Stories of Mothers Wreaking Havoc on Children

By Juliet Wittman
Sunday, March 9, 2008

HOPE'S BOY By Andrew Bridge | Hyperion. 306 pp. $22.95

Of these three memoirists, Bridge focuses the most on social issues. He is acutely aware of the poverty that exacerbated his and his mother's problems. Now a Harvard-educated lawyer, he specializes in helping children caught up in our country's often cruel foster care systems. When he was 5, Bridge, who had been living with his grandmother in Chicago, was reclaimed by his mother, Hope. Psychically fragile, Hope was incapable of caring for a child, although she tried -- as evidenced by the sad, silly, funny story Bridge tells of her attempt to get him the bunny costume he needed for a school production. Her madness grew; she heard demon voices. Eventually, she could no longer hold on to a job or a home.

Bridge was taken forcibly from his mother's arms when he was 7 and, having spent time in the terrifying limbo of the Los Angeles foster care system, was placed with a pair of dysfunctional foster parents, the Leonards. Though he is fully aware of his mother's weaknesses, Bridge also sees integrity in her, and even an odd, doomed dauntlessness. It was because of Hope's love for him that he was able to keep his mind steady in the Leonards' home, in and out of which other foster children -- some of them with unspeakably horrifying personal histories -- regularly cycled. He observed the behavior of one little boy, Jason, who stayed longer than the others. Desperate for acceptance, Jason continually tried to ingratiate himself with the impervious Leonards, telling them again and again how much he loved them. Meanwhile, he was quietly building a tiny graveyard made of popsicle sticks by the side of the house and burying insects in it.

Bridge himself remained aloof both at home and at school. He was aware of the occasional overtures of kindly teachers but never really bonded with them. He refused to soften toward the Leonards, though he slowly came to realize that the couple who had once seemed all-powerful to him were figures of absurd fun to his classmates, and he felt something approaching pity.

His mother's assurances that she would always love and protect him became a slender line of light that eventually led him home. Filled with vivid scenes and empathetic description, refreshingly free of the self-absorption that mars so many horrendous childhood sagas, Hope's Boy is compulsively readable.

SWALLOW THE OCEAN By Laura M. Flynn | Counterpoint. 279 pp. $23

Laura M. Flynn's earliest memories are of a concerned, loving mother who spent time with her three daughters and encouraged creative and imaginative play. But slowly, her behavior became more and more erratic. Flynn watched her once brilliant and enchanting mother descend into ugly paranoia. She began dividing the world into good and evil, protecting her children by keeping them inside their slovenly apartment. As her anger grew, she became violent, primarily toward her oldest daughter, Sara.

Flynn loved her mother as much as she longed to get away from her, and a great deal of this book's strength lies in her childish attempts to sort out the reality her mother presented to her from the reality she understood to exist outside their home. In one of the most compelling passages, she recreates what she imagines her mother's inner world to have been: "It was not a question of not seeing the forest for the trees -- because she saw all that, the pine needles, the branches, the trunks, and the forest. Beyond this she saw the way the light flooded the forest canopy. And then the even deeper, untold meaning, the connection of the trees to the light and the branches to the needles. Everything was revealed. Unspeakable. . . . The problem was that the speed of thought was so much faster than the speed of words, the senses faster than the thought, the speed of light faster still."

As her mother became more unpredictable, Flynn's father tried to gain custody of his daughters, an attempt hindered by the court system's bureaucratic incomprehension. Meanwhile, the sisters played elaborate fantasy games with dolls, sending them to explore swirling underwater worlds. The germ of this skilled and lyrical book is these childhood imaginings. Despite all, Flynn's childhood contained love. Her salvation came through her father's protectiveness, her closeness with her sisters, and the imaginative world the three girls created together.

THE SKY ISN'T VISIBLE FROM HERE Scenes from a Life By Felicia C. Sullivan | Algonquin. 255 pp. $23.95

Felicia C. Sullivan's childhood was presided over by a cocaine-addled narcissist of a mother whose lovers abused both her and her young daughter; not surprisingly, in her 20s Sullivan found herself fighting addictions of her own as she attempted to emulate the smoothly successful lives of her classmates.

Sullivan's mother disappeared shortly before her graduation from college, and the author has not seen her since. She professes to feel no love for this woman, and the events she describes make the reason plain: Sullivan's was, without question, the most toxic of the three mothers in these memoirs -- utterly self-centered, a betrayer of anyone attempting to love or befriend her. This book has an edgier tone than the others, and the storytelling is more jagged, with Sullivan moving back and forth between her childhood in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood and her life as an investment banker in Manhattan. The discontinuities sometimes jar, though they do hold a certain interest of their own.

It's hard to find anything resembling hope in Sullivan's early years. You sense that what kept her emotionally alive was the fact that, at bottom, she shared her mother's sheer, tooth-gritted cussedness -- using it for survival rather than self-destruction.

Sullivan's prose is surprising, occasionally melodramatic and self-conscious, but certainly vivid. The book's failure to be absorbing from beginning to end is du to her narrowness of vision. We're in the author's head throughout, and no one else on the page is quite real. In addition, despite our society's fascination with the tropes of addiction, the chronicle of lies, thefts and betrayals that Sullivan presents gets a little repetitive. Nonetheless, this is a book worth encountering. *

Juliet Wittman is the author of "Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals."

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