Everybody knows about fathers and sons (Oedipus) and mothers and sons (Portnoy) and fathers and daughters (Lear). And then there is the epic theme, in history and literature, of mothers and daughters.
Yes. Well. Um. Naomi was Ruth's mother-in-law, so that doesn't count. And there are lots of wicked step-mothers, such as Cinderella's. The tragedy of Iphigenia and Clytemnestra won't do, because it was all that brute Agamemnon's doing. It was ever thus. The fine Spencerian hand of man is visible, too, in the stories of Persephone and Demeter, Pat and Julie, Lana and Cheryl.
The Pankhursts are just plain boring.
Who does that leave? Cher and Chastity. Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Frankenstein.
It's no accident that Mary Shelley's baby, Frankenstein.
It's no accident that Mary Shelleys baby, Frankenstein, was not of woman born. He was, instead, a casserole made up of odds and ends that were lying around the laboratory. He had no history. He gave birth to himself.
Nancy Friday says that women have been feeling that way for years. Historyless, existential, architects of their own past and future. Mother was everything - but she was nobody. She was no role model; she may have been a repressed madonna or predatory sexual rival or the original managerial woman or all of those things; but one knew, one always knew, that women were a race of Prufrocks, measuring life out on the beads of a rosary or in teaspoons inherited from grandmother, in small tight domestic victories over poverty and dirt and Daddy - oh, Mama - why was it then that the worst thing a lover could ever say was, "You're just like your mother?"
Into this very quick of life - sex, birth, anger, love - Nancy Friday has thrown a book. It is called "My Mother/My Self," and its message is "Know thy mother as thyself."
Friday's book - the first one about mothers and daughters anybody can think of - tells how we love each other, how we lie in the service of love, first to mom, then to Agamemnon.
It begins, "I have aalways lied to my mother. And she to me."
Some 400 pages later, after scores of interviews with women, Friday comes to wht she says was an ending that surprised her. She decided she was like her mother, not some creature of her own invention. And, at age 40, she found that her mother stopped making her anxious. With mixed obduracy and wonder, she writes, "There is a strong current in the women in my family that I am bound and determined not to recognize. I come from three generations of sexual, adventurous, self-sufficient women. Is this not more exciting, more profound, than the shallow notion of making myself up?"
There is much to quibble with in this earnest, fascinating book. Like the breezy pop psychology that mother is all-important because she is the roadblock (through toilet training and other mean tricks) to modern woman's all-consuming search for The Big O (O is good. So is work. So is spaghetti).
Then, as mother would say, the grammar could cross your eyes.
Then again, there's the six-figure advance and paperback rights Friday got on "My Mother/My Self." And the television series she's negotiating now with a couple of networks. It's into its second printing (45,000 copies in print now). Friday's previous book, "My Secret Garden," was a best-seller about women's sexual fantasies: and her husband, W. H. Manville, has just sold HIS novel (which has a long sexual fantasy by the heroine) to the paperbacks for $400,000.
Mother is a hot property.
Nancy Friday's mother, who lives quietly in upstate New York, is, however, not taking. Friday promised her she wouldn't have to. "It's not thing," says Friday, "to write a book about your mother. It's another thing to involve her in interviews."
"Last weekend," says Friday, "I saw my mother for the first time since I finished this book. It wasn't a real situation - the People magazine photographer was taking pictures of us. But I felt a lot more relaxed. I no longer feel that I would like to do for her, give her something that would make her happy, a childish, inappropriate idea. She is one of the happiest women I know, but I always felt guilty. I always felt, 'If only there was something I could say or do to make her happy.' And I feel that she is more relaxed with me."
Throughout "My Mother/My Self" are scattered episodes of Friday's own odyssey toward Mom (always there, of course, but elusive to the heart). At one point, a psychiatrist tells her that from all he's heard, he thinks her mother didn't love her. At all, Friday writes on, after noting, "It is too late for nursery angers" and that some people spend their lives endlessly truing "to shake love out of their mothers by the lapel."
Friday's grandmother left her husband and four older children, walked out when Friday's mother, Jane, was 14. Three years later, at 17, Jane eloped. At 19, she was a widow with tow daughters. Friday herself wants no children. But she says her books has begun a dialogue with her mother and long-dead grandmother that has taken all their lives to speak, Jane sent Friday the goodbye letter her mother had written Jane. "It was," Friday writes, "my mother's own silent way of saying something to me."
It is slt and ashes, that letter, Friday's grandmother writes her daughter, "Love each other and be good to Daddy and he will take care of you. This is the hardest, bitterest moment of my life, leaving you, but I cannot do anything else. I cannot see through my tears. God bless you all, Mama."
Two years later she was dead.
Today, Friday says, "When she read the book, my mother called and said, 'Oh Nancy, I wish Mama were still alive so she could read it.' She said, 'It's awfully hard to be honest with a daughter, but oh, Nancy, that first line, I always lied to my mother, oh!' She says, 'That first line, oh.' THe opinions of neighbors are important to her. I don't know if she's read it all yet.I think she'd like the ending. All my life I've denied I was like my mother. That's why I thought I was such a terrific candidate to write this book. It was sheer pain in places. It truly changed me. My husband says. 'You're just a different person, you're intergrated now.' Even when you're 40." says Nancy Friday, "there's a child in you that still lived in your mother's house."
Nancy Friday is a tall, heavily made-up woman, the chatelaine of a nine-room apartment at Central Park West. She goes to Sotheby Parke Bernet when she has writer's book. She is a former writer for Comopolitan magazine ("Helen Brown is historically important. She was the first one who said it was all right to get laid. But Cosmo got too cutesy-pie for me.") She is dressed, expensively, in silk. She looks, in short, like one tough customer.
Scratch a woman, however, and you will find a mother (if only to herself/. Yea, even among cold-eyed journalists with cynical Mamas. My own mother has been sending me heavily underlined reviews of Nancy Fridays book, with special attention to the parts on the importance of not behaving like your mother all your life. "You don't want to be conditioned." my mother says. "You want to be free." And she laughs - a little - when she says she prefers vanilla ice cream above all others because 40 years ago her mother said it was the best.
And I - I'd dream of her mother. She is my namesake, I hers. She used to sing me lullabies:
Dancing and twirling,
The little leaves went,
For winter had called them
And they were content,
Soon fast asleep in their wint'ry beds
The snow lay a coverlet
Over their heads.
Hello, old Jeannette. I still sing that song sometimes.
She has been dead for about 20 years.
It is an enduring and quite clear eyed sort of love. One is not Frankenstein. One is not free.