Mother May I?
The title of Kathryn Harrison's taut, elegant memoir tells us everything we need to know about her latest book. In The Mother Knot (Random House, $19.95), Harrison finds herself, at the end of nursing her third and last child, in the grip of a devastating depression, made more intense some months later by her 10-year-old son's life-threatening bout with asthma. Though she has by all accounts been an exemplary and nurturing mother, she begins to see in herself a persistent malevolence. When her son, in the middle of a nightmare, doesn't recognize her and begins to scream, she asks herself, "What was it that he'd felt, or seen? A threatening presence? The opposite of what a mother should be?"
Forced to delve into her past, Harrison comes up against this sinister force, which seems to be her long-dead mother, who never wanted her and whom she never felt she could please. Untangling the strands of their relationship, Harrison embarks on a quest to purge herself of this destructive being. Therein she finds understanding and, ultimately, grace.
The resolution of these profound questions in this very slim (82 pages) volume may feel too quick and too neat. But Harrison's nuanced and sure-handed prose carries the day, including her luminous description of a body being swept down the Ganges "trailing her winding sheet, close enough to touch." The ritualistic expiation of what seems to be her own rage feels emotionally right and, in the end, very brave.
Criminals on the Couch
Who would not want to hear what a leading forensic psychiatrist has to say about the dozens of serial murderers she has interviewed? But despite her many years' experience, Helen Morrison doesn't have many insights to offer in My Life among the Serial Killers: Inside the Minds of the World's Most Notorious Murderers (Morrow, $24.95), aside from the awful, lurid details of the crimes themselves, which she describes literally ad nauseum. Although she reviews the early lives of such famous killers as John Wayne Gacy and Ed Gein (of "Psycho" fame), she doesn't think childhood had any bearing on their destinies. Instead, she believes simply that their disorder is genetic and that they are stuck in an infantile stage of development.
Morrison seems unable to decide whether this is a memoir or an analysis of those who kill repeatedly, and so doesn't succeed at either. And the writing isn't very good, despite the presence of Harold Goldberg, an editor and writer, as her co-author. Even in the tensest moments of the narrative, Morrison and Goldberg tend to undercut the drama. For example, Morrison, appearing on an Atlanta radio station, floats the idea that the person killing black children in one area of the city might himself be black. This causes a furor but seems plausible. Yet when a man is arrested near the site where many of the bodies were found -- which implies he is the culprit -- the authors never divulge his race.
In one scene, Morrison does get it right. The jailed killer she is to interview on the following day telephones and says that he is right outside her window, looking in. It is pure fabrication, but in those heart-stopping moments, when Morrison becomes just a frightened woman cowering in her Bates-like motel room, the reader senses the deep terror these murderers inspire.
Women on the Verge
Caroline Kraus's friend Jane likes to see the two of them as Lucy and Ethel, inseparable, kooky almost-twins devoted to each other's happiness. And one can't deny the intensity between them, the nearly telepathic way they communicate. But their relationship never seems zany to us; the only way it's like watching "I Love Lucy" is in our pit-of-the-stomach sureness that what can go wrong will, and that these two are spinning dizzily toward disaster. And here the disaster will be so deep it'll be more like the Grand Canyon that Thelma and Louise, two other characters that Jane uses for comparison, will spill headlong into because there is no other way out of their terrible mess.
In the memoir Borderlines (Broadway, $23.95), Kraus is a young woman whose depressive but nurturing mother has just died of cancer; arriving in San Francisco from the Midwest she meets Jane, older, knock-out beautiful and on the surface absolutely cocksure. Caroline, looking for a mother substitute, craves what Jane offers: an enmeshed love without boundary. But Jane turns out to be a master manipulator, possessed of a sadistic borderline personality and ready to take the vulnerable Caroline for all she's got: her sexuality, her inheritance and, finally, her sanity.
In this first book, Kraus, trained in documentary filmmaking, shows herself to be a perceptive and fluent storyteller, able to relate the panicky flavor of this slippery, disturbing relationship. Her allegiance to the fragile mother she has lost feels profoundly true, as does her deep relationship with the father who always bails her out. With this novel-like memoir, Kraus makes a lovely, promising debut.
Girl About Town
Nearly halfway through Alison Rose's 226-page memoir, the book -- and her life -- finally comes alive. Rose, previously an emotionally shaky model and actress, has landed a job as a receptionist at the New Yorker, and for a few pages we are treated to swift and clever portraits of such luminaries as George Trow, Harold Brodkey and Penelope Gilliatt. In between her affairs and near-affairs with several men at the magazine, Rose shows us how Trow taught her how to write a "Talk of the Town" piece. And she does have a gift for asking the right, quirky questions and jotting down the answers verbatim. This is a girl who can write a good sentence and appreciates the oddness of life.
But at this point in Better than Sane: Tales From a Dangling Girl (Knopf, $23), Rose is not a girl; she is a woman of 40, and she has spent many of the previous 20 years and 100 pages smoking Kents in her various rooms in California or the East Side, dressed in one of the many nightgowns she's purchased at Bendel's (charging them all to her wealthy mother) and sleeping with numerous men, including an unnamed rock-and-roll icon and Billy the Fish, son of Burt Lancaster.
Rose's tendency to see herself as powerless feels narcissistic -- her father is an edgy Palo Alto psychiatrist-to-the-stars -- and there are pages of tedious, pretentious and puzzling episodes, as well as dialogue like this from George Trow, who exclaims, when she easily befriends the aging movie actor Helmut Dantine: "Darling, no one understands how you do it, but when you hit bingo, you hit bingo."
In her last chapters, she visits her mother, more openly ruminating on their relationship, and nurses her ailing friend and early TV idol Gardner McKay. Here we catch a glimpse of her disarming, alluring intelligence. But by then we may have already abandoned the book.
Scenes from a Marriage
At one point in Suzy Farbman's memoir, she admits, "My new respect for platitudes would have caused several of my English professors to break out in hives." Well, get ready to start scratching, because her book, Back From Betrayal: Saving a Marriage, a Family, a Life (Crofton Creek, $24.95), is chock-full of stock phrases, advice straight out of an Ann Landers column, New Age exercises and ideas from 12-step programs.
When Farbman, a Michigan-based writer and editor for home design magazines, discovers that her husband of 29 years has cheated on her, she pulls out all the stops to save their relationship. It seems that they have been so gleeful about their rise to prominence in the Detroit area, their successful children and the new palace they are erecting with its three-car attached garage, that they have never thought deeply about their lives together.
The scary thing is that the retreats, the books and the exercises actually work. Farbman may say things straight-faced that many sophisticated folks would not repeat -- "Cry if you need to," says one friend. "Tears help eliminate toxins" -- but no one can argue with success. By the end she and husband Burt can claim they have come to a much better place in their emotional partnership. The strongest section may be the afterword by Burt, who mostly seems such an insensitive creep that you can't figure out why Suzy doesn't just leave. But in speaking about his lifelong need for deception, Burt actually gives the book the depth it heretofore lacks, and these last pages are direct and satisfying. Suzy, for all her platitudes, does know how to write and pace a story, and Back From Betrayal is an easy, somewhat breathless read. *
Penny Wolfson is the author of the 2003 memoir "Moonrise." She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.