I took a lit course in college that focused on the concept of “motherlines,” which my professor defined as the influence of the mother/daughter relationship integral to the female protagonist in African-American-woman-written fiction, and how that work uses history as a device to better understand and transform their stories’ present. I can’t help but think that Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, despite being a memoir written by a white woman, uses similar literary muscle to accomplish the same goals.
Authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Paule Marshall wrote novels that had their protagonists look backwards as a way of finding the strength and resolve necessary for their journey forwards. Gornick accomplishes something similar in Fierce Attachments. She looks back, exploring relationships with her mother and the motherlike figures in her life, as a means to better and more fully understand herself and, essentially, womanhood.
Published in 1987, the author, at times in a somewhat excruciating manner, plops the reader into the love-hate relationship she shares with her mother, “Ma,” over the course of her life. The intensity of the mother-daughter relationship feels, in Gornick’s deft prose, not unlike the raw sensitivity of a hangnail waiting to be clipped. You want to ignore it, probably should ignore it, but are drawn to it, unable to stop the exploration despite the pain and irritation.
Born to an immigrant Jewish family living in a small apartment in the Bronx, Gornick graduated from City College in 1957 before getting an MA and moving from publishing into journalism. Her education, while encouraged by her mother, proved to be a formidable wedge between the two women:
What drove her [Ma], and divided us, was me thinking. She hadn’t understood that going to school meant I would start thinking coherently and out loud. She was taken by violent surprise. My sentences got longer within a month of those first classes. Longer, more complicated, formed by words whose meaning she did not always know.
“Speak English!,” Ma would demand, frustrated at the widening gap between them, the knowledge that what she wanted for herself, but never got, what she still wanted for her daughter, would inevitably heighten the tension between them, increasing their divide.
In 1969, Gornick was hired by the Village Voice and assigned to cover the emerging feminist movement. The author’s awareness of discrimination based on sex, class, and race are present throughout the book, which jumps among decades. New York in the 1940s through 1980s figures prominently in the storytelling, setting the scene for richly drawn characters.
While the city location helps us understand mother and daughter—the loud, clotheslined alleys of the Bronx juxtaposed with quiet walks to concerts in Manhattan—the relationships the author has with her neighbors and lovers are used to help the reader better understand the complicated and messy relationships between women living in close proximity to one another. By exploring her intimacies with others, Gornick reveals difficult truths about her mother and, ultimately, herself.
Weaving dialogue and exposition is a tool Gornick uses deftly in the exploration of her relationships. There is a brash, no-nonsense quality she captures, a thread connecting memories from her past with revelations about her present. Recounting an outing with her former childhood neighbor turned lover, Davey Levinson, Gornick lays out his struggle with the futility of life:
Davey had become moody. “I would say that I’ve had an unhappy life,” he said. “Not only because of what my life has actually been, but because of what life is. I’m disappointed. Not only because I don’t have the creative powers I want. I’m disappointed because the trees don’t talk to me, or the grass or the flowers. I’m disappointed because the flies mistake me for a piece of horseshit.”
His misery on the page is palpable. Ma, grappling with her advancing age and mortality, talks with Vivian over coffee one evening as they look through old family photographs. There is misery for her, too, a reckoning with what life should be, but is not. This struggle is universal in Fierce Attachments.
“A lifetime gone by,” she says quietly. We sit together then, silent, not embroiled with each other, two women only staring into the obscurity of all that lost life. My mother looks neither young nor old, only deeply absorbed by the terribleness of what she is seeing. I do not know how I look to her.
Gornick is unsparing about not having gotten what she needed from her mother, in childhood or adulthood. Over and over, she shares the inherent trauma of being raised by such an emotionally unstable woman. Depression, grief, insecurity, disapproval—pick your poison. Worse is the magnetic pull her mother has on her despite the emotional chaos she creates. Gornick paints a picture of herself as incapable of loosening the choke hold her mother’s misery has on her. She is an addict and her mother is the drug. Gornick’s motherlines, like her attachments, are fierce.
This push-pull scenario is obvious in the author’s relationship with the next-door neighbor, Nettie, who serves as a lens through which young Vivian can see a different way of being a woman in the world. Nettie is exotic in her Gentile-ness, vulnerable after being widowed, and in tune with her beauty and sexuality in a way that Ma is not.
On the surface, the two women, Nettie and Ma, could not be more different, yet they craft a symbiotic relationship that benefits them both, at least for a time; “unexpected widowhood made Nettie safely pathetic and safely other.” Nettie relies on Ma for help raising her son, born after her husband was killed in a barroom brawl, and Ma relies on Nettie to help her feel useful, protective, magnanimous.
All of that shifts when the author’s father dies unexpectedly when she is thirteen. Ma joins Nettie in widowhood and wears her grief like a hair shirt for the entirety of the author’s teen years. These two maternal figures and their grief surround Gornick with the uncertainty and expectations of womanhood. They influence her sense of what it means to be a woman and to want autonomy, love, satisfaction, and purpose in the world, but most importantly, they confirm for her how elusive those things can be.
Fierce Attachments is not for the faint of heart. It is a brash exploration of a mother-daughter relationship influenced by sexism, classism, destructive male-female relationships, and life as a Jewish immigrant in New York City. But it is also searingly honest, often tender, and full of life, wonder, and humanity. Gornick has crafted a lasting and meaningful portrait of a twentieth century working-class feminist and intellectual that holds up completely in this now-twenty-first-century world. She exposes motherlines—those we bring with us consciously and unconsciously from the past, that shape our most essential being in the present—to a masterful, powerful effect.