JUNE 29, 2017 – In the summer of 1984, when the distinguished American Jewish essayist Phillip Lopate was 41, he taped his brassy, vulgar, vindictive, smart, and sometimes hilarious mother telling her life story for over 20 hours. She was 66. The tapes sat in a shoebox for more than 30 years until Lopate began what became this strange and fascinating memoir from often conflicting perspectives: “A Mother’s Tale.”
The book, his 16th, consists of verbatim transcripts of Frances Lopate, broken into topics – “My Mother’s Key Memory,” “The Obsession,” “I Vant to Be Alone” – interspersed with Lopate’s contemporaneous questions and comments and his present-day observations. He calls it “a triangular dialogue.” This understates the impact of Frances’s voice, and the role of the commentary, which molds each section into an essay about the book’s central question: Did his mother have to be so miserable? Given history and bad luck, what agency did she (or does anyone) have?
Readers of Lopate’s 2003 “Getting Personal” may recall the essay, “Willy,” about an affair of Frances’s that nearly split the family when he was 8. Her husband beat her. She stayed. Now, we get her version. Aside from denying being beaten and a strange insouciance about the affair, the most startling difference is Frances. The first essay portrays her as difficult, unhappy, but likeable. Here, she seems devoid of empathy for anyone but herself.
In the first instance, she became his character. In the second, he’s “at the mercy of her open-ended complaining or boasting.” Readers face the same challenge. How to respond to a woman who says this: “… I think of the terrible things I say to your father … and he sits there and says: ‘I wish I was dead.’ And I say: ‘That makes two of us; we both wish you were dead.’ How could I say that to a human being – unless he’d hurt me first?”
Writing, Lopate came to see her as a 20th-century Everywoman. The 11th child of Ukrainian Jews, she worked in factories, offices, started businesses, bore four children (one a lover’s), and broke into show business and commercials improbably at 50, turning her hefty physique to advantage, quite successfully for a while. Yet she felt “thwarted, thwarted, thwarted.” Having two prominent sons, Phillip and Leonard, a radio host, didn’t soften her sense of failure.
Many smart, working-class women of her generation got the dirty end of the stick, to paraphrase her earthy language.
Growing up during the Depression and World War II, in a man’s world, they reached middle age before feminism took hold. But how many called their lives to that point “a waste,” as she did?
What makes Frances Lopate more than a case study is her extreme personality. An outer-borough Madame Bovary, she craved love and status and hated her intelligent, beaten-down husband. She even accuses her husband of faking a stroke, which causes Phillip to defend his father:
“I felt like he blackmailed me into staying with him, and that changed my life; it wasn’t fulfilled … He had that … phony stroke that wasn’t even a stroke.”
“Needless to say,” Phillip interjects, “there was nothing phony about my father’s stroke.”
She reveals secrets, but the bombshell comes from Lopate’s father, Albert, whose one-hour interview yielded “My Father’s Chief Regret.” He describes choking Frances for infidelity and stopping, to his regret.
“That’s the story of my failure, because I just couldn’t leave her … If I could have killed her, it would have ended then and there. I would have been tried, sent to prison, or executed, and that was that.” Divorce? She claimed he wouldn’t grant one. He doesn’t say.
Frances collected grudges. Her dying father smiled at her. “Call him back, Frumele,” a sister begged. She froze. He died. She held this against her siblings for life. “How can you be so heartless as to put a little kid through that?” she rails.
After their mother’s death, a sister took Frances and two other sisters in – as maids, allegedly. (Phillip is skeptical.) She ran away until her sister kicked her out into the working world.
During the taping, Frances soured on her son’s perceived lack of empathy. Their fraught process comes to a head in “The Argument,” where Phillip unsuccessfully probes the “frost between them.” Everything – even his teenage suicide attempt – is about her sense of rejection.
A master of the confessional essay, Lopate knows a writer can’t make himself superior to his subject. He admits to chilliness, gratitude, admiration … but love?
“If she mistook this interest of mine as clinical or literary or insincere or … filial duty, that was a pity,” Lopate writes. “I was quite fascinated by her, as you might be of a tiger who could maul you at any moment, but who could also strike you as touching and noble.”
Yet, he gleaned from his mother his writer’s voice, which blends his erudition with her earthy frankness and black humor.
Frances on her brother-in-law’s advances:
“… At the time I had a lover who was such a fantastic sex machine, Herbie, and here this mutt comes over … and the only way I could get rid of him was to do it … So after he finished, I laughed at him.”
Phillip Lopate on learning this:
“Dear Uncle Morris: he of the Groucho Marx resemblance, a lawyer in good standing with the Democratic Club, who always gave the impression of sneering at everyone … Now I would have to picture him chasing my mother around the bedroom in his boxer shorts.”
Frances’s sexuality seems to explain her unhappiness more than history. She was ahead of her time and background, though not religious. She discusses her orgasms, genitals, lovers.
The book – or its process – was risky for both parties. Handing Frances the microphone, Lopate relinquished control of her as a character. She wouldn’t – or couldn’t – edit herself, though he tried to draw out her kinder side.
Lopate seems to ask himself – and us, by inference – if it was OK not to love a mother like that. Blaming parents is futile. He turned out fine.
We struggle to forgive our parents (and fear our kids won’t forgive us). Not everything is forgivable. One has to let go of what one can or end up poisoned, as she was.