My reading is taking on an unintentional theme. Several of the books I’ve recently picked up are by women or about women who’ve had to reclaim themselves from the damage done by harsh maternal figures.
How to be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery was the first. She has lovely James Herriot type anecdotes about her experiences with animals intermingled with the scientifically matter-of-fact revelation that she was likely repeatedly shaken or smothered by her mother as a toddler. Or that, when as an adult she caught her mother’s wrist as her mother was about to strike her, her father made her apologize for bruising her mother’s arm. Montgomery's experiences with nature and with animals are a healing path for her, but she writes that it’s an ermine that shows her in an objective way that her mother’s fierceness was a survival mechanism.
“These little animals’ hearts beat nearly four hundred times in a minute. No wonder they kill everything they can at every opportunity. They are glorious in their single-minded ferocity. I then understood something important about my mother. She was, in her way, as fierce as that ermine.”
I had a similar experience of recognition in high school with a book on the Serengeti - it may have been Serengeti: Natural Order on the African Plain. What arrested my attention in this book and stands out in my memory now is a photo of a wildebeest being disemboweled by a hyena. As I recall, the wildebeest is standing, looking at the camera, while it’s being killed in what must have been a slow and excruciating way. I saw that look again in a dove’s eye as my brother held the bird in his hands, preparing to wring its neck after it had been wounded. Such utter acceptance and lack of struggle was, apparently, the natural order. Having spent my childhood not struggling against tides that were too great for me, I knew that feeling of surrender. What I didn't know was that it was possible to fight against it.
So, while it’s not pleasant reading, I think these books of difficult mother figures will teach me, show me how other people gather themselves up and forge their paths anyway.
Sy Montgomery simply follows her passion, becoming a nature writer and marrying a man her parents disown her for choosing. She doesn't explain the process of healing that she must have had to undergo. She writes of her encounter with the ermine as a kind of instantaneous healing:
“Like a struck match chases away darkness, this creature’s incandescent presence left no room for anger in my heart - for it had been stretched wide with awe, and flooded with the balm of forgiveness.”
Maybe it was that simple for her, or maybe writing about it was cathartic and healing. As Jean Shinoda Bolen writes, to break “this taboo of silence [is] the beginning of feeling whole. To speak the truth is to be able to say, this is who I am.”
I’ve just started reading The Ugly Cry by Danielle Henderson. “Dropped into the care of a foul-mouthed retiree,” Henderson paints a painful image of a child getting none of the nurturing at home that she needs. I can barely make myself crawl through the book (and my daughter has just reminded me of “sunk costs,” so I may not make myself read to the end.).
How do people discover themselves when their mother - or in this case grandmother - can’t reflect back to them their worthiness? For Henderson, reading (“I would take respite in the bathroom, the only sun-filled room in the house, where I could read in relative peace.”) and school seem to be lifelines.
“I loved being in school. The teachers smiled and were happy to see me, unlike the “What do you want?” reaction I got from Grandma every time I walked into a room. It quickly dawned on me that learning was something I could do on my own… I liked asking questions and getting real answers instead of being told, “Child, I don’t fucking know,” which was Grandma’s standard response. More than anything, I liked it when people told me I was smart, even if I wasn’t quite sure exactly how I was smart - I just asked a lot of questions, then worked hard to figure out the answers on my own, like I’d always been told to do.”
Jeanette Winterson, in Why Be Happy, When You Could Be Normal? has a similar trajectory and speakers eloquently of the power of books and reading to show her herself.
“I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.”
And then there’s Edith Wharton. Self-made (“Daisy Chanler used to say that both Teddy Roosevelt and Edith Wharton were ‘self-made men…’”), yet she starts as a girl who gives up fiction writing at the age of seven because of her mother’s disapproval. Hermione Lee writes,
“The story of her relationship with her mother is always like this: one of anxiety and guilt produced by disapproval. Because her mother laughed at her literary pretensions, her solecisms, and her looks, she became a ‘painfully shy self-conscious child.’... It seems that everything this child felt and did led to a dread of disapproval. And she could never be sure what reaction she would get. There was something baffling to her in her mother, ‘a mysterious impenetrability, a locked room full of bats and darkness.’”
It makes sense that writers - people who naturally gravitate toward words - would educate themselves into an independent sense of self by reading. Like Danielle Henderson and Jeanette Winterson, Edith Wharton reads. “One of her first and most determined exit strategies from her parents’ society was her self-education as a cultural analyst… She read herself out of ‘old New York’...” Reading creates a foundation from which she can, with focus and determination, push off.
“With prolonged, hard-working, deliberate ambition, she pushed out and away from her family’s mental habits, social rules and ways of life… to construct her own personal and professional revolution.”
How does she sustain her personal revolution? She nurtures her “fragile secret self whose most passionate relations are with nature, animals and the sound of words.”
Like Sy Montgomery, Wharton travels. Hermione Lee writes, “It was partly by means of her journeys to Italy that Wharton spread her roots and burst through the vessel that was meant to hold her.”
And also like Montgomery, Wharton finds herself by exploring her relationships with animals, finding supportive connection with her dogs. “In old age she often spoke about her almost mystical sense of communication with her dogs, and she judged her new friends partly by whether they shared this enthusiasm.”
And she establishes a home for herself, building The Mount and its gardens where, as she wrote in a letter, “one can sit under a tree with a beautiful view in one's eyes, talk and read and let things settle down with one, undisturbed.” It’s here, Hermione Lee tells us, in the home she’s made that Edith Wharton “turned herself into a great writer, with the same kind of determination and pragmatic ambition that she brought to the building of the house.”
Claiming for herself education, home and connection, Edith Wharton finds her voice. That doesn’t necessarily mean that she finds healing. Hermione Lee writes “Wharton’s version of [her mother] Lucretia Jones is one of the most lethal acts of revenge ever taken by a writing daughter. The fictional materials were inexhaustible - Wharton was still ‘doing’ her in her seventies - and Lucretia remained unforgiven."