- The Middle of Everything: Memoirs of Motherhood
Memoir is so often a hero's journey, even if the story involves a fall from grace or passage through a crucible. Memoirists frequently (and rightly) portray themselves as survivors, able to tell the tale from a perspective of a self repossessed, redeemed, or rehabilitated. Michelle Herman's deeply moving, searingly honest accounts of motherhood seem to oppose this tradition. With a clear and unflinching gaze, Herman examines a period of time in which, in spite of her best intentions, in spite of acting with pure and potent love, she "failed" her daughter. In this way her memoir—at least the last section of it—is more of a confession, a way of seeking understanding and empathy, and perhaps forgiveness.
Constructed as four long, conversational essays, The Middle of Everything interrogates the broadest of topics from the position of being in mitn derinnen, in the middle of everything, a term Herman borrows from her grandmother. Indeed, the essays here look backward in time, with detailed summaries of Herman's past friendships, loves, and relationships, and forward in time, offering observations of her daughter's experiences and discoveries, with glances toward what the future may bring. Herman's stance is the middle position of being a woman who is a daughter and has a daughter, as well as from the vantage of middle age. "I am learning, not easily," Herman writes, "the lesson of middle age: that everything is vaguer and less sure, less focused, less fine, more nuanced and complicated than that."
Herman's inspiration for self-examination comes from observing her daughter's development. Grace's discovery of new words and concepts and evolving relationships and questions about how the world works—best friends, first crushes, growing older—occasion Herman to reflect on her own girlhood, as well as to examine those particulars in her present life. This is one of the great pleasures of knowing children; your own past comes flooding back. Memories are restored or rediscovered, and for fleeting moments you can experience once again the wonderful innocence of childhood, the thrill [End Page 147] and sheer terror of becoming yourself. With this revisitation comes new understanding, a new tenderness for one's self and for the world.
Herman writes about friendship, love, aging, loss, marriage, and motherhood. In the hands of a lesser writer, the romantic notions Herman admits might seem sentimental, especially given the trend in memoir of distant self-narrative, story without reflection, sardonic commentary over thoughtful analysis (for example, Dave Eggers's "humorous" cancer memoir, and David Sedaris's "comically" dysfunctional family). Herman's unapologetically heartfelt and sincere voice is refreshing. Things matter. Life is not all a big joke or funny anecdote (though the book has its humorous moments).
Instead, Herman, with a seemingly effortless and natural essayistic voice, analyzes and examines and tests and tests again her own sense of what she knows (and we know)—that question Montaigne asked himself in the sixteenth century. Herman's style is intensely conversational, as if you were sharing a long cup of coffee and getting straight to the story of a life in full (almost exhausting) detail. Reading this book I was reminded of the movie My Dinner with Andre (one of my favorites), in which from one setting, a restaurant, the conversation carries the viewer near and far, the mind roams and the world and the human heart are explored without ever leaving the table. Herman's book is like that.
In the opening essay, "Superstar," Herman reveals that her daughter, Grace, then eight, has been asking about love, and has a "crush" on a boy. This new turn in Grace's life inspires Herman to wind through her own romantic history starting with schoolgirl crushes and on through to her marriage, contemplating what wisdom she can pass on to her daughter:
Here is what I believe about romantic love. I believe it makes you a better person. I believe that every time you fall in love, you become a little better...