Byron Edgington's Reviews > On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After it Happened

On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After it Happened by Lori Schafer
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15072003
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really liked it

Here we have an extended essay/memoir on surviving a parent’s psychosis, inventing a life and then learning of the death of the long-forgotten parent many years after her passing. It’s much too easy to compare such works as Ms Shafer’s to other neglected childhood fare: Jeannette Walls ‘Glass Castle,’ Christina Crawford’s ‘Mommy Dearest’ etc. Too easy, because the parents in those memoirs cannot be easily forgiven; they can only be easily explained. Their cruelty stems from ambition, neglect, the depredations of poor parenting skills. Ms Shafer’s mother, on the other hand, offers a much more subtle, we might say inexplicable source of her wanton neglect and cruel treatment: mental illness and its untreated ravages.
Lori Shafer is an accomplished writer at the apex of her craft. Her images and reflections shimmer on the page: “grilled cheese and tomato…butter-brown bread…’ including good alliteration and excellent use of sentence length variation, she keeps readers moving forward. “The sidewalks were empty. I was empty.” Beautiful stuff.
Transitions are well done, despite many flashbacks and oblique references. Only one time, at an end chapter, and a reference to ‘Lila’ did this reviewer lose the thread, but then it picked up again.
Shafer’s use of a fictional device inside her memoir is very well done. She writes as ‘Gloria,’ to explain the horrors of a childhood in crisis, while giving herself a bit of remove as the writer. It’s an excellent device, and it works very well. It’s also entirely understandable. Much like any child will have an invisible friend, or a security blanket, Shafer has Gloria.
The writer’s voice stays consistent throughout, shifting with subtlety between the teenage, angst-ridden Lori and the determined older Lori living in a car in Berkeley and making her own way. “I was learning,” she writes, scraping for bottles and cans in Berkeley “…like the poor man’s Santa Claus.”
There are a few loose threads: We’re never told what happened to ‘Sandra Johnson.’ Indeed, none of the siblings’ lives are explained. There’s a reference to Shafer’s own concern about being poisoned, a thinly-veiled worry that she might have acquired her mother’s mental illness, but this is not addressed or enlarged. We don’t hear about mom’s own family history, or what may have contributed to her instability, only that ‘Judy Green-Hair’ is a serial marrier. Just open a vein, as they say; readers want more details.
Indeed, one critique of this memoir may be that it’s too darned short, that readers want to know much more about who this writer is: how did that young woman survive all she did? What resources did she uncover in herself? How’s she doing now? Has she finally found ‘a safe place?’
Wordsworth wrote, ‘…the child is father to the man,’ and we must assume he meant mother to the woman as well. If so, at the end of her fine memoir, Lori Shafer pays tribute to that young mother of herself. This is a good, fulfilling memoir. I just wish it was longer, darn it. Four stars, only because it’s too short.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life
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October 27, 2014 – Shelved
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