Ariel Gore: Taking Care of Mother
Author: July Westhale
March 30, 2014
Celebrated novelist and journalist Ariel Gore’s stunningly harrowing book, The End of Eve, was released in March from Hawthorne Press. The memoir, which follows Gore’s relationship with her abusive mother during the last years of her mother’s life, invokes a sense of place and what it means to be a caretaker. As any good journalist would do, Gore rushes straight into the eye of the storm, never flinching from the wreckage around her.
Gore was gracious enough to agree to be interviewed by Lambda Literary about life, writing, coming into oneself, and literary lineage.
Before we start, I’d love it if you could tell me about your process behind writing the book (The End of Eve)–if you had intended to write the book, if you were following any literary lineage (because there surely is a lineage of folks writing about caretaking for people with whom they have extremely complicated relationships), and who some of your favorite writers are.
When I agreed to take care of my mom I had a pretty good idea I would write about it — that’s what I do–and she knew I would probably write about it, too. There were a few times in the process, dealing with hospice in particular, when she turned to me and said, “Ariel, you are not allowed to parody this.”
So of course I did.
But I wasn’t writing at all while I was taking care of her. From the time she was diagnosed I wrote almost nothing. I was just in survival mode. I was taking care of my kids and I’m the breadwinner for my family as well, and of course dealing with my mom in all her wackiness. I was just trying to keep everyone alive.
After my mom died I thought I would give myself some time–a few months at least–but almost immediately I found myself starting to clean up my memory. I started telling myself, well, maybe it wasn’t that bad. I started telling myself all the things the culture tells us– to get over it and not talk about the ugly part of mother-daughter relationships or the real and insane and undignified parts of dying. So I knew I couldn’t afford to wait to start writing or I would lose the raw truth of it all. I started the book about two weeks after she died. And I finished it in about a year.
My favorite writers are a bit all over the map. Maya Angelou was a huge influence on me as a memoir writer early in my life. Michelle Tea later–in part because she was writing from a world I lived in, too. Katherine Arnoldi. Anne Lamott was a teacher in the early 90s. Tom Spanbauer wasn’t really my teacher in that I was never in his workshops, but his writing has been a teacher to me. About how to be honest. Joan Didion’s book about her husband’s death held me. I like weird writers like Haruki Murakami. Experimental writers like Anna Joy Springer–she can write about grief in this way that you think, shit. Yes. Sailor Holladay is an emerging writer and amazing editor and she came and stayed with me after my mom died and helped me think about how to write this book. And Inga Muscio helped me.
I want to ask you about caretaking and how it relates to patriarchy, how complicated it is, the expectation, how it plays out in familial relationships, but also in queer communities, if you have thoughts about that.
I became my mom’s caregiver because she was widowed and only had two kids and my sister refused to have anything to do with it. So it fell to me to take it on or to abandon her, which was certainly an option. I think usually if there is a queer kid in the family it falls to the queer kid to do the caregiving. In the same way that if there are no queers but there’s a female—it would fall to the female before it fell to the male children very generally speaking. Some people think it falls to the queer kids because we might not have children of our own. But that’s not it. I have kids. That’s not the why of it. I don’t really understand the why of it beyond, you know, the very deeply culturally ingrained idea that women and queer’s time is worth a little less.
The book is breathtaking–it follows the ambivalence of grief and trauma beautifully, from depictions of your shared history (with your mother, your mother’s relationship to your then-partner, your kids, relationship to place), to humor, to irreverence, to breakdown. How do you feel writing works in a degraded world?
And I would also love it, as a journalist and writer myself, if you could speak to the illuminating moment in the book where you talk about how journalists rush into the chaos, directly into the storm, which most folks shy or run from.
There’s certainly the journalist in me—compelled to go into the burning building when everyone else is rushing out. It’s not about being an adrenaline junkie—it’s about going to the places that scare us and trying to distill some usable truth from the experience. When it came to taking care of my crazy mom, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into, but I knew who she was—so I had a pretty good idea of how intense it might get. I knew she was a burning building. She scared me. But I also knew that her illness and death were something important and human.
Can you tell me what you mean by a degraded world?
I guess what I mean, is what the role of writing in a world where personal and national trauma seek to disassociate a person, or create desensitizing situations for people? How/why is it important for writers and artists to talk about grief and trauma, politics and identity? I think that’s what I mean.
Also, how did you get started writing? What made you want to be a journalist? What made you want to write about parenting, caretaking, landscape, and all of the things you write about so well?
For me, storytelling is the antidote to that dissociation and desensitization. Listening to stories is the antidote.
I think it’s important to tell the stories that are still taboo. Our culture teaches us to get over death, that death is beautiful in its way—and I’m not saying there isn’t any beauty there—but the culture teaches us to simplify our grief and to hide our rage. We rarely read or hear about the ugly parts of caregiving for the dying. And everybody dies, so why do we know so little about death? Why do so many of us have these Hollywood/Hallmark fantasies of what death is going to look like? We know that child abuse of all kinds is epidemic, so why do we hear so few stories about the death of abusive parents? I mean, they must die all the time, right? When I read Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s open letter to her abusive father when that father was dying of cancer, it blew my mind. It was the first anything like that I had ever read and I thought, yes, I’m going to have to tell the truth about this, too.
I came of age as a traveler, so I traveled and wrote letters instead of going to high school. I’m sure lots of my letters were silly and overwrought, but it was that desire to show my friends a little part of what I was seeing and doing that made me a writer. I wanted to show people the world and my world—the political situations I was moving through in cold-war China and Tibet. The poverty and anarchist movements in Europe at that time. What political violence and domestic violence looked like.
You remember that book The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser? It begins on a boat evacuating Barcelona at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. And Rukeyser describes this profound transformative experience–she says Spain was the place where “I began to say what I believed.” So she is sailing away from Spain and it comes to her that her responsibility as a poet and an activist to go home and tell her people what she has seen. And that made sense to me.
a) The only security that matters is the security of the imagination.
b) When we are witness to trauma—to the violence of life—it is our responsibility to speak of it; to go home and tell our people what we’ve seen.
I was a teen mom, so I was a mom by the time I started writing seriously. Parenting was my world—and caregiving in general has turned out to be so much of my life. When I was younger it seemed to me that feminist writers too often shied away from writing about caregiving. It was women’s work and to write about it was seen maybe as reinforcing the idea that it was women’s work. Caregiving also often falls to the queer in the family, so it’s queer work. The work itself is so devalued that I think people feel, you know, it’s not important enough to write about. We have to climb Mt. Everest and write about that. Which of course is fine if you want to climbMt. Everest. But being a queer single mom was my Everest. Being the daughter of an abusive mother who I decided to try to care for anyway was my important work. And in both cases—parenting and caregiving—I wanted to give it its real importance and tell the truth about it and not glorify it or devalue it but dispatch some usable truth from the experience.
I love that. It feels especially important to talk about caretaking in regards to parenting, which feels sometimes like a part of the queer community that is annexed, not provided for in a larger context (like social events or organizing events that don’t take child care into consideration). I wonder why it is that queer children are often tasked to fill the caretaking role for parents/abusers? Can you speak to that?
I also would like to end on a futuristic note—would you be willing to talk to us about what you’re working on next, or what’s going on for you after End of Eve?
Well, on the one hand our time is simply considered less valuable. In a hetero-nuclear-capitalist world, Dad’s time is worth the most, then all the single straights’ time, then Mom’s time, then all the queers.
But there’s a parallel truth, I think, because queer folks are more likely to be alienated from their families of origin and more likely to be alienated from capitalist health care systems–we’ve become accustomed to caring for one another in more informal settings and family structures. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m speaking very generally here, of course, but queer culture is honestly more family-values oriented. A lot of times we take care of each other even when straight culture would say “Hello? Boundary?”–even after we’ve split up and repartnered, after we’ve run away from home and spoken freely about the abuse we experienced there, even after we’ve broken each other’s hearts. The way we got used to that and developed that more forgiving kind of love may have been based in oppression and exclusion, but the result is all right. I mean, family is family. You know? That’s a pretty queer concept these days.
I’m focused on relaunching Hip Mama this year—I’m hard at work on the summer issue and my daughter is designing the cover again—we’re doing everything we can to see if we can make it work as a print magazine.
What next? I don’t know. I think it’s about time for me to write a cheesy queer romantic comedy, don’t you?