Review: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate

“Our mothers are our first homes,” writes Michele Filgate in the title essay of a new collection she edited, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence. The mother’s body is also the site of the first tragedy, the instant when we are torn from the nurturing safety of the womb and sent into the loneliness that we will never escape. It is no wonder that the image of the mother resonates throughout history with both pleasure and pain, with love and longing. It is no wonder that this collection of essays about mother-child relationships, written by contemporary authors who are diverse in age and race, gender and sexual orientation, socio-economic status and writing style, can touch every reader.

In some cases, the words unspoken are the mother’s; in others they are the child’s. In some the silence is finally broken by sound, while in others true communication between mother and child proves impossible. Some essays tell stories of pain and grief, while others are filled with joy and laughter. Each one is a testament to the complicated relationships between mothers and their children and to all the silences that surround them–things not said, not heard, or simply ignored.

Several focus on the traumas of childhood abuse. Filgate herself describes her abuse by her stepfather and her mother’s refusal to believe it had occurred. So the suppression of self begins: “Good girls are silent,” she learns, and the silence fills the lacuna that lies between her and the mother whose love she so desires. Bernice L. McFadden explores the mystery of her mother’s relationship with her abusive father and discovers a legacy of lies that leads back to her grandmother. “Xanadu” is Alexander Chee’s incredibly powerful tale of a truth he did not tell, of the paradise of belonging he found in a choir, of the hell it became because of a director who sexually abused the boys in his care, and of the silence Chee kept for decades to protect his mother from pain. His essay is one of the highlights of the book.

Even when the abuser is the mother herself, perhaps especially then, the writers do not offer simple solutions. Brandon Taylor writes, “In my family, love was the slow accumulation of moments in which I was not subjected to great harm,” yet such is the strength of the mother-child connection that he keeps trying to recover some positive image of his late mother, to rewrite their story in his imagination so that it will end differently: “I wish I had gotten to know her better. I think we would have been great friends.”

Several of the essays are more lighthearted. In “16 Minetta Lane,” by Dylan Landis and “I Met Fear on the Hill,” by Leslie Jamison, the writers show their efforts to ferret out the truth of their mothers’ lives before the writers were born. Landis imagines a past his mother reveals only in snippets or not at all and tries to create or recreate the free-spirited woman he longed to know. Jamison recounts her research into the history of her beloved mother, her discovery of a novel by her mother’s former lover, and the deepening of the connection with her mother that results..

The most humorous essay is the second in the collection, Cathi Hanauer’s “My Mother’s (Gate) Keeper,” in which she regales the reader with the story of her loving but controlling father who continually silences her mother by speaking for her and preventing direct conversation between mother and daughter. The solution, it turns out, is the internet.

We live in a tell-all era that prizes personal revelations, a time when our society seeks both the titillation and the catharsis of confession. But the selections in What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About are timeless: rich and complex. These are tales worth the telling and the reading.

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