When your mother sends you books about a terrible mother and somehow makes it all about you
THIS ESSAY WAS PUBLISHED BY ROLEREBOOT.
Among all the dizzying realizations that come to you after you’ve had a child is this one: all the books read differently now.
You cannot stand to read of a child’s suffering, yet suddenly all the books seem to be crammed cover-to-cover with the stuff. Where did all these hurt, lonely children come from? What were they all doing before?
But there’s worse. You realize that books about parents are changed too.
Never again will you be able to knowingly chuckle at Mrs. Bennet or scoff indignantly at Queen Gertrude. Your unassailable, passive vantage point of “parented” is lost forever. You are now also “parent.” Suddenly Queen Gertrude doesn’t seem totally at fault. It’s complicated, Hamlet. You’ll understand one day.
When my mother sent me her copies of Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels after the birth of my son, she managed two-for-two on this scoreboard of horror: children being abused andmajor parental themes! These books, adapted into a limited TV series currently on Showtime, are a famously grim “summer read,” summed up perfectly by Zadie Smith: “Parental death, heroin, childhood rape, emotional frigidity, suicide, alcoholism – stop me when it sounds summery.”
This might seem like a strange choice for a baby gift, but this is my mother’s standard M.O. When she needs a gift, she looks around from wherever she’s sitting—the lounge room, the kitchen—and chooses something from the range on display.
The books were simply fair game. Anything, in fact, is fair game. When I was a student with no money, I once bought her a little soapstone hippo as an attempt to show affection. I then witnessed my mother wrapping up this hippo to give to my sister-in-law who was making an unexpected visit. The same day.
“I just gave that to you!” I protested.
“But I need a present,” was her factually-correct answer.
I snatched the hippo out of her hands and put it back on the mantelpiece with a clack.
She was indignant. “I don’t understand why you’re so angry.”
The Patrick Melrose books arrived crammed in amongst a large box of things. It also contained her entire set of mugs, several cushions with heavy embroidered upholstery of prancing deer, and some used dish-towels. From this inventory, I could triangulate with impressive accuracy exactly where she must have been sitting in her house when she realized she needed a gift.
I should mention that there were other books in the box too, like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I read that book first. In it, the protagonist’s younger brother dies repeatedly in various tragic ways. His name is Teddy. Like my son, Teddy. The one I just gave birth to.
This made it quite an upsetting read, I told my mother on the phone.
“Oh, nonsense,” she said. “Why would that matter?”
Next, I read the first book of St. Aubyn’s heavily autobiographical series. Never Mind covers one day in Patrick’s childhood, during which he is raped by his father David for the first, but not the last, time. I read the subsequent books—Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last—one after the other.
As the books progress, it becomes increasingly apparent that the legacy of Patrick’s childhood is an adulthood fixated less on the monstrousness of his father—“So, what can one say about a man who rapes his own child?” is how Patrick sums it up—than on the more complicated figure of his mother.
Eleanor Melrose was also horribly abused by Patrick’s father, but by the series’ final book, Patrick comes to accept that despite “falling over herself to be a victim,” she was an accomplice to it. Patrick realizes his mother “craved the extreme violence of David’s presence, and that she threw her son into the bargain.”
While Patrick spends his whole life and five books battling with family demons more grotesque than I, or most readers, could possibly imagine, he is simultaneously engaged in those mundane familial activities to which we can all relate: enduring obnoxious uncles who happen to possess excellent holiday houses; managing relatives with dementia; avoiding spending time with the children.
It is through these cracks of recognition that the reader is invited not only to ponder the mitigating nature of Patrick’s circumstances, but our own.
How much, the books ask, can you blame your mother and father? After all, Patrick’s psychology is determined by David and Eleanor Melrose not because they are so appalling, but because they are his parents.
My mother is nothing like Eleanor Melrose, but she is also exactly like her. David Melrose, with his preposterous sadism, is rightly at home on any list of literature’s worst fathers, but Eleanor Melrose is a mother with good intentions. She might have failed in loving Patrick, but he never doubts that she desired it. She was simply “too entranced by her own vulnerability.”
Eleanor has become a parent, but she has never stopped being a child. She casts around trying to find herself in dodgy new age enlightenment, but, stuck permanently in arrested development, she never sinks “one millimetre into the resistant bedrock of self-knowledge.”
“Through all her programmes of self-discovery and shamanic healing,” St. Aubyn writes, “she avoided acknowledging her passion for avoidance.”
I laughed when I read that line. “I know, right!” I shouted, high-fiving St. Aubyn through the pages.
Then came the moment of eye-widening awareness, more painful than childbirth itself: I am the Mother now.
That I am the Mother doesn’t automatically make me as terrible as Eleanor Melrose, but it means she reads differently. Now I am necessarily implicated in what St. Aubyn bitingly calls Eleanor’s “presumptive maternal presence.” To deny it would be to exhibit Eleanor’s same self-deception, her stubborn resistance to accountability.
To accept it, however, would mean embracing my new role in the Philip Larkin model of parenthood—They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do—where I’m the one doing the “fucking up.”
While these famous lines inevitably appear in the Patrick Melrose series, what doesn’t is the subsequent, less famous line: “But they were fucked up in their turn.”
This is the conclusion Patrick reaches after his mother’s funeral, during a moment of compassion which blooms into an epiphany, when he sees “his parents, who appeared to be the cause of his suffering, as unhappy children with parents who appeared to be the cause of their suffering: there was no one to blame and everyone to help, and those who appeared to deserve the most blame needed the most help.”
I closed the book.
“Nicely played, mother,” I thought admiringly.
I imagined her casually looking around the house for a gift, her hand landing arbitrarily upon these books, tossing them in the box. And then I imagined the alternative: that upon receiving the news of my son’s birth, she marched purposefully to the bookshelf to collect them. Now was her moment to send them off, like carrier pigeons, with their dual message of supplication and defiance: How much can you blame your parents? But, more importantly, how much can you forgive them?
With my baby sleeping on my shoulder, I phoned my mother to say I had finished the books.
“What did you think of them?” I asked her, expectantly.
“They were a bit much, with all the drugs and the drinking and everything,” she answered.
“Oh, nonsense,” I said. “Why would that matter?”