Keleigh's Reviews > Fierce Attachments: A Memoir

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick
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Feb 25, 08

bookshelves: schooldaze

Any writing carries the personal thumbprint of its author; but none more forthrightly and self-consciously than the memoir. From the first pages of Gornick’s work, I was aware that I was being sucked into one person’s filtered perspective of reality, and I gladly surrendered based on an immediate sense of trust. This trust was borne, I think, of her no-holds-barred, but nonetheless discerning tone. There was no shock value in her narrative. Rather, she holds a concentrated and rhythmic conversation with the reader, lifting the curtain on her own consciousness as high, it seems, as she is able. I got the sense that Gornick’s particular M.O. for dealing with feelings is to process them intellectually. When that rectangular space inside her “expands gloriously” (103), she is safe and free–no one can touch her–because she’s “thinking.” Not feeling. Yet this ability to detach is also what drives her memoir so beautifully and convincingly toward wholeness. As she puts it, “Out of such moments of detachment comes the narrative tale we tell of our lives” (60). By positioning herself in a present-tense narrative looking back, she is able to hold up an incandescent mirror of the soul’s truth; a faithful rendering of the story that, as she can see from her creative distance, is as alive in its storyness as it is in the flesh. Perhaps more so, since retrospectively she can allow herself to feel the feelings she conditioned herself, as a matter of survival, to suppress in the moment of experience. This writerly detachment is what can produce such straightforward and self-aware confessions as “I must have been excited. Certainly I was repelled” (78), in the section about sleeping with her mother after her father’s death.

Gornick finds intellectual conversation “immensely erotic” (106), and this is abundantly clear in the shape and rhythm of her sentences. She builds a palpable momentum in scenes like the dinner reminiscing with Dorothy Levinson (80-86), which rises to a tension-buzzing crescendo, and the descriptions of bike-riding with Marilyn (94) on free-wheeling spring days. I personally loved every scene with Nettie, a character she captured so well in her sensuality and eroticized rage that I found myself catching my breath every time her name was mentioned.

The true crux of the story, for me, was Gornick’s realization, however cliche it has become, that she is, in fact, her mother. Her story is as relevant for its psychological and spiritual depth as it is for its literary strength. She describes her mother early in the book as “warm and sarcastic, hysterical and generous, ironic and judgmental, and, occasionally, what she thought of as affectionate: that rough, bullying style she assumed when overcome with the tenderness she most feared” (11). Gornick could just as easily be writing about herself, and on some level, she understands this. It is a fundamental truth of human nature that we judge others based on what we fear within ourselves. Gornick articulates this perfectly in the triadic love equation between herself, her mother and Nettie:

“It was a given that the more uncertain we were, the more self-righteous we would become. It was necessary for each of us to feel special, different, destined for a superior end. Divided against ourselves, we withheld sympathy from one another. Secretly, each of us identified a collection of undesirable traits in the others from which she separated herself, as though disassociation equaled deliverance …But judgment did not bring amelioration” (114).

The clarity with which Gornick observes her mother–and everyone in her experience–is wrought through recognition. She details the highs and lows of her romantic life not for the seductive glamour or humor of it all, but to illustrate the fact that she cannot escape her mother (or her father); like all of us, her psyche will keep seeking out reflections to recreate different versions of the same formative trauma in order to heal. When she writes of her lover Joe that “We thought because we were always talking we were connecting” (167), she may as well be talking about she and her mother, walking their rounds of the city and arguing on heated summer nights. It is through feeling that we truly heal. Not through venting and blaming, as Gornick’s mother demonstrated by giving herself over wholeheartedly to the victim trance; but through owning every reflection in one’s life, thereby facing the fear of connection that drives so many people’s routine avoidance. By training a clear and discerning lens on her own life, particularly the ways in which she was socialized, sexualized, and disconnected, Gornick is able to at least acknowledge when she herself is getting mired in “victim.” In the end, though it may not look like a happy resolution, Gornick has achieved a level of wholeness that, perhaps ironically, looks like detachment:

“A degree of distance has been permanently achieved. I glimpse the joys of detachment. This little bit of space provides me with the intermittent but useful excitement that comes of believing I begin and end with myself” (200).

This final bit of wisdom is indispensable. By owning up to the reflection of herself in her mother–however painful it may be to offer the love and acceptance she didn’t receive–Gornick does indeed begin and end with herself.
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