Alice Eve Cohen
The Year My Mother Came Back
(Algonquin Books, 2015)
A memoir has to be totally factual. Or does it? Stories change with the telling, and we ourselves are always changing, so is there such a thing as absolute truth? What’s really important is getting at the deeper truths, the ones that resonate and change lives. Fiercely brave and unflinchingly honest, Alice Eve Cohen’s fearless new memoir, The Year My Mother Came Back, pushes away all boundaries, telling a deeply true story, even while imagining conversations with her dead mother. In doing so, she has written an important memoir that takes the reader on an astonishing journey.
I truly believe that authors find the authors they need. I often search out people whose books matter to me. In 2009, Viking sent me a copy of Alice’s first memoir, What I Thought I Knew, about her late-in-life pregnancy chaos. Having had my own dramatic late-in-life birth story made her book deeply resonate for me. I tracked down Alice and asked her if I could interview her for my blog, carolineleavittville. The more I read of Alice’s answers, the more I liked her. We began trading stories. One day, I impulsively invited her to lunch, and we became friends. When she invited me to her solo play based on her book, I was enthralled. It’s an act of bravery to write anything, to put your soul on the page, and there was Alice on stage, performing her work, being so unafraid, so funny and warm.
A few years ago, Alice sent me an early draft of The Year My Mother Came Back. It was even better, richer, and more wonderful than her first memoir. I urged her to consider Algonquin, to consider my editor there, Andra Miller, who is as kind as she is brilliant. She did. And Andra took her on. And I can tell you firsthand, there’s nothing more wonderful than having a friend share your publisher.
Caroline Leavitt (Rail): The Year My Mother Came Back is a memoir, but it reads like a novel. My novels are often about my life, and some could be called fictionalized memoir. There’s a fine line separating fiction from memoir. In your new book, your late mother is a very present character. I’m thinking of the scene in your kitchen when she first appears:
For the first time in decades I’m remembering Mom, all of her—the wonderful and terrible things about her that I’ve cast out of my thoughts for so long. I’m still struggling to prevent these memories from erupting from their subterranean depths. Trying to hold back the flood. I can’t, not today. The levees break.
Alice Eve Cohen: Yes, and when the levees break, not only do I remember her, she shows up in the room. When the memoir begins, I’m bracing myself for the maternal challenge of helping my 8-year-old daughter through her upcoming medical procedure. When I receive an unexpected diagnosis of breast cancer, it releases a flood of memories about my mother, who had breast cancer when I was 12. It’s 30 years after my mother’s death. Suddenly, there she is, sitting at my kitchen table, typing on her old Smith-Corona typewriter. And I don’t want her there.
Rail: Why not?
Cohen: Because our relationship was fraught with conflict. She was a devoted and loving mom until her illness. I was on the cusp of puberty, and her cancer exacerbated our inevitable mother-daughter adolescent conflicts. She lost her breasts at the same time that I got breasts. She felt robbed of her sexuality, just as I was becoming a sexual teenager—and she was furious.
Rail: Your book looks at motherhood from many angles.
Cohen: That’s the heart of it. From page one: “This is a story of mothers and daughters. My mother, my daughters. My mother’s daughters, my daughters’ mothers. This is the story of a year.” The book is about revisiting my complex relationship with my mother, during the hardest parenting year I had ever experienced. Throughout that tumultuous year, I found that I had to revisit my childhood and allow myself to be a daughter once more, in order to take care of my own girls.
Rail: What were your daughters going through?
Cohen: Julia, my 18-year-old daughter, decided to search for her birth mother. A week before she left for college, she told me,
This summer, for the first time in my life, I suddenly found myself wondering about Zoe, wanting to meet her. Being adopted didn’t seem like a big deal for me growing up. I mean, this is my family.
I adopted Julia at birth and always hoped that she’d find her birth mother one day. But at the same time, I felt terribly vulnerable and insecure. She was leaving home, reuniting with her first mother, and I was afraid of losing her.
Rail: And your younger daughter?
Cohen: Eliana was born with one leg shorter than the other, because of a growth disorder. She was about to embark upon a year-long procedure to lengthen her shorter leg. My surgery trumped hers. Eliana’s leg-lengthening had to be postponed until I was finished with radiation.
Rail: The radiation scenes are fascinating, especially when your mother is with you. The dialogues with your mother are engrossing, moving, surreal, and often very funny.
Cohen: During my daily radiation sessions, I had to stay absolutely still for 10 minutes. Those sessions were departures from the ordinary world, life in suspended animation. My mother showed up, and I had no choice but to let her to stay.
I can’t even turn my head to look away; I’m not allowed to move for 10 minutes. My young beautiful mother is standing beside the radiation bed, so close to me that I feel the warmth radiating from her body and her breath on my face—more vivid and tangible than any flashback.
Rail: I love this passage. It’s so ordinary and so absurd. “In my peripheral vision I see Mom leaning on the end of the radiation bed, ankles crossed, reading the People magazine I picked up in the waiting room. […] ‘It’s chilly in here. Are you cold, Sweetheart,’ she asks.”
Cohen: Yeah, I get comfortable having Mom in the room with me, and I begin to relish it. I start asking her parenting advice. She tells me things about her own childhood for the first time. And she takes me back in time. I hold her hand, and suddenly I’m 5 years old, and it’s 1960, and she’s taking me door-to-door campaigning for Civil Rights in our neighborhood, which isn’t remotely sympathetic to her left-wing politics.
Rail: She really comes to life in your book, as a political activist and feminist.
Cohen: My mother was always fighting for social justice, and she took my two sisters and me with her on her campaigns. She was an early feminist. I found a letter she wrote to one of her suitors in 1942, when she was 21, telling him, “I was quite surprised at your attitude towards women going ‘out into the world.’ It never occurred to me to doubt that I would do otherwise.” She was ahead of her time. She was brilliant and talented, but she was caught in a pre-feminist world, held back by the conflicting demands of career and family. In my memory, my mother is often typing. She worked on her Ph.D. dissertation for over a decade and never finished it. She was a sociologist and college professor, but never published.
Her professional ambitions were hampered because she was so busy juggling domestic roles. In a chapter set in 1975, she told me about this, when I was briefly home from college:
She got up and paced the room again, glancing at me to deliver her main points, as if this were a lecture hall and I was her only student. It was dusk, and the crickets were singing. “I used to be called an eccentric. Now I’m called a feminist! It’s a wonderful thing. For the first time, I’m professionally valued for my life experience as a wife-slash-mother-slash-housewife-slash-perpetual Ph.D. candidate. This new role legitimizes that which previously was assigned zero value.”
Rail: I’m always curious about why people write, what they hope to discover when they write, and what they actually do discover. (Sometimes, you aren’t aware of why you needed to write a book until it’s done—at least it’s that way for me.) So why did you originally think you needed to write The Year My Mother Came Back? What was surprising and unexpected that you discovered when you finished?
Cohen: Caroline, this is such a perfect question. I’m so glad to find out that you’ve also had the experience of not knowing why you needed to write a book until it’s done. The Year My Mother Came Back is so different from the book I set out to write five years ago. It went through somersaulting transformations. Originally, I wanted to tell the story of a crazy year. Summer 2008 to summer ’09 was a perfect storm of a year for my family, when my two daughters and I simultaneously went through formidable experiences—Eliana’s leg-lengthening, Julia’s decision to reunite with her birth mother, my own scary medical travails.
In its first iteration, the title was My Left Eye. When I showed an early draft to my first reader—a trusted friend—she said, “I’m sure you already know this, but the book isn’t about your left eye. It’s about your mother.” What? For a moment I was angry. I’d just spent a year weaving metaphors of vision loss, and the subjectivity of vision, into my daughters’ journeys, into the story of our year. In the next moment, I realized that my friend was absolutely right. The book was about mother.
But in the early draft of my book, she was only tangentially on the pages. I had to search for her—not unlike my older daughter’s search for her birth mother. My book was turning into a story about mothers lost and found.
I’d forgotten so much about her in 30 years, so I interviewed my sisters and other relatives. I looked through scrapbooks. I read whatever I could find of her writing, and my writing to and about her. I pored through old photos. I remembered the fantasies I had with her during that year of crisis, my elaborate interior dialogues with her during my radiation sessions. My brilliant editor at Algonquin supported my use of fantasy, which was wonderfully liberating to me as a memoirist. I found my mother’s voice, and brought her to life on the page.
So coming back to your question: “What was surprising and unexpected that you discovered when you finished?” I was surprised that the process of writing the book was itself a rite of passage. I discovered that my experience as a mother is constantly informed by my experience as a daughter. Writing the book helped me realize that I had to walk in my mother’s shoes before I could understand her. It allowed me, finally, to make peace with her. Ultimately, my book is a love story—for my mother and my daughters.
Rail: I’ve often thought that if we had problematic childhoods, we try to give our children the childhood we wish we had had. To nurture them, for sure—but also to heal ourselves. (My husband and I sat down before our son was even conceived and plotted out how we would parent—which was basically the opposite of what our parents had done!)
Cohen: Wow! I’m so impressed that you and your husband plotted out how you would parent. Me? Not so much. This is how it worked: 1) My first husband and I adopted our baby, assuming that we knew how to parent. And we did. Just not when we were together. Our marriage ended when our daughter was 3 years old. 2) Six years later, when Michael and I got engaged, we decided not to have more children—that is, until I discovered, via emergency CAT scan, that I was six months pregnant. (Long story. It’s the subject of my first memoir, which I’ve condensed into two pages of my new book.) I am not a paragon of family planning.
But even if Michael and I had plotted out our parenting in advance, we would have ended up throwing away the script. Though I considered myself an expert mom, after nine years on the job with Julia, our new baby had such complicated medical issues, it required learning a whole new set of parenting skills.
Rail: I want to go back to talking about that gray area between truth and fantasy. The Year My Mother Came Back is filled with these wonderful conversations between you and your mother. No lawyer can prove those didn’t happen, or that they did happen. How did you feel about incorporating those talks in a memoir?
Cohen: My first memoir came out shortly after some highly publicized scandals around fake memoirs. The publisher asked for documentation. Their lawyer vetted everything in the book for accuracy. I even provided court documents.
My experience with The Year My Mother Came Back was completely different. When I was writing scenes and dialogues with my mother, I sometimes asked myself, “Am I allowed to do this? This is a memoir.” When I asked my editor, she said, “Of course you can! It’s your mother. They’re your fantasies. Let your imagination go, and see what happens.” I took her advice, which turned out to be a real gift. In addition to writing about the past—my memories from childhood and adolescence, my fantasies from the year in which the book is set—I also included the fantasies and dialogues with my mother that were conjured while I was writing the book. My editor gave me permission to do that, and it was very liberating. By accepting the subjectivity of truth, I found the deeper truth.
Rail: Books are pesky things that are always changing as we write them. Were you afraid of how your book changed?
Cohen: Afraid? Hell no! I was relieved and grateful when the book changed. I’ve found that if I’m not surprised by what I’m writing, it’s probably not very good. When it has a life of its own, that’s when it gets interesting. Initially, I thought I was writing a book about a crisis-filled year. But the whole time, I kept feeling that it wasn’t a book yet, something was missing. It was only when I started over, when I became aware that my mother kept showing up on almost every page, when I started listening to her voice, which took me into some scary territory—when the story became about my mother—that’s when it became a book.
Rail: It’s also very much about your daughters. How do they feel about being written about?
Cohen: Well, they tolerate it. My husband is hardly in this book, which is fine with him. I’m happy to report that our marriage survived my first memoir. You have to be fearless when you write, but it can be tough on the ones you love. I always let my family vet everything before I send it out. On my acknowledgement page, I thank Michael, Julia, and Eliana for allowing me to tell the story of our turbulent year, and I add, “Of course, if you ask them to tell the story, they would each tell it differently.” They’re delighted that the new book I’m working on now is a YA novel.
Rail: I’ve read the first draft of your YA novel, and it’s superb! In your new memoir, the conversations you have with your mother are astonishing. Do you feel your mother around you now?
Cohen: I spent a lot of time with Mom these past few years, while writing this book. I feel closer to her than ever, I love her, and yes, I do feel her presence, but in non-literal way. She’s not in the room. She was a complicated, brilliant, wonderful person. I’m happy that I’ve been able to write about her, and that other readers will get to know her through this book. Because The Year My Mother Came Back is a memoir, it is my subjective telling of her story, of our story. She didn’t have a chance to vet this book, like the rest of my family did—but I think she
CAROLINE LEAVITT is the author of 10 novels, including the New York Times Bestsellers Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You. She reviews books for People, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA Extension Writers Program. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Salon, Real Simple, and More, among others. A recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant, she can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.