Ruth Reichl’s mother Miriam is one of the most vivid characters ever created in non-fiction. In Reichl’s three previous memoirs, the household revolves around Mom and her poorly-control bipolar disorder: either she’s unable to crawl out of bed or she’s dreaming up some grand scheme which will end in disaster while blithely leaving everyone else to deal with the consequences.
This is a woman who tricked her 13-year-old daughter into a “weekend vacation” in Montreal whose actual purpose was to enroll her, quite without warning, in a French-speaking boarding school. And who insisted on treating her son’s engagement party as a fundraiser for UNICEF, then served spoiled food (which she prepared herself from questionable ingredients) which sent 26 of the paying guests to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped. And who was banned both from being a Brownie leader (for serving moldy treats to the kids) and a tour guide at the Metropolitan Museum (for being contentious and confusing her role with that of a curator).
Not surprising that Reichl, who would go on to become one of the world’s leading writers on food, chose to attend a college halfway across the country and basically cut Miriam out of her adult life as much as possible. But at some point everyone has to reconcile with their past and try to understand what makes other people act the way they do. Not Becoming My Mother is the story of Reichl’s journey to understanding and reconciliation with her mother.
Currently it’s popular in the United States to wax romantic about how wonderful life was in that simpler time of the last century. During the Great Depression we all pulled together and learned what truly matters in life, then the Greatest Generation won World War II and settled into a suburban heaven of automobiles and appliances and 2.3 children per household. In the 1960s everyone got liberated and fulfilled and attended the college of their choice. We got sidetracked somewhere along the way, but if we could just return to that Golden Age we’d all stop whining and be happy.
But maybe that Golden Age wasn’t so golden, especially if you were a female who didn’t fit the mold. That’s Reichl’s diagnosis of the root of her mother’s ills: Miriam was a woman with talent and ambition who was thwarted every step of the way by her conventional family who wanted her to take up the role of wife and mother. Exclusively: serious, fulfilling work was not a possibility.
Miriam’s ambition was to be a physician, but her family informed that such a career choice was off the table because she’d never get married, so they packed her off to Europe where she studied violin and earned her doctorate in musicology at age 19. If they wanted to ensure that Miriam would never use her education, they couldn’t have made a better choice: faculty positions in musicology were not exactly plentiful in American universities in 1927.
Miriam’s parents also assured her she was homely and would be lucky to find any husband: she settled for a bad match with a businessman from Pittsburgh. After that marriage ended in divorce she found a more compatible husband in Ernest Reichl, a European émigré fond of literature. Throughout it all her primary goal was to please her parents, trying to become their ideal daughter while ignoring her own needs and desires. Not surprisingly, she failed to win her parents’ approval as surely as she failed to find a satisfying outlet for her energy and talent.
As the years went on, Miriam’s behavior became more erratic and apparently malicious, leading to many of the painful memories Reichl recounts in her previous books. It is impossible after the fact to determine how much was due to mental illness (Miriam saw many psychiatrists and was prescribed a virtual pharmacopeia of drugs, none of which seemed to solve the problem) and how much was born of frustration at trying to lead a life which did not fit her.
It may be difficult for people who have grown up in our relatively liberated times, when women constitute a majority of the students enrolled in American medical schools and most women expect to work for at least some of their adult life, to realize how different life was for a woman in America just 50 or 75 years ago. The painful story of Miriam Reichl provides a good introduction to this time for young people who don’t understand what the feminist movement was all about. And, if nothing else, Miriam’s story proves that being born on third base doesn’t ensure a happy and fulfilling life.
Not Becoming My Mother is greatly informed by a box of Miriam’s letters and diaries which Reichl discovers in the basement: through them she learns about aspects of her mother’s life which she hadn’t even considered, including some surprisingly perceptive comments by Miriam on her own bad choices and how she hoped her daughter would not repeat the same mistakes. Reichl concludes that at least some of her mother’s outrageous behavior was deliberate: she wanted to steer her Ruth down a different path by providing her with the world’s most extreme negative example.
I don’t entirely buy the argument from a factual point of view—it’s more like a useful interpretation which can neither be confirmed nor disproven—but as an emotional truth it couldn’t be more accurate. By striving to not become her mother, Ruth Reichl became herself.