This semester has been chock full of mothers. There’s my most-love-to-hate mother, Jeanette Walls’ in The Glass Castle. Ruth Reichl’s mother swings from maddeningly eccentric in Tender at the Bone to an empathetic portrait in Not Becoming My Mother. There’s the shocking suicide of Nick Flynn’s mother in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which he may or may not blame on himself. Pam Houston’s is largely absent, but does pop in every once and a while to remind her that she’s fat in A Little More About Me. And oh, how the title mother in Angela’s Ashes exasperates and breaks our hearts in one fell swoop! And it makes sense. How can you write a memoir that doesn’t feature your mother? Even if you’re chronicling your years in isolation on a mountain in Tanzania, her voice is going to pop into your head and narrative lecturing you to remember your jacket.
While virtually every memoir and essay collection has featured the author’s mother, Live Through This stands out as the only book I’ve read this semester that is written by a mother being a mother. Many of the authors I’ve read have had children, but the journey they’ve written about isn’t centered around what it takes to succeed or fail as a mother. These questions consume Gwartney during her daughter’s tumultuous adolescence, and create a raw and dividing narrative. Nothing sets you up for criticism quite like discussing your parenting strategies. You’ve instantly turned your audience into a cluster of critics: it seems to be common belief that if you’ve had a mother, you’re fit to judge one. Parenting styles and choices are easy to pick apart. With a combination of hindsight and self-importance, it’s easy to rip Gwartney apart. She’s made herself completely vulnerable to it, honestly discussing her choices and motivations in her divorce and life as a single mother. She does not shy away from admitting mistakes and agonizing over what she did or did not do, inviting us in to analyze with her. It takes a lot of chutzpah to write that you told your troubled daughter “I’m done, I’m finished. I give up. We can’t live together anymore… I am so fucking done with you” (Gwartney 198-199).
Live Through This takes no prisoners. The runaway daughters are painted in unflattering shades of ungratefulness, selfishness and downright stupidity that made me want to smack them in their snarky little faces. Despite the honest frustration and hurt that Gwartney expresses, you never doubt what she wrestles and struggles and even occasionally tries to deny—that she loves these daughters unconditionally. And these are certainly conditions. She treads the dichotomy between love and hate that arises from the bond of family challenged by the reality of behavior. When it comes down to it, no one is harder on Debra that Gwartney. “If in that moment,” she often agonizes, isolating those twitches in consciousness and motion that, years later, signify communication and signals that only superhumans could sense in real-time. Yet this is a mother’s job, she thinks, a good mother would know. Would she? Is she a good mother, a bad mother, or just as human as everyone else within the story?
Gwartney avoids ever labeling herself as either, leaving an almost-dare for us to decide. She’s made arguments for both sides, leaving us with a final vision of a healing and growing family. The book ends on a wonderful last line, where daughter Amanda recounts the advice given by her mother as she delivered her newborn: “You said, Amanda, do it for your baby” (Gwartney 222). This book, and everything Debra did within it, was for her babies. Whether you believe you’d have done the same, you’re hard-pressed to deny that. This level of truthfulness and clarity is only achieved through writing this absolutely honest. It is a work of bravery and persistence, and I deeply admire that.