Last fall, I read Mordicai Gerstein’s The Man Who Walked Between the Towers to my sons, ages 3 and 5. The picture book, a true story of French acrobat Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center in the 1970s, opens and ends with loss: “Once there were two towers side by side. They were each a quarter of a mile high; one thousand three hundred and forty feet. The tallest buildings in New York City.” My oldest son’s question was inevitable: “Where did the towers go, Mama?” I tried my best to answer, with some detail but not too much, knowing the answer seemed outlandish, impossible: “Some men who were full of hate flew airplanes into the towers and destroyed them.”
Kate Moses and Camille Peri’s collection of essays, Because I Said So, is written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq. The book’s tone differs dramatically from that of their first collection, Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood. The earlier book, published in 1999 and comprised in part of essays from Salon magazine’s department with the same name, is lighter — literally and figuratively. Yes, it has serious pieces, but they are punctuated by many whimsical and outright funny essays, most notably the over-the-top writings generated by the “Drama Queen for a Day” contest, which produced such subtitles as “How I Beat a Bull with my Three-Speed Blender.”
Because I Said So is dedicated to the “children who have lost parents to war or terrorism since the turn of the new century.” The introduction states that “all of us seem to be living in the shadow of something lost, an innocence shaped like two towers” (xvi). With one notable exception, the essays themselves do not address 9/11 and its repercussions directly. But loss of innocence is the often unspoken theme that links these varied essays together.
This loss takes the form of identity struggles (for children and their mothers), cancer, divorce, separation anxiety, autism, racism, single motherhood, step-parents, religious dissent, death, miscarriages, adolescence, having a nanny, being a nanny, and culture shock. The stakes are serious. Denise Minor’s “There’s No Being Sad Here” brings us inside the world of autism, where “by night, I [Max’s mother] am a guerilla fighter. I am a thief in fatigues with a face painted green. It is my secret battle whose only beneficiary is me. I silently steal from autism what I believe is rightfully mine — the moments, the feelings, the experiences that would have been part of my life if this neurological disorder had not taken hold of my son’s brain” (117). Andrea Gray’s “Survivor” chronicles a mother’s attempts to rebuild her life after her business and her dreams collapse. In “Natural Mother,” Lisa Teasley describes the wearying constrictions of the racism she faces as the black mother of a bi-racial baby. Like many of the other selections, these pieces explore the added complexity of life with children.
Deserving special notice is Mariane Pearl’s “On Giving Hope,” an essay about fathers as well as mothers, about suicide and terrorism, secretiveness and openness, fear and hope. Pearl’s piece, which looks back to her father and forward to her son, represents a triumph of will, and the value of writing and remembering. Pearl may be most well known as the wife of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and executed in January 2002 while investigating terrorist activities in Pakistan; here her husband’s story nests within her own. After Daniel Pearl’s beheading — who can forget the photos that circled the globe? — she writes down her beliefs:
They want to silence me; therefore I will speak out.
They want to kill joy in me; therefore I will laugh.
They want to paralyze me; therefore I will take action.
They want war; therefore I will fight for peace (75).
Mariane Pearl stares hard at the world’s ugliness, but does not give in to it. Her essay should be required reading for all Americans.
Pearl’s essay is one of many well-composed contributions in this volume. I appreciate the literary quality of Because I Said So: its literary allusions, its attention to language, and its awareness of the solace of art. “The Scarlet Letter Z,” by Asra Q. Nomani, which begins the collection, rewrites an American literary tradition that focuses on the exclusion and stigmatizing of women. Alluding to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of Hester Prynne, who is forced to wear a scarlet “A” as the sign of her adultery, Nomani shifts the scene from Puritan America to a present-day mosque where she is accused of disrupting the community by unashamedly having a child out of wedlock. Hester Prynne’s strength provides solace; Nomani herself refuses to be marked by the letter Z — for zina or illegal sex — and instead celebrates her baby, writes articles, and stands tall.
Margaret Talbot’s cultural criticism, “Material Girls,” refers to the memorable heroines of children’s literature, including Little Women’s Jo and A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg. As always, Talbot’s writing is clear, detailed, and necessary, in this case incorporating her analysis of the expensive fad that is the American Girl doll with her own family experiences. Towards the end of her critique, she halts and reflects: “Sometimes at night I lie awake and think about how fast time goes with children. For years adults said this to you and you never knew what it meant. And then you had children and the baby time was molasses slow and then it seemed to go faster and faster, and you could imagine far too clearly all the things your children, who are so sweet and full of blooming affection now, wouldn’t want to do in just a few years time — like hug you in public” (35). Perfectly stated.
Mary Roach’s “Two Heads are Better than Three” humorously focuses on the term “blended families”: “I love the ridiculous optimism of it. It suggests an outcome that is smooth and delightful and effortless to attain. ‘I’ll be the mango!’ ‘I’ll be bananas!’ ‘Dad, you push Frappe!'” (19). (Though, as a note to the editors, I would prefer a moratorium on the word “issues” to mean problems or difficulties.)
Kate Moses’s “Mother of the World,” which closes the volume, presents the author’s journey to Cairo on a quest to view Fayum portraits of a mother and child at the Egyptian museum, after her own miscarriage. The journey proves restorative; James Joyce’s “The Dead” echoes in the final words, but the emphasis is on life: “I turned around to gather all of my gifts in their wrappings and stood, face to face now, with the mirror. I saw her there, her hair long and loose, the sun shining down on it, and all the people behind, drinking their tea, saying their hellos and good-byes, living and dying” (363). Moses’s themes are central to the collection’s intent: a cross-cultural reaching out, but more significantly, loss that is mitigated by discovery.
There is no doubt about it: while the tone of many of these essays is elegiac, the overall effect is (let’s whisper it) . . . inspirational. Inspiration has a bit of bad rap, I think — especially when associated with writing for women. These days, it connotes teary personal stories on Oprah — cathartic tidbits to digest for an hour and then forget. But I was amazed by the heroism and truth-telling of these writers and, in the end, inspired by the ways they rebuilt their businesses, relationships, psyches, and lives. This inspiration is not only for mothers.
Because I Said So certainly deserves a wider audience than its misleading title might entice. The editors claim that they “chose to title this book from a position of maternal strength. Because I Said So — the very words conjure images of fierce mothers in aprons, hands planted on their hips, imposing boundaries that will not be breached” (xix). However, the phrase, though no doubt useful at times, and a refreshing antidote to today’s often over-indulgent parenting styles, does not capture the essence of the collection — its embrace of refashioned lives rather than tradition and an appeal that goes beyond mothers. Mothers Who Think, by contrast, seemed to me, well . . . for mothers. I thought, for example, about sharing the humor of the quiz found in “How Many Working Fathers Does it Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?” with my husband, but then decided not to. That was insider humor, essays to reassure rather than inspire. At Salon, “Mothers Who Think” has become “Families Who Think: A place for intelligent discussion of parenthood, family issues, and the gritty realities of the domestic front.” Mothers still do most of the thinking about family issues, but everyone should be reading about them. Because I Said So would be a good place to start.
Gerstein’s tribute to a man and two towers ends with “Now the towers are gone. But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there. And part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.” In 2004, my husband and I made our pilgrimage to the empty space in lower Manhattan. For many months, I have found it difficult to face the news that comes from the both the United States and Iraq. On the living-room floor, my sons build “New York towers” from Lego. They stack their colored cups in the bath and make “New York towers” there, too. The mothers I know and the ones in Because I Said So walk that cable: risking, daring, falling, and, impossibly, getting back up again.