Darcey Steinke’s “Frankenstein’s Mother” in Granta
This moving essay about the writer’s relationship with her “monster” mom weaves family history with the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. Steinke describes her mother as deeply and irremediably tortured, in a portrayal that would be comical if it weren’t so tragic:
My mother did not mellow in her last years. She remained vehemently, almost joyously, unhappy. Rejecting healthy pleasures, she sunk deeper into darkness like a mystic pushed toward light. During phone calls her misery often reached a sort of glittery nihilistic ecstasy.
The darkness in her mother seeps into Steinke’s own psyche, and the essay is in some sense an attempt to purge it. “I’d been afraid much of my life,” she confesses. “I needed to do the work my mother was unable to do, to try and transfigure her pain.” Her use of literature to do so is appropriate, since books are not only “objects of hope and light” that help the author survive amidst her mother’s despair, but they are also what ultimately bring mother and daughter together, when Steinke becomes a writer herself and finds her mother cheering her on.
While acknowledging the good things, Steinke also avoids oversimplifying what is ultimately a painful and troubled relationship. Her humor and honesty make this a poignant account about coming to terms with misery and its legacy.
Elizabeth Tannen’s “What Do You Bring Pauline?” on The Rumpus
This is a beautiful story of family and the tenuous bonds that hold us together, told through Tannen’s visits to Pauline, her step-grandmother, after a long estrangement. The two are connected through Pauline’s daughter, Jackie, the first wife of Tannen’s father, whose death left him a young parent of three boys. During Tannen’s childhood, Pauline lived with their family, but it is Jackie who took on a symbolic role in Tannen’s life:
My father had come around to the idea that a baby might make his wounded family feel whole. I never knew that as a kid. I saw the family as fractured, not whole; and I saw myself as an outsider, not glue. I thought my brothers resented me as a symbol of their loss and yearned for the family to feel cohesive. Jackie’s image was a symbol of how I felt apart. I still wonder what exactly I searched Jackie’s face to find: traces of forgiveness? Of some connection that might make me feel less alone?
Tannen’s words dig at the raw-edged wounds of how we see ourselves within a family and the particular ways our roles shape our experience. “Our families are supposed to model how we build intimacy. But they also model how we feel alone: our experience of loneliness in our families becomes a proxy for the way we feel lonesome in the world.”
The piece carries the tension of unanswerable questions and unresolved situations. The author’s frank recognition of her own need and unheroic actions probe at what it means to love and belong to others. As Pauline’s condition deteriorates, her lack of lucidity becomes a void from which she cannot call back stories of Jackie or respond to Tannen’s searching. Through this, Tannen must confront the multiplicity of her motivations for visiting.
This gave me pause. Did I love Paulie? Was it possible to love someone you’d barely thought of in ten years, someone you’d so easily let slip from your life? What would it mean to love her? To love anyone? This sounds rhetorical, but it isn’t. Despite our cultural fixation on the idea of love, we have shockingly little consensus about the word: what does it mean? Is it a noun or a verb? What does it look like to love another?
Maria Popova’s “Addiction to Truth: David Carr, the Measure of a Person, and the Uncommon Art of Elevating the Common Record” on Brain Pickings
David Carr was not just a force on the page but, also, in life – a fact that we, his readers, were always at least dimly aware of, but it’s become undeniably clear in the wake of his death. It’s been breathtaking to witness the explosion of moving David Carr tributes across the Internet, to see just how many people he touched. The man had reach.
Many of these essays are about the ways that Carr influenced young writers: he molded them, built them up, radically reoriented them, inspired them. In this way, the pieces are often more about the author than the subject, but I imagine that’s the way Carr would want it; they are fitting tributes to a man who was as much a mentor as a writer. Maria Popova’s piece is no less personal, but it is, more than anything, a deeply insightful analysis of Carr as a writer and a human being, and the ways his humanness informed his writing, and vice versa. Popova says that he was able to elevate the common record, to be an honest critic with “the rare give-a-shitness of knowing that we can do better” because he explored himself – his own contradictions, failures, and unreliable memories – with that same “give-a-shitness.”
The test of one’s decency — the measure of a person — is the honesty one can attain with oneself, the depth to which one is willing to go to debunk one’s own myth and excavate the imperfect, uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary truth beneath. That’s precisely what Carr did in The Night of the Gun (public library) — an exquisitely rigorous, utterly harrowing and utterly heartening memoir of his journey from the vilest depths of crack addiction to his job at The New York Times, where he became the finest and most revered media reporter of our century, and how between these two poles he managed to raise his twin daughters as a single father.
A colleague of mine remarked that one would have to be almost superhuman to pass this “test of decency,” and that’s precisely why Carr and his memoir stood out. Popova has written an incredibly wise, moving discussion of how exactly Carr passed that test in his memoir and in life. It is a beautiful tribute not just to Carr, but to the noble pursuit of debunking mythologies and untruths. — Simone
Elmira Bayrasli and Lauren Bohn’s “Binders Full of Women Foreign Policy Experts” in The New York Times
Elmira Bayrasli and Lauren Bohn are the talented journalists behind Foreign Policy Interrupted, which aims to support women foreign policy experts and to improve the gender disparity in the US media. Last year, for example, only 22% of media guests were women, a number that represents the way our culture defines men as the primary experts in most fields despite the fact that there are an equal number of qualified women with diverse perspectives who should be included in media discussions. As the two explain:
Brilliant female foreign policy minds exist in spades — it’s just a matter of how we get them on the op-ed page and on television talking about their expertise on a level equal to men. The stakes are high, not only for gender parity, but for our perceptions of the world.
To change the discussion and support women in the media, Foreign Policy Interrupted recently launched a Fellowship Program. Sign up for their newsletter, apply for the fellowship, and make your voice heard.
To quote Judith Hill, a singer I discovered in the award-winning documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, “Seems like you want to scream but your voice is never too loud. You gotta let it out. Bust the roof and tear down the walls. That’s what it’s all about. It’s your life, it’s your life. It’s your life, it’s your life.”
This piece contains all the themes I’m hungering for right now both as writer and reader: tension between rootedness and roaming, an exploration of the natural world and our ways of knowing it, motherhood and questions of what we will bequeath our children and their generation. In this essay they are assembled like the concentric growth rings of a tree, with Beer’s personal story of motherhood and her itinerant family at the core, moving out to California and its history, then into the larger history of human wandering and settlement, and finally to the huge looming question of environmental disaster in an age when people are increasingly disconnected from their environment. Beer moves between these thematic rings elegantly, probingly, with prose that is hard and often heartbreaking but never sentimental, fittingly echoic of the work of that most famous of California writers, Joan Didion (whom Beer quotes in her piece).
I have read (and written) many essays lately that consider what it means to live a life without conventional roots – that is, without establishing oneself for years on one plot of earth, cultivating there a family and a garden and coming to, as Beer puts it, “steep in its particular makeup, to season in it.” There is often a romantic notion of itinerancy as a bold, noble sacrifice, forgoing the confines of settling for a connection to the wider world. Beer touches upon this in her piece, writing of her children: “They’ve never had a conventional home, a place whose rhythms and contours they know by heart, but in lieu of this, I can only hope they will grow to feel at home in the wide world.”
Yet she also makes the point that so much roaming without a responsibility for and intimate connection to the land, to one place, ultimately enables us to destroy the places we visit and live. Beer uses her own example of California: she shows up as a visiting professor amidst a terrible drought, knowing she’ll leave in a year, and she savors the state’s famed fruits and foliage without a sense of responsibility for the future. She writes,”We suck the nectar of these tenuous days, greedy for their sweetness and ambivalent to all else. We know that, wherever place we end up next, we can decant our memory of California, sip on it like golden honey.”
Her son gives her a tiny sequoia tree for her birthday, and despite a sense of foreboding Beer keeps it. It ends up becoming a metaphor not only for her family’s quest, but for the whole confused hope of a generation of itinerants made so by job insecurity and the illusion of a perpetually golden elsewhere:
“For better or worse, having the sequoia in our home came to feel like an homage, not to the tree so much as to the earth it did not live in. Just as my life, and that of a steadily increasing number of globalized generation, has become itinerant…so too has that of this sequoia: it is, in short, the sheer absurdity of a nomadic tree that I want to hold in my mind as I work out the riddle of my own living.”