Mother and Child Reunion.
I just can’t tell you about them.
Over the last few days, I have had all sorts of touching, maddening and generally emotional moments. If these moments involved strangers or box turtles, I would be happily churning about 1000 words out of each. But, they involved Daughter and, therefore, are off limits.
I contemplated writing a blog for about a year before I actually started this one in January of 2005.
[Recently, someone sent me a link to a blog which decried how “…Quinn Cummings was now writing a blog”. The tone of the entry was “My God, is just everyone jumping on the bandwagon along with us elder statesmen?”. For my edification, I checked when he started his blog; it was a month after I did. But I digress.]
What kept me from writing for the year before I actually put fingers to keyboard was the dilemma of how to write about my life as a mother without putting Daughter in the blog spotlight (in my case, the blog spotlight being slightly dimmer than the light which goes on when you open your glove compartment). Just because I wanted to write didn’t mean she wanted to get written about. When the impulse to write became overwhelming, I bit the bullet and created a blog -- but only on the self-imposed condition that Daughter be no more than recurring cameo in the “Quinn is a Huge Screw-Up Variety Hour”. For the most part, I believe I have succeeded at this.
Then I have four or five days in a row where Daughter and I go through all sorts of things that seem both personal and universal, not to mention being chock-full of neat dialogue and (in the case of one conversation) a built-in tag line, and the writer in me suddenly wants to renegotiate the original contract.
“C’mon, it’s too good not to write. How about this, we write it in the third person. Or, we say it all happened to a friend. Please God, let me do something with this material.”
(When I start referring to our conversations as material, it’s a hint I might be scraping the bottom of the jar of integrity.)
I was still trying to find a way to pimp my maternity when I read Anne Lamott’s newest essay in Salon Magazine last night. First, let me say I have read all of Ms. Lamott’s books, and I think she’s a fine, fine writer. She comes up with turns of phrase that make me put down the book and stare off into space for twenty seconds. “Bird by Bird” inspired me to consider writing again. Also, before I say anything against her, let me point something out: one of us had made serious money from writing; and one of us is me. In a nutshell, she’s cool, I drool.
Her Salon essay is, as most of them are, about being a woman, a mother and a Christian, and how each part of her life acts upon and against each other. She begins this essay saying, in effect, “I take no pride in the following incident, but I hope that writing about it will help some other parent”; then relates how she and her sixteen year-old son have been at each other’s throats in the way only a single mother and her adolescent son can be. She admits there are times she hates him. One particular power struggle referred to in the essay finds Ms. Lamott slapping her son for the first time in his life. The essay ends with the two of them sitting on the couch together, not quite recovered, but better than they once were.
For me, it wasn’t her strongest work, probably because the incident was still so raw. It didn’t have the “emotions recalled in repose” quality that I like in my first-person narratives. I once knew a drama teacher who said an actor appearing to fight tears was more affecting than an actor sobbing his guts out. “If you cry,” he would warn, “the audience doesn’t have to.” Ms. Lamott was crying all over the screen on this one. However, considering the degree of pain inflicted, it’s understandable. Then I started paging through the letters from readers, and was sickened by the degree of rage. They might not have been crying, but they were screaming…
“I grew up with a parent much like Ms. Lamott--even down to the literary occupation--and at age seventeen I could barely look at my father, let alone talk to him. At the very least, my father kept his anecdotes about my "difficult" age to his close coterie of smug, hypocritical,new age, middle-aged hippie writer friends and out of the national press.”
“What purpose is being served in telling the world you slapped him?”
“Anne Lamott--a writer whose candor I used to admire--has made a habit of cannibalizing her son's life for profit.”
"If I were Anne Lamott's sullen son Sam, I'd be a sullen Sam too."
She had the odd defender, but mostly it was thirty-three pages of people either excoriating her for slapping her son or bemoaning the exploitation of her relationship with her son. One letter linked to an interview with her. In this interview, she actually brought Sam in, so he could tell his side. He said that he’s always been sort of resigned to being grist for her mill, being as it’s gone on for so long. At the time, Ms. Lamott said she had kept the more private aspects of his life off-limits, and he had cleared anything she had written about him since he was ten years old.
I thought about this as I locked up the house for the night. I believe Ms. Lamott would sooner stick her hand in a blender rather than hurt her son. I think that most of the people who wrote vicious screeds to Ms. Lamott in Salon not only have no children, but live in their parents’ basements and dream of making sweet, sweet love to Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And while I have never slapped anyone in my life, I can see where, on the wrong day, your contentious nearly-grown child could make you very emotional, very tired, and capable of doing something you could never imagine yourself doing.
Maybe being the focus of an essay (or twenty, not to mention two best-selling books) before puberty isn’t automatically harmful. But even under the best of circumstances adolescence is a minefield. It marinates a person in a near-paralyzing sense of self-consciousness and fosters the conviction that you are the only true freak on earth. Now imagine that your mom was not only taking notes of all of your behavior, but of how your behavior affected her, how her behavior affected you, and turned thousands of emotional bubbles into public material.
Apparently Ms. Lamott would clear these essays with him. But she’s his mom; not only does he love and trust his mother, he has to have some awareness that these confessions pay for their nice house in Marin. Maybe he does veto Essay Idea #1, and #2, and maybe even #3; but at some point, the mesh on the filter has to give. Eventually, he’s got to read a paragraph and think “well, at least this isn’t as bad as the other one”. I cannot imagine an adolescent boy getting excited about being the subject of any public narrative, unless the title is “Local Youth has Sex with Many Sports Illustrated Models”.
The two of them have made a Faustian bargain. They will live well, but only as long as she sells their inner lives to readers who will noisily berate her for doing so.
I would like Ms. Lamott’s talent. I would like Ms. Lamott’s critical acclaim. I would like Ms. Lamott’s money. I would not like thirty-three pages of people telling me that my artistic narcissism and short-sightedness has hurt my child. I would not like Daughter to come home from school one day rubbed emotionally raw because something sweet and vulnerable she said to me last year came roaring back to her at the lunch table. As she gets older, I might have to edit more stringently than I already do. Which means there might be more breaks in my writing – time where I simply lead my life, rather than writing about it.
So be it.
If anyone is going to be embarrassed by how they appear in this blog, it’s going to be me.