How Can Our Mothers Ever Live Up to Our Expectations?

Michele Filgate, editor of “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” on deconstructing the stories we tell about our moms

Mother and child
Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash

I remember first reading Michele Filgate’s essay “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About” on Longreads. It was a year and a half ago, October 2017. In the wake of sexual abuse accusations against Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag #MeToo had just begun to blow up. I remember being shocked and thrilled by that first raw blush of widespread openness from all kinds of women, famous and otherwise, who chose to share their stories. Against that backdrop I remember being struck—immediately, from the very first line—“Our mothers are our first homes”—by the thoughtfulness and honesty of Filgate’s piece, which was about her abusive stepfather, but focused on her relationship with her mother. By looking at the problem through a wide-angle lens, describing the environment and interconnected relationships that enabled her stepfather’s behavior, Filgate had written a #MeToo story that nevertheless transcended the genre. I remember thinking, This could be a book—and, pages later, This should be a book. So I was not the least surprised when I discovered, months later, that it would be.

With What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About the book, Michele Filgate, a longtime pillar of the Brooklyn literary community, has created an anthology of personal essays. Although it is named for her original Longreads piece, it is not limited by her subject matter. The roster of contributing writers is impressive. The range of subjects and styles is remarkable. It was a pleasure to speak to Filgate about the project.

Rachel Lyon: All of these essays are stunning, they all merit much more time and space than I can give them here, and this book cannot be easily summed up. That said, I think Lynn Steger Strong comes closest to getting at the heart of this collection when she writes:

“There is a gaping hole perhaps for all of us, where our mother does not match up with mother as we believe it’s meant to mean and all it’s meant to give us. What I cannot tell her is all that I would tell her if I could find a way to not still be sad and angry about that.”

Tell me a bit about the process of creating the book. The idea for it began with your own piece, right? How did that piece come to be, and what happened after you published it?

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Michele Filgate: I started writing the title essay many years ago when I was an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire. Sometimes you need a lot of perspective in order to write about traumatic or painful events, and that was certainly the case for me. In the first draft, I focused on my stepfather. There was anger and resentment on the page. The core truth of this essay took a long time to show itself. What I needed to write about was how toxic silence can be. Silence can come in a lot of forms, but one of the worst versions of silence is denial. What I ended up writing about, in the end, is the fracture the abuse caused in my relationship with my mother. My essay is full of longing because I’m attempting to communicate with her, to set everything on the page that we can’t have a real conversation about. Originally my editor at Longreads (Sari Botton) scheduled the essay to come out around Thanksgiving. But once the Weinstein story broke, she moved it up and published it right away. I think the timing helped the essay go viral. I heard from many strangers who had similar stories to share.

RL: At the risk of getting caught up in semantics right out of the gate, I’m curious about the “don’t” in your title. When I worked as a copywriter at a marketing agency we called this the knowledge gap: with the word “don’t,” an outline is drawn; quite naturally, the reader expects it to be filled in by some kind of secret, or confession. But the book is not called, “What My Mother and I Can’t Talk About.” It’s not “What We Won’t Talk About.”

“Don’t” leaves a lot of room for a range of relationships and intentions—we could just have happened never to discuss it, or we could be intentionally avoiding the topic—and the essays in the collection reflect that range, I think. They are not necessarily confessional at all. Some, like Dylan Landis’s and Leslie Jamison’s, are investigative. Some, like Cathi Hanauer’s and Sari Botton’s, are humorous. Some, like Nayomi Munaweera’s and Brandon Taylor’s, are almost elegiac. Kiese Laymon writes, “I still desperately want to believe that a haphazard collection or cataloguing of cherry-picked confessions is what makes art last. I know it doesn’t.” Knowing from personal experience how hard it is to arrive at a title you love, I’m curious: how did you arrive at “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About?” And how is the confessional essay, as concept and genre, both embraced and resisted throughout the book?

What goes unsaid is often where the heart of the story is.

MF: Oh, this is a great story. My original title for the essay was “Lacuna” because a lacuna means “an unfilled space or interval; a gap.” I felt like that was the perfect word to express the longing I have for a better relationship with my mom. But Sari Botton pointed out that no one would ever click on this headline. I needed to think of something that would intrigue people and get at the core of the piece. So I came up with the current title. It resonates with so many people. Almost everyone I’ve talked to responds with a version of “I have my own story to tell.” I’ve also used it as a writing prompt with my students, and it turns out that a lot of people have something they can’t discuss with their mom. What goes unsaid is often where the heart of the story is. Why is it that we can’t discuss certain things, and what does the shame and weight of that do to us? What would happen if we made ourselves more vulnerable? How would this change our relationships?

As far as confessional essay, I really hate that phrase because it’s often used in a gendered or negative way. I brought this up during one of my Red Ink panels, and Lidia Yuknavitch said:

“Historically, we took on the word “confessional” to talk about women’s writing, in particular, and the moment that that word got pressed upon writers of color and women and LGBT writers, it robbed us of our own agency as people who make art…when women or anyone from those communities is writing about their bodies and emotive states and physical realities, they are being precise. Intellectually precise. And the historic tradition I use as a touchstone started with Whitman. So maybe interrupt the idea that women’s writing is confessional. That’s a market-driven label that has been pressed upon women writers that have been writing our hearts forever, and the only way to make it go away or change it is to simply begin to reject it and admit that women are participating in intellectual tradition and not off to the side, crying and weak.”

So I don’t think of these essays as confessional. I think of them as searing, powerful narratives that need to be told. The fourteen writers in this anthology all have different reasons for writing about their moms, but there’s a thread that runs throughout: an urgency that can’t be denied.

RL: There is such a beautiful variety of writers represented here. Every family has its own very particular microculture, and those microcultures grow up in the context of much larger macrocultures. Bernice L. McFadden writes about her mother’s time in a women’s detention facility in 1958. In what I felt was one of the most devastating pieces in the book, Nayomi Munaweera explores her mother’s struggle with borderline personality disorder as a Sri Lankan immigrant in Nigeria and the US. Kiese Laymon and Brandon Taylor both write about their mothers in the context of sexual assault in the African American community—though both of their essays are, I should say, about much more than sexual violence.

So the author’s relationship with their mother is not just subject matter here; it becomes a lens through which they can see, or a door through which they can enter into, other, broader subjects. Were you, as the editor, as stunned as I was by the variety and power of these writers’ responses to your prompt? Did any of them enable you look at your own work in a new light? Tell me how these pieces hit you.

Home doesn’t always represent a nurturing and safe environment. Home can mean a place you need to leave in order to save yourself.

MF: Absolutely! I’m glad you brought this up, because one of my main goals with this anthology was to include a wide range of essays about the mother/child relationship. The end result is more than I even hoped for. Read collectively as a book, all of the pieces speak to each other and form a kaleidoscopic picture of different experiences. And while the overall topic of this book is universal, there’s an intimacy and unique voice in every single essay. Editing this book (along with my superb editor at Simon & Schuster, Karyn Marcus) gave me permission to go deeper in my own work. I no longer want to shy away from hard truths. I want to examine everything with the precision of a poet.  

RL: I’m interested in the age differences here, as well as the cultural ones. Broadly speaking—and there are exceptions to this, for sure—I sensed a shift in the way the writers talked about their mothers, which seemed consistent with their age: the older writers seemed to have more of an arm’s-length, almost biographical interest in their subjects, while many of the younger writers seemed still to be grappling for perspective.

Cathi Hanauer, for instance, demonstrates a remarkable degree of acceptance of her own turmoil. And of all the mothers in the book, the mother who’s treated with the most perspective and objectivity is, I think, André Aciman’s. She’s a deaf Jewish Egyptian emigré born in 1924. Aciman approaches his mother with the compassion and curiosity of a biographer. Perhaps because of his mother’s disability, he had to reckon early with his frustrations with her: “Those of us who have lived with the deaf stop feeling sorry for them,” he writes. “Instead, one jumps quickly from pity to cruelty, like a pebble skittering on shallow water.” We all tend, sometimes, to “jump from pity to cruelty” when it comes to our mothers, I think, and some of the younger writers here seem still to be mid-jump. Carmen Maria Machado writes from a place of active anger at the mother from whom she is estranged. Brandon Taylor admits that, at first, “the thing that kept me from writing about [my mother], about grief… was that I lacked… empathy for her. I was so interested in my own feelings about her that I couldn’t leave room for her feelings or for what she wanted out of life. I couldn’t leave a space for her to be a person.” All these approaches are fascinating and moving, in their own right, on the page, but at 35 years old, myself, I felt like I’d made a real discovery: solid writerly proof of the idea that, with time, we might all gain perspective on our mothers. Did you feel that, too? Did you see any other patterns emerging as you assembled the book?

MF: Can I just say that you ask the best questions? Thank you for reading this book with such care and attention. I do think it’s possible to understand our mothers as we get older, but I also think it’s true that we might never really know the full version of them. Can we ever understand another person without living in their shoes for a day? But writing allows a person to try those shoes on, perhaps. Writing about our mothers can give us empathy for them, as was the case with Brandon Taylor. It can also lead us to articulate things we couldn’t necessarily say to their face. But good God, I hope that we all can gain perspective as we age. That’s what living is all about, right? We’re lifelong learners. As far as any patterns I noticed, I’d say that the main one is an attempt to reckon with mothers as three-dimensional characters. Who are our moms, and why are they that way? Can we ever really see them as they want to be seen?

RL: Striving for a certain degree of objectivity in the mother-child relationship seems to be a kind of theme that comes up here in different ways. Dylan Landis and Leslie Jamison both mine the idea of the mother-that-might-have-been by researching romantic relationships their mothers had with men other than their fathers before they were born.

In her masterful essay “I Met Fear on the Hill,” Jamison writes, “My mother before she was a mother has always lived in my mind as a collection of myths—half-invented, barely possible.” But elsewhere, she writes, “Perhaps it’s a way back into the womb, past the womb—seeking these stories of [my mother], from before I was born.” To continue this tangent, you yourself say, “Our mothers are our first homes,” and there is a recurring theme throughout the book of mother-as-home. Of the first night she spent without her mother after her parents’ separation, Melissa Febos writes, “I hadn’t known that she was my home.” Like Jamison, she weaves myth into her work (and defines it, beautifully: “A myth is the memory of a story passed through time”).

That tension in our relationship with our mothers, between a distance as faraway as myth, on one hand, and a proximity as safe as home on the other, feels to me like the essential tension of this book. Is that tension part of what drew you in to this subject?

We mythologize our mothers but we look to them for comfort and a good dose of reality, too.

MF: Yes! We mythologize our mothers but we look to them for comfort and a good dose of reality, too. And as I get at in the introduction to the book, how can our mothers ever really live up to all that we want them to be? I wanted to deconstruct the stories we tell about our moms while also allowing for space to honor them, too. And for some of the writers in the anthology (including myself), the stories about our mothers can contain so much pain that it’s almost too much to deal with. Home doesn’t always represent a nurturing and safe environment. Home can mean a place you need to leave in order to save yourself. But just because we leave doesn’t mean we won’t always think about it. I will write my way toward my mother for the rest of my life and hope that the meaning of home can change. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the mother as home had a good connotation for all of us?

RL: I want to return to the idea of not talking—but writing—about the most difficult things in our relationships. Many of the writers here grapple openly with the task and craft of memoir. Melissa Febos beautifully describes the memoirist’s tension between talking and writing:

I had made a choice to tell the world the things I couldn’t talk about. In doing so, I had forced myself to talk about them, though I still barely could with [my mother]. My choice revealed those things to her and simultaneously forced her to have a conversation with the world.

As primarily a fiction writer myself, I often find myself astounded by the magic tricks of memoir. It is so impossible to render the absolute truth in words: impossible to remember anything accurately, impossible to describe with as much vividness as one wants to, impossible to give enough context that the reader will understand as well as you do what you mean. On not remembering, Alexander Chee admits, “I could tell you I remember… but I’d be lying. …The borders around this conversation are like something hot was set down on the rest of the memory and it burned.” Bernice L. McFadden writes, “The mind is as wonderful as it is wicked; it can choose to save us from our memories or bludgeon us with them.” Julianna Baggott calls storytelling “a fight against forgetting, against loss and even mortality. Every time a story is told about someone who’s dead,” she says, “it’s a resurrection. Every time a story is told about the past, we’re doubly alive.” Brandon Taylor reckons perhaps most frankly of all your writers with the form:

I find it difficult to wrangle facts. I find it difficult to know what to do with them, how to organize them so they make sense and tell some sort of narrative. Truth is the thing that emerges from the careful arrangement of details. Fact is the word we use to describe a detail that has some particular relationship with the truth. But any group of details can be arranged so they seem to cohere into a truth—and when we have discerned that truth, we call those details facts, even if they previously were untrue. I had a difficult time with essays because facts always felt so slippery to me.

Is it even possible to tell a true story? How do you personally reckon with the relationship between truth and memory in your work?

MF: Essayists and memoirists can write the subjective truth. If you were to survey a bunch of people who were in the same room when something happened, I guarantee that something about each recollection would be different. Small details. Someone might remember that a person was wearing a blue coat, for instance, when it was in fact green. Truth in creative nonfiction goes deeper than recounting the facts–although it’s important to be as accurate as possible and aim for emotional truth.

Cheryl Strayed once said in an interview in The New York Times: “Memoir is the art of subjective truth, and while I feel a strong obligation to the truth piece of that, I also firmly plant that truth within the context of my own subjectivity. I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently.” Truth is why I write in the first place. Even when I write short stories as I’m doing now at NYU, I’m aiming for the deepest understanding of the world and the people in it.

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