Twisted Sisters

Mary Gordon is not choosy about the grudges she holds on her mother’s behalf. To the contrary, as she repeatedly tells readers in her new memoir, Circling My Mother, she takes a severe kind of pride in their upkeep. Yes, they have served her as a writer, having fed her fiction over the years. But the vigilance required for their conservation has cost her something, too, because Anna Gagliano Gordon suffered so much in her ninety-four years. Not only from polio, alcoholism, and a bad marriage, but also from a father who did not prefer her, a mother who was “austere, judging, cold,” and three sisters for whom cruelty was an art form and Anna the favorite target: “It was their hatred, their disdain that destroyed her. There is nowhere else to lay it but at their feet.” One sister was so twisted that her idea of fun was piling a bunch of her young nephews into her car and instructing them, “‘I’ll pretend to beat you and you pretend to cry, and we’ll watch people’s faces.’... Most of her joys were rooted in contempt.”

Anna, born in 1908 to a Sicilian father and an Irish mother, contracted polio at age three and still grew up to support her eight siblings, though what they offered in return was a big niente. Her gladdest hours were those spent in the employ of Harold P. Herman, attorney-at-law, who not only appreciated Anna’s secretarial skills but credited her with a miracle:

Apparently, though properly baptized, Mr. Herman, unlike my mother, was not serious about his faith: some Sundays, he was not even at Mass. Then, one day, only a short while after my mother began working for him, she opened Mr. Herman’s office door to see him weeping, his head in his hands. He confessed to her that he’d had for some time a sore on his tongue that had been diagnosed as cancerous. My mother told him he must go to daily Mass and pray for a cure. He took her counsel. He went to daily Mass. He was cured. From then on, he was devout, a turnaround he credited to my mother, to whose prayers he credited his cure.

Anna was not only fervent, but a certain kind of Roman-collar-crazy Catholic woman who now seems extinct. So naturally enough a priest introduced her to the man she married in 1947, at age thirty-nine. “Their mistake was based not, as in the common run, on physical attraction, but on an idea of eternal salvation,” Gordon writes. “They believed in hellfire, and a vocation that it was sinful to ignore. In following their vocation—a call they believed had come to them from God—they were saving each other’s souls.” But, like her family, Anna’s husband turned out to be all take and no give. Even her closest friends let Anna down in the end, and the self-regarding priests she fussed over were never real friends. After her husband died suddenly of a heart attack in 1957, the priest she cared for most, Fr. Dermot McArdle (the model for the priest in Mary Gordon’s The Company of Women), wrote to the new widow: “Say nothing of your sorrow. Your sorrow is nothing next to mine. You have a child of his loins. I have lost everything.”

So Father is damned, but brought fully to life again in Circling My Mother, as are the rest of Anna’s tormentors. If Mary Gordon had allowed herself to write with compassion about the most unsympathetic of her mother’s sisters—and there is competition for that distinction—then the author might feel that the aunt “had not been punished enough, that my mother had suffered more at her hands than she had suffered at mine. And this I do not wish. I will not betray my mother. I will not leave her unavenged.” Nor will she attend another aunt’s funeral: “Never did I feel a better daughter than when I savored on my tongue the bitter taste of that refusal.” This is only a problem for the reader because the sheer volume and emotional weight of all these grievances finally obscure Anna Gordon, blocking the reader’s view of her as anything more than an injured party.

Circling My Mother is full of beautiful writing about ugly scenes from Anna’s life. But because the focus is so squarely on the perpetrators, and on Mary herself, as witness to their crimes, Anna does not come through as clearly as the others—her sisters or her daughter or her brilliant failure of a husband (though he is only a supporting character). Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of Anna’s life—“My Mother and Her Sisters,” “My Mother and Her Friends,” and so on—and the book’s most successful passages, in the beginning and the end, describe Anna’s time in a nursing home, lost in dementia. But the strength of these sections is that the empty space left for Anna isn’t meant to be filled, so she isn’t missed, while the rest of the book seems to circle her without coming too close. And in the most unobstructed glimpses—of Anna mocking her daughter’s vocabulary, or showing up early for Mass to make fun of parishioners with the biggest backsides—Anna is not so easy to distinguish from her spiteful sisters.

It’s interesting that it is only Anna Gordon who remains in shadow because it is she who seems to have given Mary Gordon her power to see and name what others can’t and won’t. As a reader, I am not in love with Mary Gordon’s decision to include the following description of one of the happiest days of her mother’s life, at Chartres Cathedral:

After this, when I went into a café to use the bathroom, I found something that shocked me so deeply that, nearly thirty years later, I can call to mind, with equal ease, both the image and the shock. Against the white porcelain floor of the urinal was a long, snakelike single turd. It was, in its way, perfect against the white porcelain, and I shuddered and closed the door and ran out.

Literally, the woman cannot leave shit out. I doubt that doing so is even an option. But is there anyone who writes the way Mary Gordon does—revealing every single enlarged pore, like those opposite-of-airbrushed photographs the New York Times Magazine is so wild about—anyone who did not grow up in a hypercritical family? I doubt it, and am grateful for the daughter’s attentions to the slights that scarred the mother, even if the subject of this book has been eclipsed as a result.

Published in the 2007-11-09 issue: 
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Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.

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