Personal connections

Dec. 12, 2013 @ 11:20 AM

I’m captured by memoirs that provide intriguing walks through the lives of others, but the ones that impact me most are those that send me down the paths of my own remembering. Two recent audios touched a deep core.

I made a personal connection immediately with Katie Hafner’s “Mother Daughter Me,” (Tantor, 8 CDs, 9 hours) as The New York Times writer told of her childhood relationship with her mother which was confusing in the best times, pain-filled in the worst. When Hafner was young, her mother applied for a quickie divorce, then lost herself in a thick haze of alcohol. Hafner and her older sister spent years caring for themselves and negotiating life with a mother who raged periodically, neglected them often, and consistently chose to focus on her latest lover, or intellectual pursuit rather than her children. 
When Hafner reached adulthood, she believed she had resolved the past. Secure in that thought, she embarked on “an experiment in intergenerational living,” moving her 77-year-old mother into the home she shared with her 16-year-old daughter. She imagined their close bond would show her mother “the true meaning of family … show what I had to learn on my own.” Hafner quickly learned it was “far easier to imagine a future we can invent than to reckon honestly with a painful past.”
Hafner creates narrative tension as she seamlessly slips through time periods. She describes the sudden death of her husband, a disastrous rebound marriage, her detached father, her daughter’s anxieties, teenage love with her husband-to-be, and struggles of living in her father’s blended family. She doesn’t hold back as she reveals Zoe’s brattiness, her own cluelessness, her mother’s cruelty, all revealed with equal emphasis. She expresses hope within loss, learning within horror, and humor at the most desperate moments. She glides easily from views of Pacific Heights’ neighborhoods to the agony of seeking appropriate living for her aging mother. Her portrayals transition effortlessly from startling statistics, to fresh analogies and tones that can swing rapidly from tongue-in-cheek to authoritative or questioning.
I immediately followed Hafner’s  audio with Dara-Lynn Weiss’ “The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet: A Memoir” (Random House, 7CDs, 8 hours), also read by the author.  Instead of Hafner’s soothing voice, Weiss’ is grating, whiney and sarcastic in a way that rubbed me wrong. The author is certainly saddled with a serious problem when her daughter, Bea, is pronounced obese at 7, and my natural tendency was to sympathize with a woman who faces this problem when she has her own history of issues with weight.
That compassion faded fast as I listened in hypnotized horror as Weiss recounted mounting one food fight after another as she argued with, fought for and controlled her daughter obsessively. After several hours I had to wonder if the war was for Bea or herself? I couldn’t help imagining the latter when she is determined prove her success by getting her daughter exactly to 77.4 pounds, the delineation weight that removes the obese label. The process is punitive and negative for the mother, her daughter and son,  and the listener. Weiss is in the business of putting her daughter on a diet — there are no negotiations, countless calorie counting, few rewards and no laughter.
My listening was probably prejudiced by weight issues I began at 2 when I stopped eating after my father’s death. At the urging of a pediatrician, my mother gave me tiny bites of meat, potato and vegetable until, as he predicted, I began eating. I also believe I made some pretty significant conclusions. Food was the answer to emotional pain, could quiet hurting. It was a strategy I employed eagerly in the next six years and by 8 was overweight. The same pediatrician requested that my mother spy on me and make a list of what I “stole” from the kitchen. Decades later I still debate diets, seek strategies, and struggle with self-image.
Weiss’s views, unlike Hafner’s, seem shallow and narcissistic, her self-reflection stunted. She acknowledges her prejudice against exercise, but discounts it as a strategy for her daughter. She is more interested in making the world change than confronting her own demons. She demands a summer camp completely control Bea’s activities and eating, rails against friends who offer Bea desserts and a school that serves a buffet on a French theme. Though she proclaims closeness with her daughter, Weiss seems to care more about numbers on the scale than the weight of her daughter’s emotions. She sees their one-year story a success. Bea understands calories in and calories out, but I wonder how many decades of dieting trauma Bea has ahead of her.
Curiously I listened obsessively to both audios, but with completely opposite emotions. What was the difference? Hafner is clearly a more developed writer, but it’s more than that. She continually examines her own logic, questions her responsibilities and seeks growth. Her style is a happy mix of wittiness and insights. Weiss’s writing is outwardly focused, her attacks on the status quo are as relentless and humorless as the way she is raising her child.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.