Breathing room

What does a child owe a parent when that parent was an utter failure?

Her Last Death By Susanna Sonnnenberg Scribner 288 pages; $24 Susanna Sonnenberg's mother hovers between life and death after a car accident in Barbados. Sonnenberg decides not to sit vigil by her mother's bedside. In a starkly honest voice she tells the reader, "I'm afraid my mother will die. I'm afraid she won't." The reader is left with a simple question: why? The not-so-simple answer is what follows in this gripping memoir. A New York Times and Los Angeles Times best-seller, Her Last Death is Sonnenberg's debut, which is almost hard to believe as she handles the difficult subject matter with such aplomb. In crisp prose and using precise and vivid details, she tells the story of the nightmare she has been unable to escape for much of her life - her megalomaniac mother. The tension between what Sonnenberg "should" do as a daughter and what she chooses to do as a daughter of this particular mother immediately grabs the reader's attention, and the ensuing recollection of her childhood keeps it. She makes the argument - each story standing as more evidence that her decision to remain in Montana, where she has built a safe and happy life with her husband and their two children, is the right one. It's a convincing case. Raised by her mother, whom she refers to as Daphne, in Manhattan, Sonnenberg was thrust into the role of parent from a very young age. "At home I guided my sister from toothbrush to hairbrush, tugged her tights on, scheduled our dental checkups, thawed peas, scrambled eggs. I'd been doing these things since I was eight," she writes. One episode, which takes place when Sonnenberg was 10, details the account of injecting Daphne with Demerol, one of the various drugs she is addicted to throughout the memoir. Eventually, Daphne became a sort of companion, a "friend" who gets her daughter drunk for her 12th birthday, and who has both her daughters - aged 12 and 10 at the time - "come in her room and talk. Mostly about men and cocaine." For Sonnenberg's 16th birthday, Daphne presents her with a special birthday present… a gram of cocaine, which mother and daughter sample together. Daphne then takes her daughters to a bar where she suggests Sonnenberg sample a man, too. Daphne lures him home, and has sex with him herself. Sex is a pervasive theme throughout the memoir. When she is 10, Sonnenberg is at home sick from school one day. Daphne returns from the newsstand with cough drops - and a Penthouse magazine - for her daughter. As Daphne readies for a lunch date, she encourages Sonnenberg to read aloud from Penthouse: "'Read me a letter,' she called. 'Don't be a prude.'" Eventually, Daphne comes to view her as sexual competition, accusing her then 12-year-old daughter of hitting on her boyfriend. Sonnenberg recalls her mother's words, "'You keep your hands off my man. You want a man? Go find your own!" At the time, Sonnenberg is outraged but, eventually, she follows in her mother's footsteps, developing a voracious appetite for sexual conquest. She is frank about her liaisons, sparing no details of an affair with a married English teacher at her boarding school. A heartbreaking aspect of this memoir is Sonnenberg's continual yearning for a relationship with her mother. In the midst of a nonsensical cocaine-induced fight, she narrates, "I wanted to smile. I wanted to skip to the part where we'd be together on the bed." As readers we ache for her. Occasionally, we do see glimmers of normal maternal behavior - her mother forbids her from attending a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example. But because Daphne has been depicted as anything but motherly, these moments seem almost off-key and out of character. In moments like this, the reader can't help but wonder if we couldn't be getting a rounder, more complicated picture of Daphne - this would help us to understand, in part, why Sonnenberg continues to yearn for a relationship with her poisonous mother. This would also make the loss of this relationship resonate more. As it is, the reader has a "good riddance" reaction. Also problematic is the fact that the father, though not completely absent, is significantly lacking from the memoir. Further, Sonnenberg gives short shrift to Jewish identity issues that pop up when she leaves New York City. Upon moving to Montana, she writes, "I looked up the synagogue in the phone book, but there wasn't one, and I wouldn't have known what to do had I gone." And that's it. She doesn't delve into the topic again. But you understand the choices she's made as a writer. Her life was consumed by her mother and the narrative, which feels artfully claustrophobic at times, reflects this. Daphne takes up all the space. Sonnenberg can't breathe, and you can't either. And as a reader, it's an enjoyable sensation. This memoir poses a thought-provoking question - what does a child owe a parent, when that parent was an utter failure? In Sonnenberg's case, nothing. By the end of Her Last Death, you applaud her brave decision not to go to Barbados. You feel Susanna Sonnenberg, at last, breathing.