Three Memoirs About Moms

Mother-daughter stories aren’t always my thing, but I somehow ended up reading three (!) recent memoirs (momoirs?) about just that.

One of them you’ve certainly already heard of:

It seems like every year there’s one memoir that blows up and is absolutely everywhere (think Educated) and last year it was Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart. Being over-hyped always makes me a bit hesitant, but this one lived up for the most part.

Zauner’s story center around her complicated relationship with her mother and through her, to her Korean roots (Zauner’s father is a white American who met her mother while working in South Korea). We know from the beginning that it’s a kind of grief memoir, as her mother has passed away and we get the poignant titular scene — Zauner breaking down in H Mart, the beloved Asian-specialty supermarket.

Zauner traces her childhood through adolescence and frequent clashes with her mother until they grew to actually have a good relationship. Then her mom got cancer. Grief memoirs are also not really my thing, but Zauner handles this territory well. I didn’t find myself feeling especially destroyed by any of it but that’ll definitely come down to your personal feelings.

I loved the weaving of memories around food and ingredients into the story, like how Zauner wanted to learn something to cook to nourish her mother during the worst times of her illness since Korean food had always been a portal to their roots.

This is less of a foodoir than I’d hoped – I would’ve loved more description or explanation behind the more esoteric dishes. I researched, but the best foodoirs paint those pictures for you (maybe as a white person this is a horribly unfair criticism to make, like show your culture to me, but I consider myself pretty experienced in Korean food and I was still left wondering a lot. It’s more tell than show).

The parts that felt weakest for me were around Zauner’s music career and her life apart from the connection to her mother. This sounds awful, but I read so much wondering why it was significant to this story. It’s most powerful where she sticks to her themes. (Used/new @SecondSale.com)

Which brings me to Linda Gray Sexton’s Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton.

This has long been on my radar, but I’ve resisted reading it because I knew how harrowing it was going to be, having already learned the brutal details of the abuse Sexton subjected her elder daughter to in Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, among other writing. But inspired by my Sylvia Plath/Anne Sexton biographical kick last year, I finally tried it.

Linda Gray Sexton became a novelist, even her career becoming an inextricable link to her mother. The more I read this, the more I thought how difficult this must have been, and would always be for her — to be the daughter of someone so famous and obsessively admired, to be her literary executor, then even a writer herself — it’s such a tangled web of connections, and when at the heart of it is Sexton’s horrific abuse, even weightier.

But Linda does something outstanding with this memoir: it always sticks to this track of being about her through the lens of her mother, when it could have easily turned into a biography of Anne. Instead, she shows her own remarkable growth against the difficult odds her mother set her up with, and it makes her accomplishments and mature processing of what happened to her and what she’s made of it all the more extraordinary.

This is not an easy read, despite Linda’s consistently excellent prose. The abuse she suffered is absolutely horrific, and it does forever color your perception of Anne. But how Linda parses it is exceptional; an acceptance of what mental illness brings with it. She writes that her mother had an incredible gift but a terrible burden as well.

Linda ties it all together – the way her mother tried to possess her completely, but later appreciated Linda’s feedback and criticism on her work, and the classic struggle between a caregiver who is unreliable in their treatment, making you love and need them while being forever damaged. It extends beyond her career and to her own entrance into motherhood, when she acknowledges that Anne was a bad mother despite not wanting to be, but she still wished she’d been there for her.

I hurt for Linda reading this, but I felt amazed by her in equal measure. She came through this in a way not many could, and she broke a generational cycle of abuse that is so, so hard to do. Her weaving in of her mother’s poetry, her own journey in writing, and even her mother’s poignant letters to her, loaded with foresight, are all spectacular. (Used/new @SecondSale.com)

For part of my life I refused to remember my own difficult memories, much less speak or write of them, even to myself; words and memory can be a gift — but they can be a threat as well. Memory may carry insight and even illuminate my life, but the scenes that it reveals can be dangerous. How much am I willing to endure in order to remember?

Last up: Malve von Hassell’s Tapestry of My Mother’s Life: Stories, Fragments, And Silences. Her mother, Christa, was born in Pomerania (today Poland) in 1923 and lived through Germany in the Second World War as a young adult before eventually immigrating to New York.

It opens with von Hassell and her brother sifting through their mother’s possessions in her apartment after her death, a powerful, descriptive scene. From there it becomes a patchwork-type of walk through her mother’s life based on stories, memories, bits of ephemera, and questions around silence and its meaning in her life.

This idea, of the flaws of memory and the weight of silence, is the thread running throughout when there are gaps and unknowns in the family history. What is known is pretty incredible: her grandfather was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, among other family stories of the kind typical of this historical era — that is, often dark and devastating, but extraordinary as well.

This is a quietly powerful memoir, often filmy and misty in its recollections but steady in voice. Von Hassell has less of a complicated relationship with her mother than the previous two authors, instead it’s the topic of memory itself that becomes complicated. This is a subject I always love, and what’s interesting here is how it’s explored less overtly through the questioning and more through the effect of the storytelling itself. This is one of those interesting examples of playing with memoir’s structure and format and what that can do, tied into the endlessly compelling topic of the Second World War and its aftermath. — I received an advance copy courtesy of the author for unbiased review.

13 thoughts on “Three Memoirs About Moms

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  1. Wow – these seem a little too intense for me right now (or maybe ever!) but I’m glad that they mostly succeeded in their aims and that you enjoyed them. It is funny how in the past few years there’s been one breakout memoir that it seems everyone is reading. Educated had quite a run! It had a holds list at the library FOREVER.

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    1. They are a bit intense! Especially Linda Gray Sexton’s, the other two are in different leagues from that one. Educated is how I started noticing that breakout memoir thing, it is really funny! I think it’s a combo of hype and marketing with a book that ends up very readable.

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  2. Three intense reads that are probably too much for me, but it’s always interesting to read different views on them. I agree about the breakout memoir thing, at least it’s getting memoir better known!

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  3. I had hoped for more food related content in H Mart as well, but I still found it a strong and honest memoir. I didn’t mind hearing about her music career, mostly because I was curious about the band, which I hadn’t heard of before. But agree it could have been left out.

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  4. Interesting reviews, I don’t know anything about Anne Sexton, she sounds awful. Could not bear to read her daughter’s book. Love your “momoir” though. I always avoid books of the moment, so H Mart also a no for me. Here everyone went on about a mystery novel called Thursday Murder Club or something by Richard Osmond?? A TV personality, have it on good authority that it’s pants. Which justifies my hype avoidance strategy.

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    1. I got really into her poetry some years ago and a friend was like “she was objectively a terrible person”. Unfortunately this was too true and does color her work for me. I already knew the details (extreme inappropriateness and even sexual abuse, really just the absolute worst) but it was harrowing to read the full account of it from her. I felt so awful for her but she’s also just remarkable in being able to break that generational abuse cycle and be a good mom to her own kids while still defending her mother’s work on its own merits. Just endless respect for her!

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  5. I just started Crying in H Mart (on audio which means I will be listening to it for the next month, lol). So I am not very far but I’m glad to hear it mostly lived up to the hype!

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