Archive for February 13th, 2008

The popular-media image of the mother-daughter relationship is, generally, a yin and yang of deeply personal conflict and everlasting love. We’re told that we drive each other mutually crazy–but that our love trumps all. The uncomfortable truth–that this is not always so–seems to escape most women’s media. That’s why Felicia Sullivan‘s memoir, The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here, is so important. Mother-daughter dysfunction is real, and although its significant symptom in her life was substance abuse, it’s clear that drugs and alcohol were only a symptom; the core problem comes out in behavior and dialogue.

One of the most painful aspects of the memoir is that “the core problem” is never neatly defined as “borderline personality” or “bipolar,” or other disorders that often result in substance abuse, shaky romantic relationships, and so forth. For Sullivan, there is only the desire to make sense of why her relationship with her mother was such a catastrophic failure.

Jumping back and forth in time, she moves between her hardened (and ultimately truncated) childhood in 1980’s Brooklyn, to her not-so-distant past: first as addict, then as recovering addict. Throughout, her painful details of her childhood as an outcast who could only be friends with other outcasts become equally painful details of an adulthood where Sullivan treats her friends as surrogate mothers, stand-in dartboards for the rage that she can’t direct at her mother, even as she self-destructs. And always, the remembering, thinking back to when things seemed better, or at least when she had the ability to try to make them seem better.

When I first began to read The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here, I feared that its beautiful literary language would obscure the real story. Other literary writing is a breath on the lens that examines life–fogging it and making it seem ethereal. Sullivan’s writing, however, effectively shows the brutality of her life, at the same time that it blunts the impact and carries the reader toward hope.

Interestingly, the book’s cover is a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge under repair, with the author’s childhood image appearing to gaze up at it. But the “bridge repair” is not between her and her mother–indeed, her final forgiveness of her mother is ambiguous, and she freely admits that she feels no love for her mother–instead, it’s between her past and present selves. In other words, the relationship may be irreparable, but the person is not, when she chooses to make the repairs.

Sullivan’s memoir is excruciatingly personal. She does not claim to have healed; her blog contains some touching continuation of her story, even with the success of a published debut:

I had a nervous breakdown at work on Wednesday and had to go home. I’m pretty sure I freaked out my boss and several of my coworkers. I continued sobbing all the way to Brooklyn and even through my four-mile run. I then proceeded to read Glamour and US Weekly and slept for twelve hours…. Right now, my life needs to be about tabloid glitz and celluloid heaven. Easy things. Things I can handle.

The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here is hard to read, at times, because of its honesty, but it is also a worthwhile and healing read–no matter what the relationship you have with your mother.

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