What Eat Pray Love did for educated women with unhappy love lives who plunge into spiritual abysses, journalist Katie Hafner’s memoir Mother Daughter Me does for rootless educated women with abysmal, possibly alcoholic, mothers. As adults, these women—these daughters of abysmal mothers—can be sandwiched between being mothers themselves and repairing the damage wrought by formerly nightmarish mothers whom they now want to care for.
In a riveting therapy session in a chapter called “Dam Break,” after Katie’s mother tells the therapist a simplistic version of how she lost custody of her children, Katie finally bursts:
When we were first taken away from her . . . it was a full two years before she officially lost custody . . . How could she have allowed precious years with her children to slip straight through her memory bank? . . . Resting my gaze on my lap, I start to tell the entire story . . . The entire time I’m talking, I am thinking that I don’t want my words to hurt her, that I want to protect my mother, to let her know it wasn’t her fault. At the same time, there’s no stopping me, because another part of me wants her to hear every word of this. To make her understand.
When Katie finishes her corrected version of the story, she looks at her mother.
Her face is a terrible crumple, her mouth forming the small breathless “O” people sometimes wear when hit with bad news.
“Katie,” she says. “I am so sorry.”
And with that she is telling me something else: She doesn’t remember.
I have lived that scene, and I suspect many others have also—that moment you realize that the person responsible for giving you life has no knowledge of your experience in their care, and hearing how they hurt you devastates them. This person whose love you craved, whose actions essentially killed your roots before you had the chance to embed in the earth, let alone grow sturdily, cannot take the truth. And since you love them and have no wish to destroy them, you decide to let it go. And you grow up.
Katie Hafner is a topnotch writer, having honed her skills at Newsweek and the New York Times. She is an easy writer to read, but there are several other things that make Mother Daughter Me such an attractive mass-appeal story: Katie Hafner’s clear and inviting prose comes from her experience. And her experience comes from the fact that, by her own telling, she has resilience in her DNA: “Who can know what combination of genes, neurotransmitters, birth order, phase of the moon, or divine intervention determines such things?” she writes. “But I was clearly the lucky one.” Also in her corner are a solid education and a relatively sane father who shared interests with her. Unlike her sister, Katie does not succumb to the family disease of alcoholism. She always has the ability and need to gravitate to healthy surrogate role models. And it is this connection to health that makes her such a gifted reporter of a kind of family dysfunction that many people would rather not hear about. Were she from poverty, were the story rife with physical and sexual abuse, were she uneducated, this story would probably get lost and/or marginalized. But because she is so successful and able, she manages to tell the story of many people who are marginalized—people who will relate even though they'll never get the chances in life that Katie grabbed and flew with.
And what is that story, really?
In her website video, Katie says the book is about our obligation to our parents as we age and learning about ourselves in the process.
Oddly missing in her book’s descriptions of her fumbling attempts to get things to work out or to “follow the path of least resistance” or to maintain an optimistic outlook despite dismal realities is acknowledgement of—or the word—“denial.” It is denial that allows Katie to invite relationships that blow up in her and her daughter’s faces. And yet it is this denial, or “forgetting,” that she seems to share with her mother. When Katie is overwhelmed—by the death of her beloved husband, losing her job, a bitter tongue-lashing from her mother—she writes that she “has no memory” of the time immediately following. Even in the childhood story that she recounts to her mother and their therapist there are missing pieces. After asking her sister about it, she writes: “Sarah had a far keener understanding of the impact of our mother’s alcoholism than I did . . . Sarah minced no words. She got it, and she always had, in a way I hadn’t.”
What is this story about, really? In my opinion, it’s “trauma”—another word Katie never uses and another trait she seems to share with her mother.
And unknowingly and admittedly, she passes the trauma on to her daughter, Zoë, by repeatedly creating situations where the child is rejected: by a man named Scott who she marries virtually right after the death of her husband, and then by her own mother—whose residence with Katie and Zoë is the centerpiece of this story. Describing Zoë after yet another rift with her grandmother, Katie writes: “Her face wears the same expression I saw so often when the high hopes she had for a relationship with Scott were dashed. I brought Scott into her life and he shut her out with devastating totality. Then I took my child by the hand and led her, squinting into the sun, into this latest living arrangement, only to see the pattern repeat itself. . . . she began erecting emotional walls . . .”
Despite the fact that this trauma is never mentioned and even seems to have gone unnoticed, and therefore untreated—and therefore exacerbated—by the ineffective therapist Katie and her mother consult (a common occurrence for therapists who have not been trained to work with trauma; don’t get me started!), healing does begin to come when Katie finally realizes that boundaries are good things and if you can’t get along with somebody (her mother), it is best not to cohabitate. Her exhausted indifference leads to an epiphany: she can pick and choose what she absorbs and what she deflects. “This is how the color spectrum works,” she writes. “Some colors absorb light, while others deflect it, depending on where they are on the spectrum. Earlier in my life, when it came to hurtful words from my mother, I was more like an off-shade of brown, absorbing most of them. Now, with experience, wisdom, and a little more self-confidence, my spectrum is shifting.”
So, despite the title Mother Daughter Me, perhaps the beautifully written story here is less about the “trending” topic of “the sandwich generation,” and more about the less commercial story of negotiating multigenerational trauma.
To this, I say brava! Well done, Katie Hafner. This is a story that needs to be written and widely read. Why? Because intergenerational trauma is a largely unrecognized and untreated worldwide epidemic. (For more on this, see my blog Grey’s Anatomy and the Art of Collapsing.) And knowledge is the beginning of healing. And the healing at the end of this book is so sweet it may just break your heart.