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All About My Mother

Kate Zambreno reckons again—and again—with maternal grief

Sometimes my mouth opens up, and my mother’s laugh jumps out,” the author Kate Zambreno writes in Book of Mutter, an experimental memoir documenting her mother’s slow death and her subsequent grief. Her mother is both mad and glamorous, a moody, maniacal housewife and the doppelgänger of a movie star. The author sees her everywhere: in Hedy Lamarr and in Barbara Loden, in Louise Bourgeois’s Cell and in Violette Leduc’s memoir La Bâtarde. “My mother in my memory is this glamorous, remote, somewhat tragic woman,” she admits, “yet sometimes when I close my eyes I see flashes of her on her deathbed . . . flashes that for years afterwards made me gasp out loud in public.”

Zambreno is tormented by the memory of her mother—by the doubled-ness of her alive and dead, mother and woman. Book of Mutter, which was first published in 2017, took thirteen years to write, and although it was meant to function like an exorcism, there are passages in which she seems not merely haunted but possessed. This spring, she released what was in effect a follow-up, Appendix Project: Talks and Essays. “I came up with the idea of writing these notes, or talks, out of a primary desire to not read from Book of Mutter, and instead to keep gesturing at its incompleteness and ongoingness,” she writes. The grief is ongoing precisely because life, exemplified in this case by the author’s necessary press tour, does not cease to unfold for the living.

The new book plays out over eleven appendices, as if Book of Mutter had eleven children. “I am not supposed to be re-mourning,” notes Zambreno, in the transcript of a talk given at Printed Matter on March 16, 2017, “for the work that I’ve written about her is finished. And fifteen years is considered too long to mourn.” To outlive one’s parents is entirely natural, even if what’s natural does not necessarily feel good. Like many other natural things—like birth, like serious sickness—there is nothing that entirely prepares us for it, and like birth and serious sickness, too, it does not leave us unchanged. “I know now that my mourning will be chaotic,” she writes, quoting the Mourning Diary of Roland Barthes, who described his own grief as “a sort of black wing (of the definitive).” Fifteen years later, enough time having elapsed for her unruly grief to age into its teens, it seems no less piquant than it did in infancy.

In Appendix Project, returning to her family’s house after the funeral, folding “balding” towels and caring for her father, Zambreno perceives herself as doubling the dead woman, resuming the dead woman’s duties. The idea that what is best and worst in our own mothers blooms in us as a direct result of their influence and their genes—that metaphorically, the call is coming from inside not only the house, but the body—is one of both books’ most intriguing and enduring themes. Here it develops with a finer focus than in Book of Mutter. The author’s own new status as a parent shows her another kind of doubling, in which she is the mother, the double of her own child. “When I’ve been staring at my daughter’s sleeping face I have felt . . . like I am staring at myself as a baby,” Zambreno writes. She feels uneasy, as if “somehow I am resurrected as my mother.” This change of identity is a mixed blessing. “The idea of the mommy,” she said in a 2017 interview with the LARB, “suggests something about conformity, and normalizing, doesn’t it? This oppressive force.”

Zambreno perceives herself as doubling the dead woman, resuming the dead woman’s duties.

Not all mommies turn out to be normal, making the experience of morphing into one in adulthood not only unexpected, but disturbing. When Zambreno refers to “being her [mother’s] mirror and double,” her fear is both chilling and not unfamiliar. From the age of fourteen until I left my own family home, I was in some way or another always at war with my mother, whom I saw not as a human woman but as some abstract oppressor: my mother the domestic fascist, my mother the enemy. (“The beast,” Zambreno writes, “my mother, my love.”) The house, her sole domain, was maintained with a zealousness that bordered on obsession. That her hardness had been meant to help me would not present itself as a possibility until I had grown old enough to learn that love was not always expressed through being nice. Even if I understood that mothers, too, can feel afraid, I did not act as if I did. I acted like a brat.

Since her 2010 novel O Fallen Angel—about a fucked-up family with a wayward daughter, the first chapter of which is called “Mommy”—Zambreno has specialized in scary mothers, as well as girly neurotics, shattered female geniuses, and old-school femme fatales who are most fatal to themselves. In both fiction and nonfiction, she employs a mixture of tenderness and crackling, desperate madness to create a prose style that is at times jagged and experimental but rarely feels less than elegant. Because the transmogrification of emotional, creative effort into something that seems effortless tends to be women’s work, it’s no surprise that she appears to be most often read by women, and most often compared to other female writers: Kathy Acker, say, or Elfriede Jelinek. Ever the daughter, she is unafraid to wear the influence of other, older women on her proverbial sleeve.

Zambreno’s best books are characterized by their sharp deployment of very particular, very femme literary or cinematic references, her magic trick being to make this read as natural and interesting, instead of like the Instagram account of a hot girl who works in publishing. In Green Girl, her divisive second novel about a sad and self-centered shop-girl, Ruth, the central character is drawn as an alembic of Jean Seberg in Breathless and Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s cool, cruel Repulsion. In Heroines, a self-described “manifesto for toxic girls,” the reader is encouraged to consider Modernism’s wives and mistresses. In Book of Mutter, there are passages about Virginia Woolf.

At forty-two, Zambreno is a Gen-X writer on the cusp of being an elder millennial, making her not only the daughter of her Modernist heroines, but one of the mothers of a certain kind of confessional young-millennial essay-writing, too. For a writer invested in the divergence of sentiment, experiment, and influence, a mother’s death is agonizing, but also presents itself as something to be solved by writing: a straight-line progression in a career spent producing art that probes the feminine, dissects the familial, and teases out lines between the future and the past with the criss-crossed, diagrammatic intricacy of a family tree. “I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression,” she wrote in 2013 at The White Review. “Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order.” In both Book of Mutter and Appendix Project, nothing of the author’s self has been excised; her brokenness is axiomatic, open as a parent’s grave.

In Screen Tests, a new collection of essays and micro-fiction by Zambreno, myriad references to classic Hollywood—Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Loden, Bette Davis, Natalie Wood—add a seductive sheen to what is in effect another exploration of the self, both personal and professional. The tragic lives of certain actresses, especially sex symbols, are as much a shorthand for the indignities of feminine middle-age and aging as the author’s reminiscences of her late mother. When she refers to Wanda, the titular character in Barbara Loden’s film from 1970, as “A HOT MESS,” it is to draw parallels between the psyche of the fictional depressive housewife, and the pervasive “sense of badness and dumbness and failure” that consumes her “as a woman, as a woman writer.” Remaining groomed and fresh-faced enough to maintain public interest “feels impossible.” “I never knew until I moved [to New York],” she writes, in a short essay about being filmed for an online magazine, “that women writers were expected to be photogenic.”

That Zambreno is aware of her repeated and recursive themes is evident, the result being that her work often appears to be dialogue with itself. In “The Fourth Annual Jean Seberg International Film Festival,” her recollection of being asked to appear on a panel at a celebration of the actress in Marshalltown, Iowa, this implicit thread becomes superexplicit: citing Seberg’s 1958 performance in Bonjour Tristesse, she recalls that Jean-Luc Godard “then cast her in Breathless, telling her that he wanted her to play the same character as in Bonjour Tristesse, that the film could start with the last shot of [Otto] Preminger’s film and then dissolve to a title card that read ‘Three Years Later.’” “A friend brought this up in reference when I was speaking of what I saw as the failure of my last book, which was published several years ago,” she adds. “She said I could just write again some version of the same book, or with the same energy and impulse behind that book. Perhaps all of our books are like that, perhaps we keep on writing toward the same thing, perhaps they could all have a title card that dissolves to read ‘Three Years Later.’”

If the daughter is the mother’s double, her reincarnation and her legacy, it makes sense that to expose maternal flaws is to expose one’s own.

“Is it worse,” Zambreno asks, recalling Seberg’s suicide, “the tragedy of the unknown, or the tragedy of the once famous?” As fascinating as a famous tragedy is to a writer, it would seem to be self-evident that the most overwhelming tragedies are those unknown to most, but meaningful to us. Absent from Screen Tests up until the final essay, Zambreno’s late mother returns first in the form of another doppelgänger, then as her real, dying self. In a text called “One Can Be Dumb and Unhappy at Exactly the Same Time,” the author writes about a former roommate she calls “Ronnie,” the pseudonym chosen because she possessed “a Veronica Lake quality . . . closer to the later Veronica Lake, who became a drifter, working as a barmaid at the Martha Washington Hotel in New York City once her movie career was ruined.” Although Ronnie is at first likened to Lake, and then to Loden’s Wanda, it is only when Zambreno admits that the real subject is her mother that the essay coalesces. “I think in some ways I thought of my observations of Ronnie,” she writes,“as a sort of film in which I could reconstruct my mother’s secretary days . . . living poor on Chicago’s west side until my father saved her, setting her up in rather mundane lower-middle-class suburbia.”

“This damn free association,” Marilyn Monroe allegedly once said, in a transcript of a tape she recorded for her therapist, “could drive somebody crazy. Oh, oh— ‘crazy’ makes me think about my mother.” Many daughters know the feeling. In Screen Tests and in Appendix Project, free-association becomes progressively less free, more like a scaffolding for revelation. “I realize that my writing,” Zambreno suggests in the former, “is about conjuring up and murdering the girl I was and have allowed myself to become, a tender horror.” If the daughter is the mother’s double, her reincarnation and her legacy, it makes sense that to expose maternal flaws is to expose one’s own. In adulthood, I began to see my own mother differently: my mother the depressive, my mother the fallible, my mother like Zambreno’s mother in the way that she prized order as a means of quietening her interior chaos. As I aged, didn’t I recognize some of that hardness in myself? And hadn’t I been beastly, too?