Honor thy mother

Memoirs recounting the abuses one has suffered at the hands of one's mother seem to have come into vogue.

Alyse Myers 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alyse Myers 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Who Do You Think You Are? By Alyse Myers Touchstone 250 pages; $24 Formerly fodder for the psychoanalyst's couch, memoirs recounting the abuses one has suffered at the hands of one's mother seem to have come into vogue. Alyse Myers's Who Do You Think You Are? is one of the latest releases in this genre. The memoir opens with the bold statement "I didn't like my mother, and I certainly didn't love her," immediately giving the reader a sense of the troubled mother-daughter relationship that will follow. The book also begins with a mystery: Myers's mother has died and she and her two sisters are going through her belongings at her apartment in Queens. Myers spirits away a box belonging to her mother - contents unknown - and returns to her Manhattan apartment and tells her husband she didn't find anything. "I don't know why I lied to him," she recalls. After tucking the still unopened box deep into her closet, Myers says, "I can't explain why I didn't open the box that day. And I can't explain why I didn't open it until 12 years later. I don't know what I was afraid of..." Although the author's lack of self-awareness and insight are a bit frustrating, the prologue does capture the reader's attention and piques curiosity about what's inside both the box and the story surrounding it. The chapters that follow offer details of Myers's parents' turbulent relationship and a litany of abuses in plain, straightforward prose. Her mother often screams at her. Her mother calls her names, including telling the kindergarten-aged Myers that she's a "stupid idiot" for getting her clothes dirty. Her mother's actions border on neglect. She once draws burning hot water for her daughter to wash in and Myers scalds herself as her mother has failed to check the temperature. Her mother washes her mouth out with soap. She eventually kicks her teenaged daughter out of the apartment. Sadly, Myers's father is unavailable, both emotionally and due to his constant absence from the home because of his prolonged affair with another woman. He disappears for days and weeks on end, and shows little regard for his family. However, Myers focuses almost exclusively on her mother's flaws. While interesting and highly readable, there is little interpretation or reflection. The result is a curiously one-dimensional story. Also odd is the fact that her sisters play such a small role in the memoir. Myers doesn't even bother to name them, referring to them as "my middle sister" and "my youngest sister" or just lumping them together as "my sisters" throughout the memoir. It might have been interesting to see them as characters - perhaps we would gain greater insight into the family. Jewish identity issues rise to the surface from time to time but are addressed in a cursory manner. This makes sense; Jewish identity is a tremendous topic and falls outside the scope of this memoir, which is focused almost exclusively on the author's relationship with her mother. But Myers redeems herself toward the end of the memoir, when she begins to reflect upon her own behavior and interpret the events of her childhood through the lens of her own experiences as a mother. She says, "My mother became a different person after my daughter was born. Or maybe she was already that person." That's when the memoir finally gets the texture and complexity it needs, and from there on, it's a fantastic read. Perhaps if this had been the frame for the story all the while, rather than a box that she doesn't open for 12 years for reasons unknown to both her and the reader, it would have been much more compelling. Both Myers and her mother become more likable and understandable at this point. Ultimately, Myers's rediscovery of her mother is what makes the end so profound. Just when the two women are coming together, Myers's mother falls ill. She is on her death bed when it strikes Myers, "And then I realized I didn't want her to die. That I wanted her to live. And that I wanted to start all over." Thus her mother's death is heartbreaking, so much time was lost, there was so much pain, and the two women never had a chance to fully repair their damaged relationship that they'd slowly began to mend. In the end, Myers and her daughter open the box that has been hidden in her closet for 12 years. The contents inside lead both her and the reader to a better understanding of the woman her mother had been. This insight leaves the reader hungry for more, and this is, perhaps, how Myers may have felt herself.