Verdict: I am conflicted.
My rating: 2,5 out of 5 stars
Published by Harper Perennial, 2016
A beautiful, startling, and candid memoir about growing up without boundaries, in which Ariel Leve recalls with candor and sensitivity the turbulent time she endured as the only child of an unstable poet for a mother and a beloved but largely absent father, and explores the consequences of a psychologically harrowing childhood as she seeks refuge from the past and recovers what was lost.
Ariel Leve grew up in Manhattan with an eccentric mother she describes as “a poet, an artist, a self-appointed troublemaker and attention seeker.” Leve learned to become her own parent, taking care of herself and her mother’s needs. There would be uncontrolled, impulsive rages followed with denial, disavowed responsibility, and then extreme outpourings of affection. How does a child learn to feel safe in this topsy-turvy world of conditional love?
Leve captures the chaos and lasting impact of a child’s life under siege and explores how the coping mechanisms she developed to survive later incapacitated her as an adult. There were material comforts, but no emotional safety, except for summer visits to her father’s home in South East Asia—an escape that was terminated after he attempted to gain custody. Following the death of a loving caretaker, a succession of replacements raised Leve—relationships which resulted in intense attachment and loss. It was not until decades later, when Leve moved to other side of the world, that she could begin to emancipate herself from the past. In a relationship with a man who has children, caring for them yields clarity of what was missing.
In telling her haunting story, Leve seeks to understand the effects of chronic psychological maltreatment on a child’s developing brain, and to discover how to build a life for herself that she never dreamed possible: An unabbreviated life.
I don’t quite know how to write about this book in a way that is respectful to the author and the genre. This is always a problem I run into when I don’t quite enjoy a memoir. This is somebody’s life I am talking about and who am I to tell them how to tell their story? But I struggled with this.
Ariel Leve tells of her difficult relationship with her emotionally (and maybe physically) abusive mother and how this has influenced who she became. It is not until her forties that she realizes what long-reaching consequences her childhood had. I am in awe of Leve’s bravery of confronting her inner demons and of trying to find closure.
The thing that hit me the strongest was the realisation that Ariel Leve is still not sure anybody will believe her account of her relationship with her mother. The gaslighting cut so deep that even years, even decades later, while writing her memoir, she needs outside perspectives, the assurance that others have seen it too, to be able to tell this story. Which is why she quotes letters written by people close to her, her therapist, and even her father; she feels the need to prove beyond doubt that she had a horrible childhood. This was by far the most successful part of the book for me – and something I am not so sure was intentional on the author’s part.
The book is loosely structured and told in short paragraphs jumping through time; a technique I am usually particularly fond of. Here I found the framing (a story of her falling in love with a quiet man who never talks about his feelings and of starting to act as a mother to his twin daughters) a bit tedious. She never examines her relationship in a meaningful way and moreover seems to think that because Mario does not talk much he must be more truthful and more worthy than other people. A conclusion I cannot agree with – I mean, I love that she found happiness, but equating quietness with honesty seems a bit shortsighted.
Leve seems unable to look outside her own trauma while pretending to do just that (I am notoriously glad when women unapologetically center their art around themselves, but they do have to own it). She sometimes sounds dismissive of other people’s trauma to a point that made it difficult to read (example: “My emotionally imparied beliefs have a source. This information is comforting because it is a real, scientific explanation. Feeling grounded in an uncertain world is not a matter of willpower or getting over it in the way one might get over a breakup, a lost job, a death, or an outrage.” p. 138). When talking to a neuroscientist specialising in trauma she realises the myriad ways in which her trauma has fundamentally altered her – but she never extends that line of thinking to her mother who supposedly also suffered trauma. And now, I don’t mean to say that she has to take her abuser’s feelings into account when writing about her own story, but it does not seem to fit into the overall narrative voice that she doesn’t find these parallels and draws on them. Especially because she herself works to provide the twins with the childhood stability she had wished for herself. That this inability to give proper room to the outside world might be directly influenced by her mothers gaslighting is something I would have loved to have seen explored.
The book is well-written and competently told. It just does not even come close to some of the brilliant memoirs I have read the last couple of years. And it is a shame because I was so very sure this would be amazing.