Twisted Sisters

Circling My Mother
Mary Gordon
Pantheon, $24, 272 pp.

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:


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About the Author

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of