Whether or not we are mothers ourselves, we all have mothers, and so have felt their comforting or scorching presence — or both.
“What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence” collects essays that pack an emotional wallop. They are candid, raw, often funny and occasionally heart-tugging.
As a mother of two adult children, I naturally favored the essays that presented the mother as a whole person. That said, given the intense and abusive childhood trauma suffered by some of the contributors, granting the mother that dignity was not always possible.
A whole person emerges in André Aciman’s rich portrait of his deaf mother, who lost her hearing after suffering meningitis as a baby. She communicates without layered language, but instead by touch, gesture, facial expression and emotional availability. “Are You Listening?” is an affecting, beautiful and profound piece.
“My mother, for all her deficits, was among the most sagacious people I have known. Language was a prosthesis, a grafted limb that she had learned to live with but that remained peripheral because she could do without it.”
In another favorite, “My Mother’s (Gate) Keeper,” Cathi Hanauer takes on her domineering, intrusive and explosive father along with her submissive, hardworking, lovable mother. Trying to understand her parents’ enduring but suffocating marriage, Hanauer offers the gift of a real person in her father, warts and all.
Art is in the details, as the truism goes, and two pieces underscore that. Brandon Taylor’s “All About My Mother” contains, besides narrative about his rough mother, an accretion of contradictory details that add up to her truth.
Julianna Baggott’s “Nothing Left Unsaid” features a mother who some might think overshared with her daughter. Baggott found, however, that in the imparting of so many family stories, many very dark, her mother “was lifting the veil of politeness, of the quotidian, and she was real and vulnerable in those moments.”
The title essay, by editor Michele Filgate, 14 years in the making and previously published in “Longreads,” is a brave piece revealing the betrayal she experienced when her mother glossed over and ignored the abuse committed by her stepfather, which became the weighty subject that looms in the silences between them.
Alexander Chee’s “Xanadu” is an extremely powerful essay about revealing his secrets to his beloved mother about childhood abuse by a trusted adult on the eve of the publication of a novel inspired by those events.
Our relationship with our mothers is elemental. In inviting such skilled writers to attempt to fathom this charged connection through the angle of what is unsaid, Filgate, a contributing editor at “Literary Hub,” “breaks the silence,” and the result is resonant, truthful and instructive.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book critic and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
What My Mother and I Don't Talk About
Edited by: Michele Filgate.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 267 pages, $26.
Event: May 12, Wordplay Festival, downtown Minneapolis.