by Laura Davis
Girl Friday Books, 2021; 368 pp., $16.51Buy Book
It took Laura Davis eleven years to write her memoir, The Burning Light of Two Stars. She tried repeatedly to quit. But she couldn’t turn away from a project that embodied so much of her vital history. So much of her own humanity, her light.
Starlight, that is.
You’ve likely heard how we’re all made of stardust—a lovely sentiment. But it’s more than metaphor: it’s science. Those huge celestial bodies that transfix our imaginations are made of hydrogen and helium, producing light and heat from nuclear fusion at their cores, where helium atoms also combine with other helium atoms to form the carbon that comprises all life forms—you, me, and everything, including all future stars, which themselves are born of material from ancestral stars long gone.
This undergirding of cosmic truth lends depth and complexity to the title and substance of Davis’s memoir, which recounts the author’s complicated and fiery relationship with her mother, Temme. The memoir details periods of molten conflict and an eventual long, excruciating estrangement after Davis recovers memories of early childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her maternal grandfather. Temme insists her father could never have molested Davis, who, crushed, nevertheless perseveres with her own healing and goes on, with co-author and poet Ellen Bass, to write the “bible” on childhood sexual abuse, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. A groundbreaking and necessarily disruptive book, The Courage to Heal became, almost instantly upon its 1988 publication, seismically influential in helping more than a million women worldwide (myself included) work through the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.
Countless women who packed themselves into auditoriums throughout the 1990s felt connected to Davis as she crisscrossed the nation promoting and speaking about The Courage to Heal. Temme, meanwhile, lamented the success of Davis’s book as well as the publicity it garnered. Their conflict smoldered and flamed as months turned into years with little to no contact between them aside from meticulously wrought letters. Once they struck a fragile truce, their shaky relationship survived in part thanks to the 3,000 miles that separated them, with Laura in California and Temme in New Jersey.
Then, all at once, while stirring homemade tomato sauce, Davis learns that her mother— 80 years old and losing her memory—is moving to Santa Cruz to “entrust her daughter with the rest of her life”: “It’s true … in a moment of generosity, I had invited Mom to move out to California “when she got old.” We’d talked about it once or twice, but I never thought she’d actually take me up on it. It had been ten years [since I made the offer].”
Davis organizes her memoir with an effectively complex structure composed of three distinct chapter types. The main narrative of Temme’s slow decline and eventual death receives the most attention, and these chapters are headed with numeric time stamps that function like an hourglass, indicating the number of days remaining in Temme’s life. A second chapter type explores Davis’s past—primarily through the lens of her relationship with Temme, using date-and-place subtitles to anchor the reader through shifting chronology. The final and least frequent chapter type offers an ongoing, segmented epilogue, flashing forward to the period following Temme’s death. Always labeled “After Mom’s Death,” these interjections pull largely from letters Davis unearthed while mourning her mother and writing the memoir. Despite the complicated structure, the book’s main narrative is chronological and the story as a whole is easy to follow. Davis begins at the very beginning with a preface titled “Spark,” in which she details her premature birth (marred by her twin sister’s stillbirth):
When I think back now, here’s how I imagine it:
A newborn, tiny, weak, and in pain. My twin had died, and I could have followed her. Perhaps part of me wanted to just let go and disappear. But then I felt her—Temme Davis, the woman standing outside my clear glass box. Pulling me to her. Willing me to live. My baby, oh my baby, let me hold you in my arms.
Beaming her life force through those hard walls. Stay with me, darling. Please be my baby. She pulled me into her blazing broken heart and claimed me as her daughter. Stay with me, she said. Whatever you do, don’t ever leave.
And so, I said yes to life. Yes, to my mother.
I had no idea just now much of a challenge that was going to be.
But Temme is hardly cast as a villain. To the contrary, she reads as an enthralling and enjoyable character: headstrong, vain, obnoxious, flirtatious, gregarious, hot-tempered, colorful, and very, very funny with her lipstick and rouge, her indefatigable charm. I found her continually delightful, always entertaining, and almost always sympathetic, even when she infuriated me. This, I find extraordinary and a true testament to Davis’s writing, especially since Davis has blogged about how hard she worked to portray Temme’s full, contradictory humanity. In contrast, Davis purposefully, in light of privacy concerns, keeps her wife and children mostly out of view, leaving them as relatively flat characters. By demonstrating such deft control of her character development, Davis offers useful examples of how to navigate memoir’s often treacherous familial and artistic waters. Further commendable is Davis’s treatment of memory—particularly the fallibility of her own. Given the central conflict of Temme’s persistent denial of Davis’s recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, Davis’s transparency about her own biases amplifies her credibility rather than diluting it. In one potent scene, Davis shared her notes from a disastrous therapy session with Temme during the height of their estrangement. Davis’s story about that session had always been that, after a heartfelt plea to be heard and believed by her mother, Temme had said, “It’s like the Laurie I love so much and want to comfort is sitting right there. And there’s this other horrible monster next to her, making these accusations about my father.” But Davis discovers after Temme’s death, in re-reading her own notes, that she has erased from memory several other things Temme had said during the same session:
My mother told me about the time her sister Faye had played her tapes of their father’s 90th birthday party. Mom said, “When Faye played me those tapes, I started to cry, and I didn’t know why. Could it be that we were all celebrating him, but it was all wrong?”
I didn’t remember that.
Mom said that her therapist had explained to her that women often remember abuse many years after it happens, and that I might have, too. Mom said, “As my therapist pointed out to me, ‘Why would Laurie go through all that to spite you?’” Then Mom added, “I realized you wouldn’t.”
I didn’t remember that ….
All I remembered about that session was my mother’s hard, cold, steel wall: her refusal, her denial…. But I forgot Mom’s courage. Even when she was up against something she absolutely couldn’t bear to face, she tried … She flew across the country to face pain and misery. I can see how much she loved me.
Also crucial to note is the vivid, visceral, and gripping way that Davis illuminates the reality of caregiving for an aging parent with dementia. Her unflinching portrayal of caregiving is of colossal importance to caregivers everywhere. In one instance, she dares to show, with equal measures love and loathing, the uncensored misery that ensues when Temme, barely mobile and incontinent, loses control of her bowels while essentially in Davis’s arms. Scenes like this matter greatly, just as realistic stories about birth and early motherhood matter. When we avoid or whitewash the humiliating, tender, and inescapable realities of living in bodies and caring for others who live in bodies, we diminish not only those bodily experiences, but the richness of our shared lives.
In another profound scene, Davis exposes her own failures of caregiving as she berates Temme while driving her home. Temme’s dementia is worsening rapidly and Davis’s patience is splintering. They argue loudly and meanly about Temme’s need for more care in her home environment:
I stared at her. My vision narrowed. A sledgehammer pounded in my ears. I couldn’t stop shaking. I screamed with a voice that had never come out of me before. “I wish you’d have a stroke and be done with it!”
After a miserable, guilt-ridden night, Davis wakes the next morning eager to apologize to Temme, only to discover that Temme has forgotten her cruel words entirely:
She and I were the only witnesses to my crime, and she didn’t remember a word of it. . . I’d gotten away with it. And I could get away with it again. I could say and do anything. . . But I couldn’t let it happen again. She was defenseless. I had to be her mother now.
On Temme’s last day of life, Davis does indeed become her mother’s mother in the most timeless way, by helping the hospice aide to bathe her: “I thought about all the times my mother had bathed me when I was small. All the decades I recoiled from her touch. Now she was naked before me and I moved my hands across her failing body with the same awe and tenderness I’d felt bathing my infants for the first time.”
Fascinatingly, Davis ends her memoir with a chapter called “Fire,” portraying her mother’s cremation, which she witnesses with her only sibling, Paul. “Paul and I wanted to watch,” she writes, explaining that she had attended several cremations in Bali, and had been deeply moved by these festivities in which the whole community gathered, “parading through the streets to the cremation grounds where they celebrate the burning of the dead.” But when the attendant wheeled Temme’s body onto the crematory, he drew the curtain, shutting them out. Still, Davis was determined to watch: “I was prepared to say whatever it took. “Tell him it’s our religion,” I said in the sincerest voice I could muster. Paul shot me a big smile and five minutes later, we were in.”
The attendant explains that the process will take three to four hours, and offers a couple of metal folding chairs near the large industrial crematory machine with its huge, closed metal door:
It wasn’t like an oven with a window and a light inside. Apparently, we weren’t going to get to ‘watch’ after all. But Mom’s body was definitely inside. Definitely burning. We could hear the whoosh of flame.
After a while, the attendant opens the steel door and “stirs the bones,” cracking most of them, but not the skull, which is “luminous with flame.” Davis and her brother decide to engage in a forgiveness practice with one another—consciously pledging to be brother and sister going forward as the sole remaining members of their original family. “The only sound in the room was Mom on fire,” Davis writes. “For the next hour, as flames took Mom’s right kneecap and left kneecap, her tibia and fibula, her eye sockets and jaw, we talked about her. What we remembered, what we’d miss. What we wouldn’t miss.”
Such a gritty, beautiful ritual to conclude a gritty, beautiful book about two gritty, beautiful humans doing their flawed but earnest best to live, and then to die. As uplifting as it is heartbreaking, The Burning Light of Two Stars captures the enduring mystery of light moving constantly within and between mothers and daughters, as within and between stars, both living and long gone.