No one will ever fault Mary Gordon for a lack of frankness or honesty. In the past, she has mined her rather difficult upbringing and family life for short stories, novels, essays and memoirs. Now, with Circling My Mother, she shares intimate details of her often difficult relationship with her mother, a woman afflicted with polio as a young girl and who was looked down upon by most of her relatives despite the fact that she for long periods of time provided the bulk of their financial support.
Mary Gordon lost her father at an early age and, although her relationship with her mother was an uneasy one at times, the two were close. Mary suffered through her mother’s often public displays of alcoholic self-pity and from her sharply critical way with words but, in the end, she is loyal to her mother’s memory and defends her actions as only a family member can do it. She accepts criticism of her parents from no one, almost refusing to acknowledge that her mother and father were often as wrong as those she criticizes for causing them grief during their lives.
Circling My Mother is Gordon’s attempt to reconcile the guilt that she seems to feel for “abandoning” her mother to a nursing facility in her last years, a facility to which she dreaded to go for the horrible one hour per week that she spent with a mother who no longer recognized her or had control of her mind or body. Her approach to her mother’s story paints a human face on a woman who was very much a product of her times but who still managed to achieve more than many women of her day. Anna spent a lifetime as a treasured legal secretary, raised a daughter on her own, supported her brothers and sisters financially until they could do it for themselves, was a staunch supporter of the more traditional Catholic church of the times, and had close friendships with several intellectual priests.
But she could also be a vindictive woman and she resented the way that she was sometimes treated because of her handicap and “place” in life. Mary Gordon seems to have inherited that resentment and she does not try to hide it. Instead, she describes several key relationships in her own life, relationships which helped to make her into the woman that she is today but which she abandoned with little thought or guilt when she no longer needed them. Some of the people cut from her life, such as her truly horrible Aunt Rita, admittedly deserved that treatment but that others who at one time meant so much to Mary Gordon were treated the same way is as surprising as her willingness to expose this weakness in herself to her readers.
Circling My Mother is not a sugarcoated, feel good memoir, the kind that often reads more as fiction than as fact. It is Mary Gordon’s honest assessment of her mother’s life and how she related to that life. It is the work of a woman not afraid to expose her own weaknesses as part of her writer’s craft and, although it is the kind of book that often makes the reader uncomfortable, it should be read especially by those who find themselves caring for elderly parents of their own.