There is no more primal human relationship than the one between the woman in whose body we literally took form and ourselves: that is, between mother and child. Such a relationship, if we stop to think of it, is the essence of nature and sublimity itself; we emerge fully formed if utterly helpless and as fragile as eggs from our mother’s wombs. But in time, even the most powerful and nurturing relationship (in some cases precisely because it is so powerful and nurturing)—or “devastating unconditional love, mother love”—can grow difficult, strained, or even torturous. Such is what makes us human, which is to say, flawed. We are, and we are meant to be, different. Still, the primal and even mystical connection that we form with our mothers and carry with us till the day we die is made no less mystical or primal by the passing of time and the accruing of age. And it is likely to become more palpable and powerful with the specter of death and silence and the poignant reality that the one who guarded the child when helpless and frail, is herself now helpless and frail, thus leaving the child to simultaneously care and protect and “by degrees…take on that dreadful singular state in the world—motherlessness.”
The story of this passage comprises the soul of Kate Millett’s beautifully crafted, at times emotionally harrowing, at times darkly humorous, and always utterly courageous new work, Mother Millett. The story, as it is, is one of simplicity itself. Helen Millet, “called Mother Millett, a teasing and ironic play upon Mother McChree, the very cloying Irish sentimentality we belittle and imagine we have transcended,” is found to have a tumor and can no longer fend for herself. Enter the family: decent, socially conscious, hard working. Norman Irish Catholics of a decidedly lapsed variety from St. Paul, Minnesota. They have all “succeeded” in the American sense of the word—except for Katherine, later Kate, whose visions of success, freedom, and sexuality are decidedly at odds with not only her own family, but with the greater culture at large. To this day, “I am different from my tribe yet one of them: my filial love as fervent as in the Moslem texts I’m reading or my years in Japan,” she writes.
Nonetheless, the publication of Sexual Politics in 1970 comes with both instantaneous, international fame and infamy, and Kate’s cherubic face finds itself on the cover of Time Magazine. For a while, like the brothers Berrigan or the Black Panthers, she is a kind of intellectual pop star among the fashionable intelligencia, politicos, and literati—a period she recounts in Flying. But fashions change; spotlights move elsewhere; intelligencia, politicos, and literati prove shamelessly fickle. Feminism, with which the name Kate Millett will forever be associated, is in time reduced to an academic study and tamed, stripped of all revolutionary essence and at last accepted in its most bourgeois and harmless variety in America at large. Kate, meanwhile, continues as before: writing her books, crafting her sculpture, painting her paintings, at one point founding a women’s art colony called the Farm. All the while she is respected, if not revered by some, and forgotten by others, as she follows her muse and conscience come what may. Part of what happens next is familial tension of a most shocking kind. Her own family has her, for a time, locked up. Decades pass, mainly between the Farm and the Lower East Side.
Then Mother Millett, “who was a feminist long before the thought occurred to me,” is ill and old and in need of tending. Daughter Kate comes “home” to St. Paul in the early 1990s to do just that.
In lesser hands, such a story, like so many memoirs, might well become unreadable dreck or a mere study in narcissism. Not here. With her unashamed passion, brutal honesty, and novelist’s eye for luminous detail, Millett renders this made-for-TV movie script and personal psychological odyssey into a work of extraordinary sensitivity and universal import. Here is a work utterly devoid of pomo shenanigans and spinelessness. Like her earlier Politics of Cruelty, The Loony-Bin Trap, and to a much lesser extent Sexual Politics, Mother Millett is delightfully difficult to categorize: part memoir, part chronicle of the times, part confession, part political diatribe, part exposé. Brilliantly and passionately, Millett weaves all these seemingly disparate strains together into what is primarily a paean to the life and dignity of her suddenly stricken and beloved mother. Indeed, “dignity,” which—with the exception of “class” (surely the most forbidden word in the American lexicon)—may well be the single most important word in this work, and it is one Millett intrinsically links to both freedom and love. Dignity? Mother Millett seems to embody it; daughter Millett defiantly demands it; outside, the world seems increasingly oblivious to its existence. “My mother,” Millett writes, “is America to me. The America of the Middle West and the Mississippi River, ‘Amazing Grace,’ and ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’” But there is another America, and both mother and daughter Millett come face to face with it and find it wholly unacceptable.
Herein lies the rub.
In contemporary America, the primal is little valued: abstractions are the rule, objectification the method, and efficiency the jealous God who will have no other Gods before it. And dignity? In such a world dignity has more or less as much standing as do the arts. Far from being an essential element of any truly civilized and spiritual existence, dignity (like beauty or truth or justice) is rather a nice concept if one that the “real world” has rendered essentially meaningless. As that world’s cult of efficiency subtly deforms all human relationships to suit its design, formerly simple situations are now terribly complex, layered and at times – though perfectly rational and enormously profitable – spiritually horrifying. She writes:
“And the figure on the bed is like a small injured animal wrapped in white…I glimpse her through the door and am destroyed with shame – this is my Mother abandoned, dying of abandonment, parked here to die like the mothers of strangers parked to die at St. Peters Asylum when I worked there as a college kid and could not believe people would do this to their kin. Not my mother, I swore; My Mother would never see the inside of one of these hellholes, these places of despair and dejection. My Mother would never know this betrayal.”
But, in fact, for a mercifully short time, mother does. And this abandonment and the constant threat of this betrayal in its myriad forms is the crux of Mother Millett, one made all the more degradingly real by the author’s all too vivid memories of her own betrayal and abandonment when “in certain ill-advised moments, my sisters and even my mother had seen fit to deliver me over to state psychiatry, through which I was made a prisoner and later a shamed and stigmatized being” (the subject of Millett’s brilliantly disturbing The Loony-Bin Trip). Now, it is the “nut artist and black sheep they have locked up and found disgraceful” who in a beautiful and symmetrical reversal thrusts herself into the role of the protector. All traces of bitterness and rancor over the past are healed now—I feel an overwhelming urge to protect her—will do anything to save her from the fate I have foreseen here.” And protect she does through a perseverance fueled by both love and rage (“like all crimes perpetuated against the helpless, easy and predictable, cruel and unfair, but emblematic of how things are, the public may regard themselves as helpless to protest.”) Millett repeatedly hones her disgust at that which is disgusting through prose as unflinching, well-crafted and self-effacing as that found in Orwell’s essays. Throughout all of her work, but especially in Politics of Cruelty, Millett also displays another characteristic reminiscent of Orwell; the moral and spiritual imperative to discuss and bring to light those subjects most writers would rather pretend do not exist. Millet honestly engages what’s happening around her, and she musters the courage to do the much harder thing: confront what is happening within her. “The longer I am here the more I disappear, become someone with no idea who she is: I forget my name, my hard won definition.” And, “In Minnesota, the general unreality of my world and its values is always disconcertingly apparent.” It is also terrifying.
Slowly, and with many digressions and slips, mother and child do not merely maintain their dignity and transcend their shared and unshared pasts, but they also meet in a place that they never knew existed. “We are women looking at a world we cannot change and over which we feel we have no control and little contact beyond concern and information, which we know is controlled and often deliberately inaccurate.” At last, having secured a situation in which her mother could live with the self-respect she could not live without, Kate departs, only to receive word of her mother’s death in Ireland, the land of their ancestors and “the immigrant Irish piety of her origins.”
“Words come and with them tears. Words themselves, she gave me language,” she writes. “How much she taught me of Shakespeare and Synge and Shaw, of the role of speech, the ring of a line, how a word could hit the mark, the success of it.” Mother taught her very well, indeed. Mother Millett is an extraordinary work of an extraordinary soul with extraordinary talent and courage.