Who do you think you are?
by Alyse Myers
Touchstone Book, 2009
After reading this memoir I asked my daughter, Candice, to read it. Candice is a mother and a teacher of young children. I knew the book would appeal to both her emotions and her intellect. You see, this book is actually a memoir about the difficulties of motherhood. Now don’t stop reading this review quite yet. The book is a well written story and there is much to be learned from this tale, as you will see from the conversation Candice and I had about it. Here is the compelling first paragraph:
I didn’t like my mother, and I certainly didn’t love her. The only time we actually had anything in common was when I had my own daughter — but by then it was too late, since my mother was to die before we really could compare notes.
Alyse Myers shares her strong opinions from the very beginning of her memoir. Let’s start our conversation by talking about our overall impressions. What was your impression?
Candice: Well, I have always liked memoirs and especially stories about mothers and daughters.Who do you think you are? satisfies both of these preferences. But, this is a sad book.
Margot: I agree. I just felt so sad as I was reading it. I was sad for both the author and her mother. The author’s lack of a loving and supportive childhood was unfortunate. But, I also felt sad for the mother who seemed to be choosing a depressing lifestyle for herself and her daughters. She totally missed the joy of being a mother. Did you get any inspiration from the book?
Candice: . The author and publisher try to sell it as a hopeful story and I found that a hard sell. But, I think you find the hopeful qualities only after you finish, reflect and perhaps read the authors comments at the very end. Time helped me see this in a more sweet (bittersweet) light. I think it is similar to the way that it becomes easier for Alyse to love and understand her mother with the distance of death. There were times in the book where she would miss her mother (while her mother was still alive), yet once contact was made Alyse and her mother would fall back into their old ways of relating. The bitterness, hatred and anger would resurface and crush any tender feelings Alyse might hold for her mother. I did however, really like how this very sad tale weaves you back and forth from past to present, in the way our thoughts and memories work.
Margot: The positive side of the book for me was when I saw that Alyse was able to build a rewarding life for herself and go on to become a good mother. As I look back on Alyse’s miserable childhood, I see that it is possible to survive that experience and go on to a successful life. The book might be good for people still struggling with childhood issues.
The theme of mother-daughter relationships is prominent in the book. What was their relationship like, and how did it change or evolve?
Candice: Both Alyse and her mother are very complicated people. Alyse is driven to become “not her mother” and her mother is stuck living an unhappy life and is very bitter and resentful as a result.
Margot: I know. Her earliest memories are of a mother who is so unhappy, mean-spirited and physically abusive. The physical abusive stopped as Alyse grew but they were never happy with each other.
Candice: Yes, their dynamic is strained by all the usual mother-daughter difficulties, yet theirs seems to be a battle between peers, not mother and daughter. Even when Alyse is quite young, her mother holds her responsible for her actions as if she is an adult. Yet, when Alyse is an adult their relationship improves very little.
Margot: I fault the mother for constantly putting down Alyse’s father. Alyse adored her father but her mother had such hatred for him, even after his death. I also thought things might improve when Alyse grew up and moved out to her own place. I thought for sure it would be better when Alyse became a mother.
Candice: Yes, and it doesn’t get any better. Even after the birth of her daughter, Alyse is hopeful that they will now have something to “share”, an experience that will pull them together. But unfortunately, Alyse is reminded of painful episodes from her childhood. There is a tragically beautiful part of the book where Alyse is pushed to a breaking point with her inconsolable infant daughter. And Alyse remembers…
The front page of one of the newspapers on the kitchen table told the story of a mother who had thrown her baby out of the window. “How could a mother do that?” I asked my mother. I couldn’t believe something like that was possible. She looked at me for a long time and didn’t say anything. She took a sip of her coffee and then took a long drag on her cigarette. She twisted her mouth, blowing the smoke out of one side. “Don’t you think that’s terrible?” I demanded, waving away the smoke with my hand. “How could a mother do that to her child?” I repeated. She turned away. “I could understand a mother doing that,” she said… “When you’re a mother, you’ll understand,” she said, still not looking at me. “You’ll understand.”
It seems that her mother is mocking her ability to handle the struggles of motherhood through this childhood memory, a cruel kind of “I told you so”. Alyse wants to share her experience of motherhood with her mother, but she can only remember her mother as an unhappy mother. They clearly can’t bond over the common experience, because it wasn’t similar at all.
What do you think the title conveys about the story?
Candice: Well, at first it seemed to be a reminder of her mother’s cruelty. But, after I finished the book I began to think that it reflects the kind of self-exploration that a memoir is intended to reveal. It is definitely mocking, if read in a particular voice, but I like to think it can also be a soft question we ask ourselves. Who do you think you are? Are we merely a compilation of our memories and past experiences, or are we able to rebuild ourselves as Alyse does?
Margot: And that goes back to the inspirational side of the book. We are more than our childhood experiences. I thought a lot about your grandmother, my mother, while reading this book. She had an unhappy childhood and lately she’s been bemoaning that fact. I’ve been trying to stress to her that a person doesn’t have to be completely defined by their childhood. That was only 15 years out of her nearly 90 years. She has done a good job of redefining herself. What kind of message does this send to mothers? Does it mean it doesn’t matter what we do to our children? What do you think?
Candice: Oh, I definitely think it matters what we do to our children. But, each of us makes mistakes, even when we are at our best. I think that there is always the need for reflection, compassion, love and communication. Plus, we often get a second chance through our children’s children. I’m occasionally envious when I watch your patience with my girls. You seem to be able to truly enjoy them in a way that is hard for me as I am primarily responsible for their well-being.
And in conclusion, any final thoughts, recommendations?
Margot: The book was very thought provoking. It brought to light memories of my own childhood and my experiences in raising my own children. I think this would make a good book club book for women. The questions in the back are a good place to start the conversation. Would you recommend this to your book group?