There are some books which I consider to be unequivocally women’s books. Women’s books because they speak of female worlds which are secret and separate from the ‘real’ world, the outer world of action, which is seen to belong to males. These are books which needle out from under the skin the bloodied strings that tie mothers to daughters, where each mother passes to her daughter the exact amount of hate and love that she herself was gifted with. Nothing in these relationships is simple, but there is one story that keeps playing out: how the girl strains to escape the limitations of her society, which the mother has (weakly, stupidly, cravenly – in the daughter’s eyes) capitulated to. And how the mother attempts to hold the girl back, not just out of jealousy, but out of a need to perpetuate the same conditions that have stunted and stifled her own life, a need which she calls ‘protection.’ This is women’s culture, this is how it has been passed down through generations.
These books also have in common an almost supernatural brilliance, an ability to convey feeling and character with deft touches that practically defy analysis. It is done by truth-telling, by honesty without self-justification, without falling back on artificial narrative resolution. Such is the clarity of writing in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, that I was convinced I had been given secret family knowledge, that hidden truths had been revealed. Gornick writes of growing up in an immigrant Jewish family in the Bronx during the depression, but everything about that which is alien and other to me is rendered by her prose as familiar and intimate as if I’d lived it myself. I felt that I lived in her story, in her incredible sentences.
Gornick’s relationship with her mother is at the centre of the book and the centre of her life, and there is really nothing she can do about it, try as she might. There is humour in this, and even love, but most of all there is a kind of tragedy. Every woman in the story is affected by it; some are destroyed. Gornick and her mother fight, often. At one point, Gornick yells at her mother, “Don’t I get any credit for spotting a good idea, Ma? That one should try to live one’s life?” And her mother defends herself, says, “What did I have? I had nothing. Nothing.” But that’s not good enough, how can it be? It’s testament to Gornick’s talent and temperament that the reader never loses empathy with any woman: all are living out this culture, this practice that sets one generation against the next. (Our culture where pregnant women are told, “girls steal your beauty,” where thirteen-year-old girls speak ill of each other enough to kill.)
I had never heard of Vivian Gornick until I read about her in an essay by a wonderful writer, Rikki Ducornet, whose novel Gazelle is another book I would add to the category tales of women’s culture. I would also include Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. Of course these books feature terrible, desperate mothers, but they are still mothers. They are the kind of mothers so many women have had, the kind that hold you down in the name of doing you good. The dominant myth of motherhood is that mothers are shining angels of goodness and of love. And some mothers are surely that good, and some are better. But what about the other mothers? It is brave to speak of them at all.