November
7th 2013
Competitve motherhood and envy meet the oppression olympics.

Posted under: art, bad language, book reviews, class, Gender, publication, unhappy endings, weirdness, women's history

Just go read Cristina Nehring’s review of Rachel Adams’s Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery (Yale University Press, 2013). I don’t want to exerpt any of it, it’s just so unbelieveably mean. So go ahead–I’ll wait.

I haven’t read the book, but it strikes me as completely appropriate (insofar as I can tell through this rather nasty review) that Adams writes about her own experiences of parenting a child with Down syndrome, as the subtitle suggests. As one commenter at the Chronicle notes: “I admire Adams’s restraint in focusing on herself. I am alarmed when parents seem to think that all aspects of a child’s growing up are theirs to tell. Adams has told a story about herself and is clearly careful to draw boundaries between her story and her son’s story, as any thoughtful writer would do.”

Word. Too many parents rush in to tell their children’s stories, making them props in their books or characters in blog posts.

I also think it’s an interesting and rather brave choice for a woman memoirist not to make herself the virtuous heroine of her own story. (I’ll tell you right now: I don’t think I could do it.) I’ve been thinking a lot about this since reading Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007). A few of my graduate students really did not appreciate this book at all, and I wonder if it’s because they didn’t like the Saidiya Hartman that the writer Hartman had crafted. In a word, it’s not a flattering portrait–she frequently makes herself look cowardly, or foolish, or obnoxious. While this intrigued me as a reader and as a woman writer (as well as a fellow sometimes-coward, sometimes-fool, and frequently obnoxious person), it really put off some of my students, who accused her of narcissism (as Nehring accuses Adams in this review.)

It’s almost as though people don’t understand that a memoir is a literary creation, and that the version of the author in the text is not the author herself but rather an invention of the author. I think this goes double for women writers, and maybe quadruple for mothers who write about their experiences of motherhood. Imagine that!

All I know is that even if I felt exactly the way Nehring felt about Adams’s book about any memoir I were asked to review, I’d decline to review it before I’d publish a review like that. Maybe that’s related to my (narcissistic?) resistance to make an unflattering self-portrait? Maybe Nehring is just doing what Hartman did in Lose Your Mother, i.e. craft an obnoxious personality for her character as “book reviewer?” Maybe we women would all be better writers if we dropped our “good girl” vanity?

(Is this all too meta? Is that the only way we can write about this fracas without picking a side and digging in?)

25 Comments »

25 Responses to “Competitve motherhood and envy meet the oppression olympics.”

  1. Nicoleandmaggie on 07 Nov 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    Huh, yes, the reviewer does seem to be writing her own memoir in there. And yes, she seems to be attacking the character of the narrator as a person rather than the book on its own merits. It wouldn’t take so long to say that she doesn’t find the main character to be sympathetic, but I guess you can’t get an entire review from that.

    The comments on the article from others who have read the book are quite interesting and well-written, however, and provide a much broader analysis of its merits.

  2. Janice on 07 Nov 2013 at 3:03 pm #

    I’m amused that the reviewer’s biography prominently features a 24-page ebook essay you can get for the low, low price of $2.99 via Amazon. And that essay will, presumably, give you the right view of the transformative power that mothering a child with disabilities should have upon your life.

    I like to think that my own experience as a mother to a special-needs child (almost adult now!) has made me more sympathetic to others. I’m not ready to drop my “good girl” values because I think they are important and genuine. Maybe I won’t get to play with the “big boys” who pride themselves on vituperative nastiness but I don’t miss that at all.

  3. Susan on 07 Nov 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    Gee, it appears the Nehring doesn’t like Adams. I don’t know whether I want to read the book or not, alas…

  4. Perpetua on 08 Nov 2013 at 6:58 am #

    The real gem of the review for me is the line where she berates the author for having a live-in nurse and bottle feeding her baby. For crying out loud! Are there really people who wouldn’t have live in help with a baby around if they could afford it? I don’t believe it. (And I love love love babies – and am aware that I’m in a minority on this. Who in their right mind turns down help?)

    But of course the larger issue of ‘likeability’ plagues all women – writers, characters, professors, etc. It’s not enough to have an experience; in order to justify speaking about your life, you have to make sure you’re performing it in the right way. Sigh.

    I don’t want to be transformed by motherhood. I want to be myself.

  5. Historiann on 08 Nov 2013 at 7:39 am #

    Janice–I was thinking of you esp. as I read that review. Thanks for weighing in on this one.

    I agree with Nicoleandmaggie that (for once) the comments at the Chronicle are for the most part very thoughtful and humane. I read several of them yesterday–I should check in on the conversation today.

    I like what Perpetua said: I don’t want to be transformed by motherhood. I want to be myself. This may be at the core of Nehring’s review–that Adams wasn’t sufficiently “transformed,” or transformed in the correct fashion. Adams remains too much herself for Nehring’s taste.

    Ugh. Like life isn’t already hard enough for people raising children with physical and intellectual disabilities.

  6. truffula on 08 Nov 2013 at 8:37 am #

    Mean is exactly the right descriptor for that review.

    It may be that what makes Adams’ book uncomfortable for a reader like Nehring is that it is honest about motherhood (we perhaps don’t all really want to be transformed by it; we don’t all really want to make selfless decisions all the time) in ways that she would rather not examine.

  7. Historiann on 08 Nov 2013 at 8:44 am #

    Totally. If all mothers were honest about motherhood, the world would come to a screeching halt. I, for one, am eager to read this book if only for its heretical stance on motherhood!

    I’ve ordered a copy for my university’s library and will be eager to read Adams’s book as soon as it arrives. So Nehring’s review will have had (at least in my case) the exact opposite effect she may have aimed for.

    In the comments thread at the Chronicle, other commenters have pointed out that Nehring also wrote a nasty review of Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, which sounds like a really sensitive and thorough exploration of parenting children who are very different from the parents (criminals, children conceived in rape, disabled children, etc.) Fratguy has been reading it all year long (it was his Xmas gift from me last year) and enjoying it. I must go look up Nehring’s takedown and show it to him.

  8. truffula on 08 Nov 2013 at 8:54 am #

    Okay, so I just googled Nehring. There may be no actual purpose for the review other than maintaining her brand identity.

  9. Historiann on 08 Nov 2013 at 8:59 am #

    Here’s Nehring’s commentary on Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree. It’s not so much a review as an opportunity for her to write about her experiences raising a DS child. Fair enough–but to accuse Adams of narcissism seems pretty bold! Nehring has had a particular experience of raising her daughter, and it seems like she’s very defensive if every memoir by parents of disabled or ill children don’t ratify her viewpoint.

    As she does in the review of Raising Henry, she faults Solomon for his own feelings as a parent. She also refers to him dismissively as “the arty gay son of pharmaceutical millionaires.” She’s clearly envious of people she perceives as more materially comfortable.

  10. Historiann on 08 Nov 2013 at 9:02 am #

    And truffula, yes on the brand identity thing.

    I’ll give her this: she’s scrappy and it sounds like she has a hard life. But making alliances rather than burning bridges seems like a better life strategy, especially as the single parent of a DS child.

  11. LadyProf on 08 Nov 2013 at 9:09 am #

    We may have an instance of Just Jellus–a rare condition but it does sometimes explain pissy commentary. Adams has plenty of money and a good job; her son’s disability is not too severe; the book found a high-end publisher and has received positive attention.

    It’s a shame that competitive motherhood is so acceptable in US discourse. I cannot imagine Chronicle publishing a male reviewer’s attack on a memoir by a man so riddled with low-blow personal rhetoric like Nehring’s. Hard to imagine any reviewer even wanting to go there. No male memoirist would be criticized for having written his book about himself rather than one of his family members.

  12. Nicoleandmaggie on 08 Nov 2013 at 10:48 am #

    Definitely shame on The Chronicle for posting that review as written. I really appreciated the comment from a book reviews editor in the comments on what the editor should have done when presented with such a review. (Pointing out that there’s no problem with having a negative book review, but it still has to be a book review!)

    I agree with LadyProf 100% that this is part of the patriarchy spreading and supporting the harmful narrative of competitive motherhood. The Chronicle should be better than that. Of course, maybe they’re trying to cater to the lowest common denominator that’s in their forums. Or maybe they’re really hurting for clicks and there’s nothing like mommy wars to bring in the readers. Still, shame on them. I hope NPR never feels like it has to stoop to this kind of sensationalism.

  13. Kathleen on 08 Nov 2013 at 11:01 am #

    what everybody else has said — the real shame here belongs to the _Chronicle_ for publishing a piece of “ooooooh cat fight!” Daily Fail style clickbait.

  14. wini on 08 Nov 2013 at 11:11 am #

    I have been keeping track of Cristina Nehring since 2001, when she published “The Higher Yearning; Bringing eros back to academe.” You can Google it and get the full text. For some reason, the turn she’s made since her daughter’s birth has not surprised me!

    I would love to read what disable children think of their parents’ memoirs.

  15. Historiann on 08 Nov 2013 at 11:34 am #

    EEeeewwwww! Thanks for the warning, wini!

  16. Matt_L on 08 Nov 2013 at 11:43 am #

    Wow. That is unspeakably mean. I could write something like that and stuff it in the desk drawer as long as I knew it would never see the light of day. Or I could spare myself the effort and not review it at all. Do unto others as you would have done unto you.

  17. Nicoleandmaggie on 08 Nov 2013 at 12:13 pm #

    Oh yuck, that essay on Eros in the classroom is disgusting (also shows no understanding that when there is a power differential relations are not truly consensual, and that sexual harassment does not have to be sex for grades). Why on earth did I look? Thanks a LOT, wini.

  18. Historiann on 08 Nov 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    I know! BRAIN BLEACH, STAT!

  19. link love | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured on 09 Nov 2013 at 1:18 am #

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  20. Comradde PhysioProffe on 09 Nov 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Wow, that sure was fucken mean! I agree with the interpretation that she is pretty much pissed off that the book author has had an easier more-privileged time of it than her.

  21. Janice on 09 Nov 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    Thanks to the internet, we can learn a lot more about people than we ever, ever, EVER wanted to know. *reaches for the brain bleach*

    Motherhood is such a tetchy subject – whether it’s mothers slagging other mothers or a broader social turn upon certain behaviours in mothering. We seem to be infinitely capable of getting riled up and issuing snarky judgments on this topic. It’s definitely not the same for parenting as a gender-neutral treatment, although parents of both genders do come in for a fair bit of judgment – but mothering is a guaranteed hot-button issue that only gets more attention with “provocative” reviews such as this one.

  22. Western Dave on 11 Nov 2013 at 8:12 am #

    I’m pretty sure my friend Mina would not have killed herself and her child if she’d had live-in help with her DS kid. You want to use the review to argue for better access to health care and support for all DS families, great. But this is just vile. Christina Nehring should go crawl back under whatever rock she crawled out from.

  23. Wonk the Vote on 13 Nov 2013 at 3:19 am #

    I started reading Raising Henry on google books preview thanks to that ridiculous review–it’s held my interest so far. Will be downloading from amazon.

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