Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg, is a readable, shocking memoir by a daughter about her mother. This mother's identity revolves around her sexuality--and by extension, so does her daughters' (for Sonnenberg has a sister). Men, drugs, fashion and a lifestyle filled with the famous, fabulous and well-connected characterize Sonnenberg's upbringing. Extended vacations in Barbados, where a wealthy grandmother owns a home complete with full staff, long trips to Venice and Paris, fashion and rock shows are all part of the experience. Sonnenberg's mother, though, is both drug-addicted and ill and has no idea how to parent without ego. At eight, she takes Susanna to her first gynecology appointment; at twelve she is fitted for a diaphragm. Dramatic, engaging, manipulative and dishonest, Sonnenberg's mother, and the author's love-hate relationship with her, form the spine of the story. Sonnenberg's life choices turn her both towards and away from her mother, and her mother's example. She is behind every move, especially when Sonnenberg has a child of her own.
This book was well-written, and like the author's mother, frequently engaging. Finally, though, what does such a memoir have to teach us? I puzzled over this question again, as I did after reading The Glass Castle a sensational memoir by Jeanette Walls, a tale of a childhood raw with deprivation the hands of extravagantly intelligent, self-absorbed, mentally ill parents. (I consider that last statement as possibly redundant, as being mentally ill is perhaps synonymous with self-absorption. How else to be when locked in the prison of your own mind?) There is certainly a voyeurism, and the pleasure of escape (for those of us with sane parents) and the peculiar pleasure that horror can sometimes bring. The ethical dimensions of such reading is problematic. Why am I reading this? Is it to obtain knowledge of another? If so, is this the sort of knowledge that maybe Levinas would consider a form of violence?* I think I know something about these authors having read their stories, but what does that mean? The compulsion to turn the page to in these books is troubling.
Yet perhaps there are insights to be had that are separate from the voyeuristic pleasures of the autobiography. The writers here are the ones with the most to gain through the homeopathy of the blood-letting, the telling of the trauma. Sonnenberg's most reflective moments are the most literarily rewarding. Moving beyond the recitation of her mother's antics and abuses, it is becoming a wife and mother that forces Sonnenberg to distill her experiences and break through into something new. Recalling a moment in which her mother behaved in a way that was uncharacteristically nuturing, drying her and wrapping her in a towel after a bath, S repeats the scene with her own child, writing "I stored this gesture....I yielded to an instinct." Sonnenberg learns how to parent selectively, fighting to find her path. Instructive here is the consideration of how much we learn from those who raise us and in examining what come to us innately. Maybe that sort of reflection is what these memoirs have to give.
*I almost resisted the urge to put this in; I am not well-versed in critical theory. These are questions worth considering, however.