I received the book Mother, Mother: A Novel, by Koren Zailckas (Crown Publishers, 2013) for free from Blogging for Books for this review. Given that I’ve spent the last year with family, friends, and mental health professionals trying to convince me that I’m NOT responsible for my son’s determination to distance himself from our family, it may not have been the best choice of book for me. It has pretty good reviews, and in fact the writing is fairly decent, but I seethed throughout with frustration at the simplistic depiction of how a mother’s mental illness (in this case Narcissistic Personality Disorder) destroys her family.
I believe we live in a culture that blames parents, and specifically mothers, for pretty much everything that goes wrong in a child’s life. As a teacher for thirty years, I was certainly guilty (especially early in my career) of the common conviction among educators that every problem kid is the result of a problem parent. And in fact I did deal with some really “bad” parents. However, motherhood and experience taught me that just as often a parent can truly and sincerely try their best, and their child will still struggle and be, well, human. Which is why this book annoyed me so much.
Mother, Mother is narrated alternately by Violet and Will Hurst, two young people whose mother, Josephine, attempts to control every aspect of their lives. It starts in crisis mode: Violet is driven by her alcoholic father to a psychiatric facility after supposedly attacking her younger brother. As the story progresses, we learn there is also an older sister, Rose, who disappeared mysteriously a year earlier. I found all the characters to be one-dimensional, and was really only able to finish reading the book after I chose to see it as a caricature of what Americans believe about the destructive results of a “bad” mother…which I’m pretty sure was not the intent of the author. There is a feeble attempt to introduce a “good” mother, in the guise of the mom of a friend of Violet’s, but even she is a stereotypical “hippy” type. Josephine is awful,evil, and solely responsible for the disintegration of her family. Period.
The lengthy psychological analysis disguised as dialogue led me to suspect the author was attempting to work through her own issues, and in fact in an essay and question/answer segment at the end of the novel, Zailckas shares that she is the daughter of a mother with Borderline Personality Disorder. It used to be assumed that BPD was the result of bad parenting or childhood trauma, but recent research has uncovered a clear physiological component with strong genetic ties. I hope Zailckas never has to deal with this disease in one of her children. She might discover that family difficulties aren’t always the mother’s fault. If I were inclined to try my hand at fiction, I would explore what happens when well-meaning and “normal” parents are confronted with mental illness in their child. It seems to be a topic that has yet to be considered. Certainly Mother, Mother does nothing to dispel the assumptions so prevalent, and hurtful, in our culture.