People are fond of saying that the truth will make you free. But what happens when the truth is not one simple, brutal thing?
Personal memoirs about growing up with less than suitable parents, and particularly mothers – provide readers a glimpse into a world that managed to produce some of the most talented contemporary writers in this country while supporting the argument that nature wins over nurture but not without the long-lasting effects of childhood.
In 2006, Jonathan Franzen published The Discomfort Zone, A Personal History which is primarily about growing up with two very controlling and elderly parents in the midwest who had their own plan for their son’s life which didn’t include him becoming a writer. That Franzen is considered the “Great American Novelist” (according to Time magazine who put him on the cover in August of 2010) is not lost on those who favor literature over science (his parents choice of a suitable career).
There is also Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo’s memoir – Elsewhere – about growing up with an impulsive, often delusional mother who despite being defeated by the world never gave up hope for a better life. And, Donald Antrim’s personal memoir – The Afterlife – about his mother, Louanne Self will confirm that even super talented, famous middle-aged writers obsess over the crazy people who raised them, in their quest to come to terms with parents they both loved and loathed.
Divided into seven parts that were originally published in The New Yorker and other publications, The Afterlife is a 190 page story about growing up with a volatile alcoholic mother, a distant and philandering father (who married and divorced his mother twice) and a devoted grandfather who continually tried to save Antrim’s mother from herself.
Children are often limited in their understanding of the adult world, but Antrim seemed to instinctively know that his mother was not playing with a full deck of cards and consequently was more of a child than a parent to both he and his sister. Moved from place to place as a result of his parents tumultuous relationship, Antrim looks back on his childhood years with insight, sadness, humor, rage, and tenderness for a woman who wasn’t the mother she should have been.
Although The Afterlife was published in 2006, Antrim started writing the stories in 2000 after his mother’s death at the age of 65 from cancer after spending most of her life drinking and smoking. At the time, Antrim was in his mid-40’s trying to come to terms with his childhood. He understood that he was the “anxious child of a volatile, childlike mother” which meant in his mind he learned “how to appear to accept, as realistic and viable, statements and opinions that are clearly ludicrous” which for those who have read Antrim’s other great works – The Hundred Brothers, The Verificationist, and Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World – makes total sense. Antrim’s willingness to take a seemingly normal situation – an annual dinner where brothers gather, a semi-annual pancake feast where professionals meet, a regular schoolteacher in a post-apocalyptic world, and his own childhood – and stretch it into another realm (in this case, his own personal life as an adult) is what sets him apart from other contemporary writers. In a nutshell, he takes the ordinary and somewhat absurd to show that we’re all a bit crazy, and it’s ok.