In real life or fiction, the word “mother” carries all kinds of expectations–probably more so than “father.” For example, come Father’s Day, our chain drugstores will be full of greeting cards that tease and treat our fathers like hapless, goofy golf-players. But this season’s crop of Mother’s Day cards? Yup! Now there’s one giant old love-fest.
In his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, the late Frank McCourt wrote that “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood.”
Is it the same for mothers—as in, the fictionalized Mommie Dearest character? Is the nurturing, lovvy-huggy mother “hardly worth your while?” And by extension, is the profane or violent mother worthy of a book or movie?
I’m basing this on all those Mommie Dearest characters, real and imagined, past and present, on page and screen. Closer to home, I’m basing it on a year’s worth of reader reactions to my 2011 novel, Dance Lessons.
A little background: Although it’s my 2nd published novel, D.L. is my first book published in the U.S. of A. After 25 years of living in America, and after publishing lots of Irish-based short stories, this novel was supposed to be my grand attempt at writing the American sensibility.
So I created Ellen Boisvert, a 39-year-old American widow. A year after her husband’s death, Ellen discovers that her Irish-immigrant husband was not, after all, an orphan. Instead, his 84-year-old mother Jo is alive and still working the family farm in Ireland. So Ellen sets off to find the truth about his family and comes face-to-face with the realities of her late-husband’s childhood and their troubled, transatlantic marriage.
In my author’s mind, Ellen would be the character that readers would talk about.
And they did–sort of.
But from book clubs to public presentations to blog posts, far more readers asked and argued about Jo, the 84-year-old Irish mother-in-law incarnate.
Over platters of shrimp and trays of lemon squares, my readers hated Jo. They forgave her. They defended or damned her. They asked me how a nice girl like me could pen such a horrible mother.
One critic wrote about Jo’s “Titanic rage.” Another kind and careful reader wrote, “As a reader, I never thought you could make me like someone who beats her own child, but somehow you do.” (I’m paraphrasing.)
From the greeting card stores to the advertisers’ billboards, Mothers are love. Mothers stop in the street to coo at a stranger’s baby. Mothers will bail you out of jail and declare that, bank robberies/child molestation/gang membership/white-collar embezzlement aside, they still love their own child.
So what happens when this is not so? What happens when the instigator, the very source of our life’s problems and pain is the mother?
In real life, we get a whole host of social, emotional and psychological afflictions. More often than not, they’re the kind of inter-generational afflictions that get passed on down from one mean mama to her daughter, the heiress apparent to this same title. In this Mendel’s laboratory of congenital meanness, I believe that it takes a miracle, or it takes one, really, really strong mama to swear upon her newborn’s head and declare: “No, baby. Not me.”
But in fiction-land, the mean mama becomes the ultimate ‘whodunnit,’ the ready-made conflict between what’s supposed to be and what actually is. “What happened to the maternal instinct?” we ask. “What went wrong here?”
Voila! The fictional plot. Ditto for memoirs like Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors. In such true-life stories, the monster-mommie becomes the narrative arc that drives the entire non-fiction plot.
In her novel, The Light of Evening, Irish author Edna O’Brien wrote: “Such is the wrath of the mothers, such is the cry of the mothers, such is the lamentation of the mothers, on and on until the last day, the last bluish tinge, the pismires, the gloaming, and the dying dust.”
So in Dance Lessons, why did I make this Irish mother character so evil?
Truthfully, Jo Dowd, this “wrath of mothers” came striding onto the page all by herself. She emerged fully formed as the resentful and lonely woman that she is. And yes, cruel. The cruel, abusive mother.
The monster mother that gets readers talking.
Who’s your favorite mother character from books or movies, vintage or contemporary? Do we expect too much from the maternal figure?