One-Minute Book Reviews

April 15, 2009

Ruth Reichl’s Memoir ‘Not Becoming My Mother’ – An Apple Falls Far From the Tree

The editor-in-chief of Gourmet remembers a mother diagnosed as manic depressive

Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. By Ruth Reichl. Penguin, 112 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

This elegant memoir is a gentler nonfiction counterpart to Diary of a Mad Housewife, Sue Kaufman’s tragicomic 1967 novel about a well-off woman who chafes against the sterility of her life as a Manhattan wife and mother. Kaufman’s Tina Balser decanted her resentments into a journal. Mim Reichl recorded hers in letters and on scraps of paper that her daughter, the editor-in-chief of Gourmet, drew on for this slender book.

Born in 1908 in Cleveland, Mim wanted to become a doctor like her father. But she yielded to parental pressure to get a Ph.D. in a field she disliked so much, musicology, that after obtaining her degree she never played her violin again. A lifetime of frustration followed as she explored paths to fulfillment that kept turning into cul-de-sacs: volunteering, raising children, starting a business.

Like legions of her contemporaries, Mim Reichl was overeducated for work as a housewife, a woman who might seem to embody what Betty Friedan would call in The Feminine Mystique the problem that has no name.”

“I can feel myself growing more and more rebellious,” she said when her bland first husband complained about her housekeeping. “Who cares about menus and the way they are cooked when there are so many more interesting things to think about?”

A move to New York and a happier second marriage didn’t end her discontents. She wrote The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia, 12-volume set that she and her husband produced and that sold well. But when that project ended, she had trouble finding a job. In the years just after World War II, many Americans considered it unpatriotic for women to take jobs from the returning soldiers.

“You women and girls go home, back to being housewives, as you promised to do,” an army general said in a televised speech.

As the years of underemployment wore on, Mim was diagnosed as manic depressive and took lithium. “Was she crazy, or was she crazy because she had nothing to do?” Ruth Reichl wonders.

A good question, but perhaps oversimplified. Mim thought in either-or terms (“I am a failure” and “My children have abandoned me”) and treated her daughter at times with shocking cruelty. Her reaction was brutal when Ruth, who had become a food writer, got her first book contract. “Do you think we sent you to graduate school so you could write cookbooks?” she asked. “When are you going to do something worthwhile?” Mim’s behavior often seems less typical of manic depression than of borderline personality disorder, characterized in part by a tendency to see the world in black-and-white, one of several alternate diagnoses unexplored in the book. At times, Mim’s mental health seems so fragile that the focus on her thwarted career seems misplaced: You wonder if she could have found satisfaction in any field or had condition, perhaps biological in origin, that would have caught up with her in any job. For all we learn about her, Mim remains an enigma.

But if Reichl leaves questions unanswered, she has written a warm and forgiving portrait of a woman who gave her many reasons to do otherwise. The most poignant sections of Not Becoming My Mother suggest that Mim never stopped trying to solve the problem of her life. As an old woman, she wrote: “Who am I? What do I want? … I need to find me.” That line echoes softly one that she wrote years earlier: “I am so sorry I did not pursue a career. If I teach Ruthy nothing else, I must make her see this. In the end, it is meaningful work – serving people – that matters most. It is what we were made for.”

That line – in which Mim seems to imply that motherhood is not “meaningful work” – makes this an odd book for a publisher to be pitching to the Mother’s Day gift market. It tells a bleak enough story that its arrival in stores may be a few weeks premature. This is an iffy prospect for your mother, but it could be fine gift for a daughter who is graduating in June.

Best line: “A fifties ad for Dexedrine pictured a sad, pretty young woman holding a dish towel and surrounded by dirty dishes. ‘Why is this woman tired?’ asked the copy. ‘Many of your patients – particularly housewives – are crushed under a load of dull, routine duties that leave them in a state of mental and emotional fatigue. For these patients, you may find Dexedrine an ideal prescription. Dexedrine will give them a feeling of energy and well-being, renewing their interest in life and living.”

Worst line: Reichl says that as she read her mother’s papers, “I began to understand that in the end you are the only one who can make yourself happy.” She doesn’t say exactly when she found the cache that inspired this book, but she was apparently well into adulthood. And you don’t believe for a minute that a woman as accomplished as Reichl “began to understand” so late in life that she had to make herself happy. After all that has come before it, that line – found in the last paragraph – seems glib.

Recommendation? This is a good book but overpriced. A typical 250–300 page hardcover costs $25. This one has 128 pages and costs $19.95. You do the math.

Published: To be published on April 21, 2009

Read an excerpt from Not Becoming My Mother.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of Not Becoming My Mother. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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