Safe in your mother’s arms?


Safe in your mother’s arms?

DEBORAH STEINMAIR reckons our most complicated relationship is our first, the one we repeatedly try to recreate and correct.

OUR first relationship is perhaps the most complicated we will ever have. One would think it would be as natural as breathing; but is anything ever natural or involuntary? Everything on Earth is hard work, apparently.

You blame all your problems on your mother, and when you have children they return the favour: it's a vicious cycle of blame and guilt. My grandmother was an angel walking the earth, selfless, always serving and attuned to the needs of others, but I can tell you this: she raised some pretty selfish children.

I chose “benign neglect" as a parenting style, as well as access to many books, but my youngest once told me that whenever she and her sister opened a book, my excitement and joy were so much more alluring than the book itself. Such pure focus made them put the book aside and bask in the attention.

I read two books about mothers in the past week. I've already referred to the remarkable synchronicity that often makes my random reading line up in neat categories.

The darkest noir

The first novel transfixed me like a lepidopterist's moth. The Recovery of Rose Gold is an astonishing debut by copywriter Stephanie Wrobel. The cover declares it “this year's biggest thriller" and compares it to Gone Girl and Girl on the Train, those legends of domestic noir. I couldn't put it down.

As one might expect from this genre, it is a total mindfuck, like being gaslighted. The narrators are the mother from hell, Patty Watts, and her abused daughter, Rose Gold. The syndrome is never mentioned, but it is clear that Patty suffers from Munchausen by proxy, where you harm someone in your care or close to you so that they are constantly hospitalised and weakened and your medical knowledge and selfless service are in the spotlight.

Which of these two is a credible narrator? The mother who feels she did nothing wrong or the brainwashed, degraded daughter? One's sympathy, of course, lies with the latter, but be on your guard. Damage does not necessarily create purity and piety.

At the beginning of the book, Patty is serving a five-year jail sentence for child abuse. Her strong and fierce personality have made her a feared and admired leader in the women's prison.

As a single mother, she dosed her daughter from an early age with a syrup that made her nauseous so that she didn't thrive. Rose's hair fell out in patches and she was skeletal, often in a wheelchair. Mother and daughter saw a multitude of doctors and were in and out of hospitals for tests, without a diagnosis.

The entire neighbourhood and town praised Patty for her dedicated mothering, plying her with casseroles and stews. Rose was later taken out of school because children mocked her for her bald spots and her crooked black and brown teeth. Her mother was her entire world.

Now homeschooling, they needed to get the internet, which Rose was allowed to use only under supervision. She wasn't allowed to do anything on her own. As a teenager, however, she surfed the internet at night when her exhausted mother was sleeping.

She wandered into chat groups and started googling, and in this way she started suspecting what was being done to her. Then she discovered the little bottle of ipecac (medicine to induce nausea) in Patty's underwear drawer. She testified against her mother in court and had no contact with her after she was sentenced.

Now Patty is to be released, and for the first time Rose Gold is going to visit her in prison. She has filled out and found her equilibrium, she is the mother of a baby herself, and she seems to have forgiven her mother. Patty is going to live with her when she gets out of jail. The whole town is upset about this. Everyone hates Patty now, and the prisoner wonders to herself,  “Where were they when I knelt on the bathroom floor next to a vomiting child every night? Do they know how much I sacrificed for her?”

Rose Gold is wary but starts leaving her baby in Patty's care because she has to work. The child's father is believed to be someone she met online.

I won't reveal more. You can imagine the unbearable tension. In between, there are flashbacks to Patty's ghastly childhood with a violent father who suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and a brother who hanged himself. She learned to stand her ground. Too firmly, it seems.

This is why I read: to spend time in the heads of other people, preferably people who are completely different from me, whose circumstances are unbearable, who are a pressure cooker that threatens to explode. Keep an eye out for  this author.

An unattainable ideal

The next book, Things I Wish I Told my Mother, was written by Susan Patterson (wife of James, the co-writing king) and Susan Dilallo. It's a different story.

Superficially, Laurie seems perky and functional, a creative spirit, tall, beautiful and assertive. Her mother, Liz, is a self-centred character, quite a handful but in a stylish, sophisticated way. Laurie feels she can never compete with Liz when it comes to appearance and popularity with the opposite sex. Her mother is a surgeon, now retired, who could have stepped out of the pages of Vogue and always acts elegantly and according to etiquette. She is quite critical of her daughter, saying it is because she wants the best for her.

Then Liz suffers a heart attack and is admitted to hospital for tests. She discharges herself, believing she knows better than the doctors, and mother and daughter set off on a trip to Paris and Norway, the mother's homeland.

The book is entertaining and the descriptions of places and dishes mesmerising, a kind of Eat, Pray, Love. What balances all the beauty and grace is the constant conflict between mother and daughter. There are flashes of insight.

The daughter has a holiday romance with a British silver fox, distinguished and elusive. Just when it threatens to get too sweet, problems surface. It's not my kind of book, but it kept my attention. Plus, there's a twist in the tail that I didn't see coming.

People will write about this problematic relationship — an uncomfortable cocktail of admiration, blame, love and resentment — as long as there is paper left on Earth: the mother, a mirror, a sounding board, an unattainable ideal.

A Freudian slip is when you say one thing and mean your mother.

What, where and how much?

The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel was published by Penguin and costs R320 at Graffiti.

Things I Wish I Told My Mother by Susan Patterson and Susan Dilallo was published by Penguin and costs R272 at Graffiti. 

What are we listening to?

Pink Floyd sings: “Mother"

♦ VWB ♦

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