A daughter once removed

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Sven Birkerts edits the literary journal AGNI at Boston University. He is the author of "Reading Life: Books for the Ages."

READING A.M. Homes’ memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” I found myself haunted by various kindred tonalities -- voicings of loss and wanting so familiar that they now feel like a central part of the American idiom. Two books that came to mind repeatedly were Paul Auster’s “The Invention of Solitude,” a young man’s sifting of the meager evidence of an absent father, and Kathryn Harrison’s “The Kiss,” her almost procedural transcription of an incestuous involvement with the father who had left her when she was a child. (Joan Didion hovered somewhere nearby too.) All three of these memoirs could be said to share a numbed matter-of-factness of tone, which has as much to do with what gets said, and how, as with what doesn’t. Omitted are all traces of sensuous delight, all intimate inwardness, nearly all humor.

The clipped-back style is, of course, a literary staple, harking back at least to Hemingway. But these memoirs feel different. Hemingway’s aesthetic was based on the assumption that the felt but unstated emotion would nevertheless register with the reader; the stoicism was like a photographic negative. With Auster, Harrison and now Homes, however, the sense is that whatever is being written about has so injured and cauterized the writer that reportage is all that remains. The affect cannot override the reticence, because it is in some way paralyzed.

We see this right away in “The Mistress’s Daughter.” After the short preliminary setup, Homes launches the first scene, offering an exchange of dialogue as barren as some existential teleplay:


“ ‘Come into the living room. Sit down,’ my mother says.”

It is Christmas 1992. Homes, an adult and home only to visit, reports a deep tremor of fear. “Who died?” she wants to know.

“ ‘No one died. Everyone’s fine.’

“ ‘Then what is it?’

“They are silent.

“ ‘Is it about me?’

“ ‘Yes, it’s you. We’ve had a phone call. Someone is looking for you.’ ”

Though the situation is not yet clear, the tone is set, as are what might be called the terms of access.

The “someone” turns out to be Homes’ birth mother, a woman named Ellen Ballman. The title of the memoir will suggest the basic situational premise. Seduced, abandoned, Ballman years ago gave her newborn baby up for adoption. Distressed ever since by what she did, she has finally engaged a lawyer to find her daughter, now grown.

Homes is upset, uncentered and fascinated, and when the first shock wears off, she is determined to pursue the connection. Soon after, two letters arrive in which Ballman gives an account of what happened: that as a young working girl she fell in love with her boss, a married man named Norman Hecht; that it became clear when she got pregnant that he would not make it right; that she had to do what she did. She ends the second of the letters by saying, “I have a great fear of being disappointed with what I am now doing.”

Homes is compelled to call her. But what an unnerving contact to have with your birth mother. “Hers is the most frightening voice I’ve ever heard -- low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal. I tell her who I am and she screams, ‘Oh my God. This is the most wonderful day of my life.’ ... In the background there is a flick, a sharp suck of air -- smoking.”

The first half of Homes’ memoir narrates the deepening story, not just of that “relationship” -- from their calls, to Ballman’s arrival at one of her daughter’s readings looking for all the world like a stalker, to her revelation that she is ill, and then to her quite sudden death -- but also of Homes’ tracking down of Hecht. The father is an elusive figure: He is hearty and easy at first -- almost reassuring, in comparison with Ballman -- but then he becomes unexpectedly suspicious and distant. He goes to great pains to set up a DNA test for himself and his daughter, but when his paternity is confirmed, he pulls away.


So much ambiguity, so many unstated feelings and suppositions, so many surprise points of resemblance and strangely echoing gestures. Homes’ cool style lends itself to this presentation, allows her to hover between the emotional facts of the matter and the more existential, disconcerting truths she’s after, as when she writes: “The lack of purity became clear to me -- I am not my adopted mother’s child, I am not Ellen’s child. I am an amalgam. I will always be something glued together, something slightly broken. It is not something I might recover from but something I must accept, to live with -- with compassion.”

She urges compassion on herself, but in fact she is anxious and removed, her detachment serving as a measure of the emotional damage incurred. But though the wary tone serves the presentation of the book’s first half, it undermines the second. For in those pages Homes is no longer much preoccupied with the individuals who were her biological parents. After Ballman’s death and Hecht’s withdrawal, the author pursues a solitary, extended genealogical quest. She immerses herself, and us, in the world of near-biblical “begats.” Not surprisingly, the memoir starts to sag.

Intricacies of family background are always a tough sell. Rick Moody, for example, premised much of his memoir “The Black Veil” on his own upstream researches, trying to compensate for slow material with tour-de-force sentence-writing. Even so, he did not escape his critics unscathed. Writes Homes: “I find a scrap of information that seems to indicate there was a Barney Ackerman who died in Canada in the 1990s but I can’t piece it together. When were Barney Ackerman and Clare Kahn Ballman married and divorced?” When, indeed? The only chance such material -- and there is a good deal of it -- has of being interesting is when we as readers have a deep investment in the implications, when we care about the people whose hereditary trail this is. We don’t, alas -- the distancing strategies of the first half of the memoir have ensured that.

Homes has included a number of family photographs, from all sides, with the text. Almost more than the genealogical reportage, these make explicit the divide between the spheres of interest -- personal and public/literary. True, the memoir is a bridging genre, a movement from the former to the latter, and there are writers -- I think of Nabokov in “Speak, Memory” -- who have rendered intimate family lore into literature. But here the reader’s imagination doesn’t have enough context to work with. Except for the story of Homes and her four parents, the world is absent. *