Drop Edge of Hope: Mot by Sarah Einstein
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Memoir is unique for its ability to help us see into lives; often, though, the premise of writing about an experience allows the writer to set off on a journey that she wouldn’t undertake otherwise. Such is the case in Sarah Einstein’s memoir, Mot, in which the author journeys across state lines to visit a friend in his homelessness. Einstein meets Mot, the man who gives his name to her book, in a center for homeless people where she works. He comes to her just as her work in the center is wearing her down: encounters with angry, mentally unstable individuals in an over-stressed system have left her bereft of energy and patience. Mot offers friendship and an escape from the world of the center, but due to his unstable hold on the world (Mot is plagued by a multitude of voices and personalities in his head) Einstein’s link to him is tenuous at best. This award-winning memoir blends a realistic view of life in social work with a narrative fragmented by Mot’s disjointed thoughts. Einstein creates structure with words to hold up an experience when life was failing. The tension in her work between fragmented and linear energies illuminates an unusual friendship.
“[M]y fascination with Mot is not romantic,” she tells us early on, “It’s a remnant of my disappointed desire to change the world and my stubborn belief that one person can do so.” Einstein’s friendship with Mot is platonic, yet he takes her away from her marriage. Scotti, her husband, is also mired in the fatiguing type of work Sarah does, and she wonders (often) if the two were never meant to marry in the first place. “I worry that both Scotti and I understand ourselves through the things we do for other people, that we don’t know how to find meaning in the relationship we have with each other,” she says. What Mot provides is an outlet for Einstein that allows her to feel like she’s actually making a difference — her marriage has fallen apart and she leaves her job at the center. She needs Mot. Whether or not she actually does help, whether or not she can save him or even offer him respite from his illness is an important question she asks herself throughout the work.
Einstein’s writing is self-aware. She seems to know how she’ll be perceived, even as she is undertaking her journey to be with Mot.
I’m dirty. Tired. Bedraggled. It occurs to me that maybe I don’t just look crazy. That I’m a middle-aged housewife come to play at homelessness with a man who believes dead gods live in his throat and who molested his sister, and that this may well mean that I am crazy.
This is important. Einstein allows herself to ask taboo questions — is it crazy, as she says, to try to fight against mental illness itself, against a difficult system? The constant nature of her desire to fight for Mot — to fight to get through to him, even when it seems hopeless — embodies a microcosmic example of the system as a whole. It’s broken, and yet we need people to stay in its brokenness to help us serve each other.
The author’s fear drives the narrative, making Mot (like Mot) unpredictable, and intriguing. Mot is unstable, and even his moments of lucidity are punctuated by Einstein’s fear that she will mess up, that she will make a mistake with him that can’t be undone. When he reveals bits of his troubled childhood, she has to reject her feelings of anxiety, which she knows are a barrier to helping him. She says, “My fear will never totally go away, but the friendship will survive it.” Still, she presses on, relying on “a dangerous kind of hope.” Since Einstein’s actions seem to surprise her, and since she often acts against her own interests, Mot is uneasy yet compelling reading.
What shines, here, is Einstein’s solid prose. The author has a firm grasp of her own emotions, which allows her to veer off with Mot’s unintentional broken thoughts. This is a book that portrays illness in all of its sad disrepair. Just as everything is going well, Mot will stray from their relationship, or lash out at Einstein, believing the paranoid voices that tell him she’s out to get him. Einstein often doesn’t know to respond to Mot, but she steers her narrative along steadily. In one such case, she says,
The mixture of illness and pragmatism makes my head spin. I don’t know what’s happening. It has been weeks since his delusions were so vivid, so directive. I play along, though I suspect it’s the wrong thing to do. But I’ve lost my leverage, having squandered it on a silly plan to try to trick his illness into forgetting the tension of the last week […] Perhaps our friendship isn’t broken beyond repair.
Mot is ever hopeful, but tinged with a longing for a better system, for more energy, or for a better solution to homelessness, abuse, and mental illness. Even as Einstein realizes that her life with her husband, Scotti is “delineated by other people’s emergencies”, she is unable to tear herself from Mot. Mot’s is a life outside of ordinary ideas about “normal”, and Einstein’s memoir is able to break from traditional ideas about structure, or meaning in writing. Mot’s splintered thoughts as recorded by Einstein are raw and hard to read, yet the mystery surrounding his illness and way of life — and how Einstein has recorded him — make clear why the author abandoned her own life to follow him. She makes it clear that some questions are worth asking even if we know we won’t receive answers.
Though Einstein’s memoir purports to be about a short time in her life that she devoted to Mot, it eventually becomes about the pursuit of her own hopes, the limitations on hope and the human spirit. “Like [Mot],” the author says, “I know that it may only be myself I’m trying to outrun.”