny children living in a backwater so monotonous that the townspeople had memorized the order in which the annual 4th of July fireworks went off. There was no room, in the 1950s and early '60s, for someone like Dolores Lyden, who dreamed of being a model or a lawyer but who had to content herself with makeshift fashion shows in the living room with her daughters ("pivot and turn, girls!"), playing timpani in the town Legion Band every Sunday and decorating her Jello-O molds with real violets.

For 20 years, until she was finally diagnosed as manic-depressive and capitulated to drug therapy, Lyden's mother slipped in and out of her regular, banal life, creating in her mind a life of dignity, power and achievement. Rather than projecting the blame for her disappointed life onto her child and extracting punishment by denying her love as Harrison's mother seemed to do, or drowning herself in a vodka-flavored sea of despair and self-destruction like Karr's mother, Dolores Lyden simply conjured up a new identity. Her reign as the queen of Sheba was one ongoing fantasy, as was the belief that she was Marie Antoinette or the daughter of a Mafia chieftain or evangelist Mary Baker Eddy. She also believed she was the CEO of her own company, for which she would rent out ballrooms for parties and send out invoices for products (anchovy cookies and meat juice jelly) to the judges, lawyers and doctors embroiled in the various lawsuits related to her mental illness. In one heartbreaking scene, the adult Jacki comes home for a visit and finds her mother sitting in the kitchen amid a pyramid of 500 purple coffee cups, each inscribed with her motto, "Think About Me."

Like Lyden, the other four memoirists spent much of their lives painfully absorbed with their mothers -- how to save them, how to keep out of their way, how to rouse their interest or win their approval. Ten years after escaping her poisonous mother's home as a teenager and moving thousands of miles away, Kincaid still "spoke of my mother, but only to describe the terrible feelings I had toward her, the terrible feelings she had toward me, in tones of awe ... as if ours had been a great love affair ..."

Sexton, who despaired as a child of ever pleasing her furious, distracted mother, the renowned confessional poet Anne Sexton, realized as a young girl that her only lifeline to her mother was poetry. Sexton remade herself as her mother's most trusted reader and ended up her literary executor, an unenviable position that led to numerous painful public revelations upon the publication of Anne Sexton's authorized biography -- including the excruciating news that would cause Linda to live on in the public's memory forever as the little daughter upon whom Anne Sexton masturbated.

Harrison's affair at age 20 with the father she had never known was, she candidly admits, partly a punitive act, toward both her narcissistic mother for withholding her love and herself for struggling without success to earn that love: "The good girl who failed, the thin girl, the achiever, the grade-earner, the quiet girl, the unhungry girl, the girl who will shape-shift and perform any self-alchemy to win her mother's love. She failed, and I must destroy her. Obliterate this good daughter with one so bad that what she does is unspeakable."

Lyden conjured up her own fantasies of escape, knowing all the while that she could never leave her two sisters and her maternal grandmother, Mabel -- an irascible, foul-mouthed character prone to cooking up squirrels and who believed that life was "something you threw yourself into, like a vat" -- to cope alone. "But how," Lyden understood, "could I run away? Kate and Sarah and I and Mabel and my mother, Dolores, names like the rays on the compass. They were the world of visible magnetic force, and I could no more abandon them than rearrange the continents." Lyden made a virtue of necessity, documenting her mother's illness. Her goal was not merely to catalog her mother's "most annoying acts"; she wanted to decode the meaning of her mother's maniacal messages from the strange, loopy planet where she lived.

"The doctor says it's just a condition," Lyden's mother says now of her Lithium-controlled illness, of which she remembers very little. "She doesn't remember in any specific way the costumes and speeches and strange migrations," writes Lyden, "the visit to bail out a prisoner or attempts to steal a horse or set a feast for Mary Baker Eddy. What she remembers is the feeling that she could set the world on fire, that she could paint what people were thinking and feeling, that she had the physical prowess of three -- that she felt wonderful. That she was brilliant. That's what she remembers."

But Lyden remembers it all. In its darkest hours, when their mother's madness and their stepfather's cruelty had each of the Lyden girls spiraling into their own lonely self destructions, Lyden describes her family life as being "what a black hole is to a star. We had burned ourselves through at the center, but we were of the same shattered world, exiles who could not escape one another, and so we continued to orbit." And yet Lyden seems to have emerged from this difficult family with a refreshing lack of darkness or self-delusion -- with neither Kincaid's bitterness nor Harrison's sentimentality, which manifests itself in an unconvincing claim that she has achieved reconciliation with her mother.

One sad, memorable comment made to Linda Sexton by her mercurial mother, regarding Anne's capricious, regretted divorce of Linda's long-suffering father, was, "I found out that a little love is better than no love at all." Perhaps this is true, but a lot of love is undoubtedly better, especially if the counterweight to that love is questionable maternal skill. Lyden's memoir, like Karr's, makes a strong case for the power of unconditional love to sway even a powerful tide of familial destruction.

Karr announces her forgiveness on her book's acknowledgments page, where she mentions her mother's invaluable support and help with research. Her stately, sophisticated mother, stuck in a smelly Texas refinery town reading philosophy and mourning a few gloriously urbane years she spent in New York, was a woman tormented by the secret loss of her first two children. Her self-loathing led her to attempt to do away with Karr and her sister: by steering a car off a bridge in one instance, another time gathering up all of the children's clothes and toys and burning them before going back to their bedroom with a knife.

But Karr balances these terrifying episodes with affirming memories that glow like the phosphorescent water of the Gulf of Mexico, in which her family once went skinny-dipping: "Mother and I are flying underwater like light-green phantoms ... Ahead of us in the green water, I can see [my sister] Lecia's pale white feet like the neon tailfin of a mermaid slipping away just out of reach." She remembers, too, her mother weeping over corny Mother's Day cards, her mother's gentle hands as she smudges charcoal around Karr's eyes: "She is working right on my face, like she's using all her attention to paint me right into being ... I am the cathedral wall on which the painter Giotto outlines an angel." Karr evokes a mother who was not just godlike and frightening in her stumbling pain but also eminently lovable.

Like Karr, Lyden writes of her mother's feverish manias with a touch of wistfulness and admiration, as something that brought her childhood and her mother into high relief, a kind of Technicolor lens on the landscape of her girlhood. She sees beyond the liability of having a crazy mother and remembers her mother's moments of glory -- even if they were only in her head -- as a gift. She is grown up enough and wise enough to love her mother not just despite her weaknesses, but because of them. Whether our relationships with our mothers are troubled or calm, tortured or joyous, we should all be so lucky.

By Kate Moses

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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