“Usually I try to get patients to confront their families, but in your case I would recommend putting several thousand miles between you and them,” a therapist told Phillip Lopate in 1980. Along with his older brother and their two younger sisters, Lopate had spent his childhood in Brooklyn as an unwilling witness to a marital crime scene. Frances, their mother, complained to eight-year-old Phillip of her sexual and romantic frustrations and confided in him about her affairs. She habitually berated and humiliated their father, Albert, who responded with detachment, coldness, and passive aggression. Somehow the two stayed married for more than fifty years. Divorced in 1985, they nevertheless continued to share an apartment until Albert entered a nursing home.
Lopate took the therapist’s advice: he moved to Houston to teach creative writing. A few years later, though, he did confront his mother. Over a few months in the summer of 1984—she was then sixty-six, he forty-one—he tape-recorded her telling her life story. A naturally garrulous woman who began a career in show business at age fifty, acting and singing in dinner theaters and commercials, she relished the experience. “I suspect she had been waiting for her close-up all her life,” Lopate writes. For more than twenty hours, Frances Lopate spoke of her own miserable childhood, her early marriage, her disaffection with her husband, her numerous lovers. Phillip listened, asked questions, and occasionally challenged her recollections. Then he put the tapes in a shoebox in his closet, where they stayed for more than thirty years.
Frances Lopate died in 2000. Only recently did her son decide to revisit the tapes. He was afraid of how much he missed her, he explains, but also of being “overwhelmed by her intensity.” The very form of A Mother’s Tale demonstrates the validity of that fear. A transcript of their conversation forms the basis of the book, which Lopate describes as neither memoir nor essay—the forms in which he has distinguished himself—but part “dialogue,” part “oral history.”
The author of several works of fiction and seven essay collections, as well as To Show and to Tell, a guide to writing literary nonfiction, Lopate has chosen to allow his mother’s voice to dominate the page virtually unmediated, interrupted only occasionally by his own. He shapes the conversation into brief sections and gives them simple titles, but otherwise his editorial hand is difficult to discern. Sometimes we hear forty-one-year-old Phillip offering a prompt or asking a follow-up question; at other points, present-day Phillip reflects on both sides of the conversation, his and hers. (He intervened, he said in an interview with Kristen Martin of Literary Hub, only when he thought “there were key issues involved that needed some elucidation.”) But for most of this odd, affecting book Lopate plays the part that was so familiar to him as a child: bystander to the family drama.
Six sets of Frances Lopate’s eyes stare out from the frontispiece of A Mother’s Tale. In a professional headshot, she broods pensively beneath a wide-brimmed hat, one side of her face in shadow. With a pack of Doral cigarettes in her hand, she wears a weirdly sexualized devil costume, complete with horns and a cone-shaped brassiere like the ones Madonna wore in the early 1990s. In a still from an Alka-Seltzer ad, she embodies the happy homemaker as Italian mama: hands clasped below her ample bosom, hovering proudly as the man playing her husband tucks into a plate of meatballs. (Jewish, with dark eyes and hair, she was often stereotyped, to her chagrin, in “ethnic” roles.) The pictures are autographed to her son: “Just to make sure you don’t forget me. Mommy.”
What Frances primarily wants her son not to forget is her litany of grievances. Her story consists largely of a recitation of crimes committed against her, starting from childhood. A crucial scene takes place at her father’s deathbed. It is four o’clock in the morning, and she and her ten siblings have lined up to bid him good-bye. He looks at each of them and smiles at her, the youngest at about age nine. “Call him back!” commands Mary, her eldest sister. “He’ll come back for you.” But she can manage only a weak “Pop, Papa, Papa?” His throat rattles and his eyes close. “You know how many years that cost me on the couch, to get over the guilt that I couldn’t call him back?” she asks her son, who responds, reasonably, that even as a child, she must have known she didn’t have the power to prevent her father’s death. She insists: “All those years later, I thought: I’m guilty, I killed my father…. I should have gone all out, I should have really CALLED him.” When Mary died, six decades after the deathbed incident, Frances was still angry. Throwing dirt on her sister’s coffin, she muttered, “There! That should keep the old witch!”
Even as a child, Frances believed she was an extraordinary person prevented from achieving greatness by fate, which thrust her upon relatives who failed to appreciate or support her. Less than two years after her father’s death, her mother died following a hysterectomy. She and two other daughters were taken in by Larly, the second-eldest sister, who made her sleep in a curtainless sunroom and care for her niece, a “rotten baby.” While Mary allowed her own children to stay home “for every little fart,” Larly made Frances go to school “if it was a shitstorm.” At fifteen she went to the bus station and got on the next bus, which happened to be headed to Bayonne, New Jersey. When her brother Max eventually came some weeks later to find her, Larly refused to take her back. At sixteen, Frances was living on her own. “There are kind people in the world,” she tells Phillip. “They just don’t happen to be in my family.” (Or in his, one might add.)
At first, Albert Lopate, whom Frances met on a blind date, seemed an improvement. He impressed her with his intelligence and wooed her with stories from the works of Hermann Hesse and Arthur Schnitzler. They became engaged, but Albert abruptly broke it off one day with a terse letter: “Sorry, cannot go through with this, call it off.” Then one day he phoned and asked her to forgive him. “I didn’t have any better offers that day, so I said okay.” Perhaps she was remembering her own mother’s credo: “When you marry, you should be the more attractive and the smarter, because that way you’ll always have it over on him.” Her fiancé told her to choose between a big wedding reception or a winter coat and shoes. After the ceremony, they went to a delicatessen.
“We spend most of our adulthoods trying to grasp the meanings of our parents’ lives; and how we shape and answer these questions largely turns us into who we are,” Lopate wrote in “The Story of My Father,” a narrative about his relationship with his father in old age, which appears in Portrait of My Body (1996). In one scene he takes Albert, who by then is living in a nursing home, to one of the Chinese-Cuban restaurants that used to be ubiquitous on the Upper West Side. As Albert struggles with his food, dropping broccoli into his lap, they can both “hear” Frances scolding him: “You’re such a slob!” She is eight miles away, but her husband and son have internalized her insults.
Frances’s brief against her husband begins with their honeymoon. In A Mother’s Tale, she describes it succintly: “I got fucked.” In the first week of their marriage, she claims, she and Albert went through more than 144 condoms. But his technique was so poor that she “didn’t feel a goddamn thing.” The inappropriateness of sharing this detail with her son—like all her laments, it is repeated many times—is excruciatingly apparent to Lopate. “Was she consciously performing this ritual humiliation of my father for my benefit, as a provocation, or was this simply the mouthing of her interior monologue, no matter who was present?” he wonders.
Albert’s skills did not improve, but the frequency of sex soon dwindled to once every two weeks or less. She asked him to bathe before they went to bed together, but he refused, and the smell of the ribbon-dyeing factory where he worked repelled her. “He had no idea how tempting it was to bed somebody else.” Her first lover was Benno, a German refugee whom she met at a Catskills bungalow colony the family visited one summer. “Everything that Daddy wasn’t, he was”—athletic, attentive to her children, good in bed.
The affair lasted for months, until she became pregnant. Albert threatened to take away the children—Phillip, his older brother Leonard (now a well-known radio host), and their younger sister Betty Ann—if she didn’t break it off: “He had me over a barrel.” Joan, the child who resulted from the affair, was raised as if she were Albert’s; the secret of her father’s identity was kept from her and her half-siblings for many years. Ironically, Albert was kinder to Joan than to his biological children, for reasons Phillip does not understand.
A new crisis ensued a few years later, when Frances, in the midst of another affair, declared her intention to run off with her lover to California, taking the children with them. Phillip and Leonard, then eight and eleven, sided with their father, who did everything he could to force Frances to stay, from writing romantic poems to beating her brutally. (Lopate recalls the beating vividly; his mother denies it happened.) The memory of this time was so painful that it took Lopate ten years to write “Willy,” the harrowing piece in which he recounted it, which appeared in Bachelorhood (1981), his first book of essays. Yet when he asks her about it in the interview, she largely dismisses the whole episode, not to mention its impact on him. “One person’s trauma is another person’s footnote,” he concludes.
Albert, for his part, admits to his son that he once tried to strangle Frances early in the marriage after discovering that she had been unfaithful. He stopped himself in the middle of the act, asking: “Why am I doing this? This is not me. I am not a violent person. I am not a person of action.” Lopate asks him why he didn’t just leave her. “That’s the story of my failure, because I just couldn’t leave her,” his father responds. The son is bewildered by their contempt-filled marriage, which he compares to Strindberg’s Dance of Death, a depiction of as vicious a marriage as has ever been represented in literature. “I must take my hat off to them for their depth of passion, dark as it was,” he says.
“He was so remote and shadowlike in life that I find it difficult to describe him, much less understand him,” Lopate says of his father. During the same summer that he interviewed Frances, he asked Albert too to sit for the tape recorder, but could get only an hour of talk out of him. While he recognizes Albert’s flaws—his lack of emotional connection, his refusal to yield to his wife on even a matter as basic as hygiene, his physical brutality—he cannot help also feeling sympathetic. Try as he does to steer his mother onto different subjects, she inevitably returns to the eternal theme of Albert’s offenses. Even when he asks her to describe giving birth for the first time, she immediately starts in on how quickly her husband returned to work afterward. “I’m trying to divert you from complaining about Father, so you can tell me what the experience was like for you,” he says, to no avail. The only moments when she expresses sympathy for Albert is when complaining about his own father, Phillip’s grandfather, whom she despised so much that she would have psychosomatic allergy attacks before visiting him.
What was it like to be the child of this woman? Lopate initially deflects this question with a joke, writing that he was “thankfully spared that cliché of the overprotective Jewish mother, mine being far too self-absorbed to watch my every move.” Self-absorption is the least of it. When he asks her what he was like as a boy, his mother talks only about his brother. Finally she concedes that he was physically attractive:
“You were so cute. You were so unbelievably beautiful, and when I would set you out in your carriage outside the store, the women who walked by would look at you and cross themselves because you looked like the infant Jesus…. Do you remember the time you cut your eyelashes off?”
“Because I thought you loved me only for my eyelashes.”
“As though all I could love you for was your eyelashes! And they grew back, thank God!”
It was a childhood of fundamental instability. The family moved frequently: first to a tenement in Williamsburg, “a shabby Jewish slum” in the shadow of the El, then to a more upscale apartment: “so middle-class, in fact, that we didn’t fit in.” Frances was such an incompetent housekeeper that the family was soon evicted for their filth; they decamped to Bedford-Stuyvesant, where they were the only white family in their building. They came into a bit of money when Albert’s father—“the old fucker”—died, with which they bought a co-op in Flatbush, but ultimately they couldn’t keep up with the maintenance and moved again, to a “hole in the wall” on Nostrand Avenue, where Phillip and Leonard slept in the basement.
Some families compensate for the enforced intimacy of their living quarters by maintaining strict personal boundaries. Not the Lopates. In addition to comparing Albert’s sexual abilities unfavorably with those of her lovers, Frances had a nurse come to perform an abortion for her at home, sending Phillip out to buy cigarettes; he returned to hear her screaming in the bathroom. On other occasions, when he rejected her embraces, she responded by blocking the door, “demanding a kiss as her toll.” On the tapes, she describes submitting to the advances of her brother-in-law, another premature ejaculator: “The only way I could get rid of him was to do it…. After he was finished I laughed at him.” Lopate is amazed and bemused: “She was betraying her sister and expressing her disdain for the male sex all in one fell swoop. At the same time, I admire her worldly, Wife of Bath carnality and practicality.”
He may admire it. But most readers will likely find Frances Lopate as difficult a companion as her husband apparently did. There are times when her voice charms, as in this report of an audition: “I was the best thing since—halvah.” But these moments, frankly, are few. Lopate berates himself for his lack of sympathy toward her, wondering if female readers may take her side more readily than he does. Speaking for myself, I can say: no. This is a woman who, at her son’s wedding, interrupted the ceremony to complain about her seat. When her own four-year-old grandchild started dancing during a performance she gave at a senior citizens’ home, she was annoyed at having to share the audience’s attention. Again: no. My sympathies are with her son.
“I sometimes think that I was put on earth to understand my mother’s pain and have not gotten very far in the process,” Lopate writes in the book’s epilogue. The process of writing A Mother’s Tale, it seems clear, was an effort to remedy this perceived lapse. He chose not to transform her testimony into his own prose narrative, he explains, because “it seemed a more realistic representation of the person she was, and the dynamic between us.” Still, he feels he has failed: “Since she is gone I have not found it any easier to embrace her ghost.”
Lopate’s effort is almost unbearably moving, as is his regret. Nonetheless, this book feels in some ways like a missed opportunity. His reluctance to shape the story or even to significantly mediate his mother’s voice sometimes results in confusion. Frequent shifts in chronology make the narrative difficult for the reader to follow. Discrepancies between the family history as told here and as Lopate has written it elsewhere—the beating in “Willy,” for instance—are left unresolved. Lopate calls his mother’s story an emblematic “twentieth-century life,” representative of the generally thwarted ambitions of many women of her time, but the effort is unsuccessful. Entirely and absurdly self-absorbed, she cannot place her own story in the setting of her time, and he does not do it for her.
There is also a gap between the way Lopate perceives his mother and the way she comes across to the reader. Repeatedly he describes her as cultured and sensitive, yet the voice that speaks from these pages is coarse and vulgar. A glimpse of a different perspective appears occasionally. At one point Albert had a stroke, which Frances perceived, typically, as a personal attack on her: she had been planning once again to move out, but now felt obligated to stay and care for him. Albert, for his part, was suspicious that Frances tried to kill him. “We had all been reading Tanizaki’s novel, The Key, in which a married couple tried to polish each other off,” Phillip explains. Nothing to this point has given the impression that this was a family that read Japanese novels together. Either it was an anomaly or an important aspect of the household culture has been left out.
The gravitational pull of the child toward the mother is so powerful that it persists even in the face of cruelty or neglect. What is finally most affecting about this book is not Frances’s story but her son’s pained efforts to confront it. He quotes a somber comment by Vivian Gornick, herself the author of a reminiscence of a troubled mother–child relationship: “Release from the wounds of childhood is a task never completed, not even on the point of death.” For his sake, let’s hope this is not always true.