Nonfiction: I Am Not My Mother
Felicia C. Sullivan, The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here: Scenes from a Life (Algonquin Books, 2008)
Felicia C. Sullivan has spent her life groping for the words and images to purge the imprint of her childhood. After growing up in the slums of Brooklyn while suffering abuse at the hands of her drug-addicted mother, delinquent stepfathers and brutal neighborhood children, Sullivan desperately needs to find an identity for herself so she can rise above the dysfunction of her background. The premise is not remarkable in itself; memoirs are most often survival tales of some variety.
Unlike other writers, however, Sullivan is not ready to share wisdom from the pedantic perspective. Sullivan does not claim to have found answers; rather, her precise yet innocent prose conducts the search on her behalf. Frequently, Sullivan’s self-awareness is almost disturbingly cloudy, but she wins our empathy and our interest by convincing us that, simply by reading, we participate in her quest to be whole.
The ostensible purpose of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here is to look critically at her relationship with her unfit, insufficient mother. But while she is haunted by memories, Sullivan’s own battles with alcoholism and drug addiction are the true onuses she must shirk.
Sullivan has subtitled her book “Scenes from a Life,” and intertwines short stories of her childhood with vignettes from her catastrophic forays into adulthood. Though she draws obvious parallels between her mother’s behavior and her own, Sullivan repeatedly insists to those who attempt to intervene, “I’m not my mother.”
This claim is particularly chilling because, in many ways, she is absolutely correct. Sullivan’s mother Rosie was frequently out of work, in debt, or being rushed to the hospital by her young daughter. Her greatest career achievement was being a deli manager in Manhattan, but she was fired for stealing money.
Alternatively, Sullivan grows up and goes to Fordham. She transforms into a perfect WASP, bonding over matching J. Crew outfits with her blond Connecticut-born roommate and finally mastering the art of straightening her kinky hair. After graduating, she enrolls in Columbia’s MFA program. When she goes on leave, she joins the Manhattan workforce as a consultant. She buys the $700 handbags that hide her past, and the cocaine that eventually drags it back to the surface.
Her eloquent synthesis of success and demise is a wake-up call for anyone who mistakenly assumes that a rich Manhattanite with a drug addiction is any different than a welfare candidate in Brooklyn. Rosie Sullivan steals from the cash register at work; Felicia Sullivan charges alcoholic business luncheons to her company. Rosie lives in a roach-infested apartment; Felicia’s credit card receipts litter her bedroom “like roaches.” Sullivan’s mother fits a stereotype of the disenfranchised class. And while most people recognize that drug addictions pervade socio-economic boundaries, Sullivan’s Scenes from a Life strikingly insists they happen to everyone for the same reasons.
Sullivan pulls herself out of the dregs of base poverty and reaches for a life to which her readers, co-workers, and classmates at Columbia can relate. But her copious accomplishments only attest that drugs fill a hole left by negligent relationships, and that one can be stricken by isolation without suffering from poverty.
Although Sullivan’s high-class adulthood is contingent upon the lies she tells about her background, the juxtaposing of scenes reveals how dependent she is on even brief moments of maternal affection. Scenes from a Life is so obsessively compelling because in it, Sullivan is not teaching a moral, but crying out to be nourished by a love only briefly tasted. Lost in the throes of an addiction, we get the sense that Sullivan’s writing is her way of trying to connect.
So many memoirs demand our pity: it is remarkable to read one that simply asks for our acknowledgment. As readers, we offer absolution for Sullivan. As a writer, Sullivan allows us to explore the innocence and simplicity of our desire to relate.
Rachel Balik is not a mommy blogger, but aspires to be a posh 20-something.