Reviewed by Natania Rosenfeld
218 pp Cynren Press
Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis is the funniest sad book I’ve read in some time. Considering how dire the story is, that the telling can be so funny is a tribute to the author’s capacity for eschewing self-pity, her recognition that, in fact, there’s abuse far worse than what she experienced. (Certain reader reviews on Goodreads called the book “dark” and “too depressing to read.” Obviously the author’s wit went over their heads.) It helps, perhaps, to have a number of decades under your belt; the experiences of then no longer directly affect you now, and most of your antagonists are no longer living. And, like all middle-aged people, you can see the people who loomed large for years (a shocking number of years in this case, well into adulthood) in their true size. Which, often enough, is smaller than you are now. For you are not, nor have you ever been, as petty as they were.
The book has a celebrity introduction by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, which is either a service or a hindrance to Knox in terms of readership. The writer was known for years as a Freud debunker and was one of the subjects of Janet Malcolm’s classic portrait of obsessives, In the Freud Archives. Masson has had a second literary life writing sympathetically about the emotional lives of animals. This disposes me kindly toward him, but his Introduction here has him back under his old hat. As a feminist and skeptic, I am all for the debunking of the Seduction Theory (whereby women patients who said they’d been molested by fathers and father figures supposedly fantasized these molestations), and I greatly appreciate that a male psychoanalyst would have taken it on—but I am also, in principle, for psychoanalysis.
Principle, of course, is the rub. Masson’s imprimatur on Knox’s smart and delightful book about one abusive psychoanalyst—and there have been others, certainly; see for instance the predatory family analyst in Laurie Stone’s offbeat, clever book of linked stories My Life as an Animal—seems to enlist Divorcing Mom’s author in the psychoanalysis wars. But the fact that some practitioners are and have been unscrupulous, that they have so badly either flouted the ethics of the doctor-patient relationship, or applied Freud’s theories with an appalling literalness that is tantamount to abuse, still does not damn the profession. The principles of psychoanalysis, if understood and internalized, are ethical.
At any rate, reader, whatever your attitude toward Masson or Freud, don’t stop at the doorway. After his Introduction and Knox’s Prologue is a series of twenty-three pithy little chapters with snappy titles accompanied by epigraphs. I find this piling on just a bit excessive, and would sometimes prefer the chapter titles alone, in a normal font rather than a perky “cursive” one, and I would like the chapter titles a little less tongue-in-cheek than, say, “marriage material” or “a whale of a gift.” Here, too, though, what goes before is a somewhat deceptive prelude to the content and especially the style of the book, which steers admirably clear of cliché. The opening words of the Prologue, for instance—“She wanted me slaughtered”— would be more arresting not preceded by the joke, “Why did the narcissist cross the road? She thought it was a boundary.” The “she” in question is the author’s nightmare mother, about whom we will learn in entertaining and hair-raising detail.
From that memorable line follows the story of a dreadful but weirdly compelling train wreck of a family living on the Upper West Side of New York City: alcoholic, boorish but well-read father (“Dad smelled of Vitalis and gin; he had lots of hair on his chest and legs”), and narcissistic, pretentious, self-sabotaging, artistic mother; both parents sexually inappropriate and impossibly self-absorbed. And there is a brother, who appears from time to time smoking pot, being surly, and going to hell, or the loony bin, in a hand basket. The fact that anyone could escape such a family alive, not to mention with her wit(s) intact, is remarkable even without the inept yet sinister Dr. Sternbach, to whom the troubled yet intellectually sophisticated fourteen-year old Knox is sent: “I walked home in a dream from my very first session,” she writes. “A wise old man who knew everything wanted to listen to me. (. . .) For the first time in my life, I wasn’t listening for a scream or a yell from one of my parents, or waiting to hear a blow fall.” “Sternbach,” whether it’s his real name or not, is rather perfect, evoking on the one hand, the “stern back” he turns to young Melissa’s suffering, on the other, the actual meaning of the German words: “star brook,” a poetic, even magical, and comforting image. If a psyche is a brook with stars in it, then it would seem a happy one, but neither Knox’s nor the doctor’s were that shimmering thing. A bad situation is made far worse, and for years on end.
Sternbach is charming, manipulative, and a narcissist of grand proportions—an older, more educated and experienced version of Knox’s mother. He is given to remarks during sessions such as “The difference between French kissing and sex is the difference between fine, thick whipped cream, the kind you have in Vienna on top of a Sacher torte, and that horrible white powder Americans put in their coffee.” He has Viennese, Jewish, upper-middle class cachet; as a refugee he might be expected to possess wisdom and empathy derived from his own suffering and displacement. Why wouldn’t a clever girl from the Upper West Side fall for such a therapist in the early 1970s, especially if he listened to and praised her? In fact, he alternated between praise and excoriation, and his exhortations to Knox that she cherish, believe, respect, and in effect coddle her impossible mother occupied much of their discussions over an astounding number of years:
Whatever Mom did, she meant well, Sternbach insisted. I should not snap at her or complain to her, he said. She loved me. My problem lay in not understanding how giving she was.
Fairly early on, Stern-back enjoins the poor adolescent Melissa to bring her mother along to the next session. When she responds with silent dubiousness, he berates her: “’You think you are so great! So exceptional. But really, you are average. Just ordinary. Nothing exceptional at all. A girl within the range of a normal IQ, that’s all.’” With therapists like this, who needs parents?
Sternbach aside, the star of the book is Knox herself. And that is despite vivid depictions of the other figures in her life, in which the author deftly captures gestures, tones of voice, postures, sartorial peculiarities, and eccentricities of enunciation and diction. Aunt Gwen, for instance, from whom the almost-adult Melissa gradually learns some disturbing family secrets, has a habit of ending sentences with an irritating “hmmpf?” the reader can hear. And here is Mom on arrival at Sternbach’s office:
Dr. Sternbach walked into the room, and Mom whirled around, knocking the angel [statue] slightly so that it swayed behind her. She held her arms out to Dr. Sternbach as if greeting a long-lost friend. Her pink tam slipped sideways, falling off her head. She left the hat on the floor as she opened her arms wider, rearing back with apparent anticipation, and called “What ho? What ho?” . . . I cringed with embarrassment, telling myself that she meant well.
Before Dr. Sternbach had got past the first syllable in “hello,” my mother was hugging him. . . . He seemed genuinely to enjoy her company.
This is rich writing, from the details of décor and clothing, to the suggestion that everything is unbalanced if not actually in the process of collapse. The mother’s dancerly movements are undercut by her clumsiness, her theatricality is extreme and cliché-ridden, and, in a suggestion of sexual overflow, she “rears back” like a horse while opening her arms ever wider–and the fact that the good shrink is charmed by this mad performance is all wrong. But the poor adolescent girl is outnumbered, and the reader cringes along with her, eagerly anticipating her liberation from these two maniacs, a liberation clearly signified from the start of the book by her lucid and keen depiction of the struggle.
What’s so engaging and satisfying about Knox as author and character is that she manages both to analyze her experiences from a wry adult perspective and to convey her young self as, despite terrible confusion and doubt, a lot smarter than anyone else in her life. The girl-Melissa was painfully precocious, and the adult writer conveys that precocity primarily through dialogue and by recapturing her adolescent thoughts, without mentioning it outright or preening herself. To see that weird maturity at work is one of the pleasures of reading this book. When Sternbach encourages Melissa to voice her responses and reactions to others in group therapy, she comes right out:
I told Erik he looked forbidding, and I told two other members that they sounded as though they came from Queens—the worst thing I could think of to say. I told Hannah that she seemed like she was sorry for herself. I told another man that he ought to sit up straight—more women would probably be interested in him. Then I fell silent, horrified by my outburst. I hadn’t said one nice thing about anyone, and I couldn’t think of one good thing to say about myself.
Poor, lovable teenage snob! Knox is now a happy and humbled middle-aged woman of marvelous, frank essays (many of which you can find on her website) and a truly fine writer who lives in Germany with her Austrian husband—far away from scenes of early toxicity. In her last full chapter, Knox tells us
I’m now a lapsed patient—more than twenty years clean and sober, able to hold conversations with members of the Faith without imbibing [sic] in the practice myself. Sternbach’s Holy Article of Faith, my mother’s greatness, is the one I’ve desecrated, divorcing her for my sake as well as my family’s.
By “my family” she means the one she has created abroad, for her now ninety-six year old mother long ago forfeited the right to be protected. And even Knox’s extended family, when she was in her twenties and trying to understand abuse on her mother’s side, turned treacherous—not only did she learn that a grandfather and a great uncle had been sexually abusive, but the cousin with whom she discovered and shared this information suddenly turned against her. All of this nastiness makes for a vivid cast of characters—after all, unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.
Come to think of it, though, lately I’ve begun to doubt that famous observation, made well before the era of the bare-all memoir. For this reason, I’m grateful to Knox for giving just enough vivid characterization and description of past outrages without dwelling excessively on the dirty, mean, repressed homosexual, incestuous stuff in the family background. We know those stories almost too well by now. What is most compelling is to see how a person survives, makes herself gradually impervious to emotional blackmail, and creates a new sense of self and a happy life. I want to know more about this process, and about who Knox is now, and I hope for a next book in the near future.
Natania Rosenfeld recently had an essay in ACM. She’s published a poetry collection, Wild Domestic (Sheep Meadow Press, 2015), and a critical book, Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf (Princeton, 2000). An e-chapbook, She and I, appeared in May 2018 from Essay Press. Her essays, poems and fiction have appeared in journals including APR, Raritan, Gettysburg Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Southwest Review, and four essays have been listed as “Notable” in Best American Essays collections. She recently retired from twenty years’ teaching in the Knox College English Department, in order to focus on writing, living, and resistance. She was recently named one of thirty “Writers to Watch” by the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago, where she has lived since 2018.