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Bittersweet entanglements

Donna Seaman is an editor for Booklist and host of the radio program "Open Books" in Chicago (www.openbooksradio.org). Her author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air."

“Sorry about your happy childhood,” said a good, teasing father to his writer-wannabe daughter.

Family trauma is often at the root of compelling literature. Children under duress frequently find solace in books, and young writers-in-the-making soon learn that channeling feelings and thoughts onto the page or screen staves off anguish, however briefly.

“I have been a writer for as long as I have had conscious memory, or perhaps it is better to say I have no conscious memory of myself as not a writer,” mused Mary Gordon in “The Shadow Man,” her first work of family history. Clearly haunted and inspired by her family’s sorrows, Gordon has fictionalized many of the lies, betrayals and sacrifices that poisoned her family circle in her provocative short stories and intrepid novels. But because she also needed to address head-on the hard facts about her past, she began writing memoirs.

“The Shadow Man” was a bombshell. Published 11 years ago, after Gordon had attained literary fame for her novels “Final Payments,” “The Company of Women” and “Men and Angels,” this inquiry into her father’s hidden life begins with a stark declaration: "[A]t the age of forty-four, I discover I am not the person I thought I was.” Raised Catholic and considered a miracle baby because of her mother’s polio-induced impairment, Gordon idolized her father and always believed he was a glamorous man of charm and erudition, a distinguished writer and publisher. She was 7 when he died in 1957, and her grief was profound. But the worst was yet to come.

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Decades later, Gordon learned that everything she thought she knew about her father was a lie. He was born in Vilna, Lithuania, not Ohio, and he never attended Harvard, as he had claimed. A Jew who converted to Catholicism in 1937, he was a rabid anti-Semite, a right-winger who supported Mussolini and a schemer who published a soft-porn magazine, concealed a previous marriage and lived off his disabled yet hard-working wife.

Gordon wasn’t able to speak with her mother about these cataclysmic revelations because by the time she learned about her father’s many deceptions, Anna was slipping into the dementia that shadowed her last decade. Now that her mother is gone, Gordon presents in “Circling My Mother” a second parental portrait rife with painful disclosures.

As shrewd a social observer as she is an entrancing storyteller, Gordon deflects some of the misery of her mother’s life by setting Anna’s tale of faith and stoicism at the center of an intricate and intriguing narrative web. “Circling My Mother” encompasses the seismic shifts in women’s lives over the course of the 20th century, radical changes in the Catholic Church and the widening of the generation gap as the principles of World War II gave way to moral bankruptcy during the Vietnam War. Not that this is a sociological or political work. It is as personal as literature gets.

Gordon always understood that the significance of her mother’s job as legal secretary went far beyond her paychecks: “Early on, the word ‘work’ took on for me a gravity, a luster, like the stone in a monarch’s signet ring.” Anna revered her boss and found sanctuary in her neat office and the ritual of her duties, a secular variation on her devotion to the Catholic Church. And Anna did need refuge. After her husband was felled by a heart attack at the New York Public Library, she and her daughter moved in with Anna’s cold, judgmental mother and angry, mean-spirited sister, Rita, who was also a polio victim. For Gordon and her mother, life turned grim and treacherous.

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Anna was the second of nine children born to an Irish immigrant mother and a Sicilian immigrant father. The oldest of five sisters, she was already working at 17: She paid the mortgage and sent two brothers to college and two sisters to nursing school. She was rewarded with exactly nothing -- no gratitude, no love. Instead of allies, her sisters were pitiless adversaries. Gordon accuses her cruel aunts of destroying her mother, and she exacts revenge in caustic, ruthlessly particularized and wickedly commanding profiles. Although Gordon expresses love for her Aunt Lillian and musters reluctant compassion for another aunt whom everyone called Tiny, she goes after Aunt Marie with her claws out. And her words are whips on fire when she indicts Rita, the one who has done the most damage. Gordon also suffered from Rita’s brutality, but she has the last word: “She took from me joy and safety, but she gave me invaluable things as a writer.”

“They should never have married,” Gordon writes of her parents, who believed they “were marrying to do God’s work.” Gordon questions every aspect of their relationship, frankly wondering how her father was able to feel passion for her mother’s “misshapen body, misshapen to the point of being distressful to look at, perhaps even grotesque.”

Because Gordon was so young when her father died, and because every memory she possessed of him has been rendered suspect or exposed as counterfeit, he has become a chimera, a figment, a specter. But her mother is monumentally corporeal. Her weak body became her daughter’s burden too. Gordon graphically describes her mother’s affliction, remembers her drunk and helpless moments and expresses repulsion over her mother’s failing body before she died. These are transgressive admissions, proof of Gordon’s faith in the exorcistic power of writing and a litmus test for the reader.

Anna’s story isn’t one of unrelenting gloom. She was smart, tough and funny. She loved music and movies. She had friends, she had the church, and she had Father Dermot McArdle. Gordon’s memories of the attentive priest inspire a shrewd dissection of the rapport between women of faith, especially maiden women and widows, and the proper, elegant and safely romantic priests who came to tea back in the days of confident Catholicism. Receptive and respectful, these priests “were among the rare men at the time who took seriously a woman’s inner life.” How baffled her mother would be, Gordon observes, to learn that today’s Catholic priests are often associated with sexual predation and scandal.

Her passion for art is the source for another circle Gordon draws around her mother. Gordon can’t recall exactly when she first began going to museums the way her mother went to church, but she says she eventually found that “a fully realized painterly vision that testifies in its fullness to the goodness of life has become for me a repository of faith and hope.” Gordon has long felt a special affinity for the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, and has finally come to understand the irony and resonance of her attraction. Bonnard often painted women bathing; her mother was never able to take a bath because polio had robbed her of the “agility to get in or out of a bathtub.” As Gordon ponders Bonnard’s many portraits of his unwell and reclusive wife, she realizes that there is a startling resemblance between her mother, who was beautiful in spite of her difficult circumstances, and Marthe Bonnard.

Gordon traces one more ring around her mother when she happens on a display promoting Arpège, Anna’s perfume. Hoping for pleasant associations that will lift her out of the black hole of her mother’s suffering, Gordon researches the perfume’s history. But instead of offering a diversion, the biography of the scent’s creator, Jeanne Lanvin, yields a distressing mother-daughter story of conflict and estrangement.

Everywhere she looks, Gordon finds the same mix of love and strife, beauty and decay. There’s no escaping the fact that one way or another, we lose what we hold dear. But remembrance is preservation. Art, we believe, immortalizes. Gordon’s encircled portrait of her mother is a daring and perceptive work of memory, catharsis and literary grace.


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