Judith Hannan of Motherhood Exaggerated
This is such a beautiful memoir. I don’t think I have been as moved by a memoir since I read Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. In both cases, I was mesmerized by the narrative, the insightful and moving prose, and the unwincing honesty of the authors. I can’t help wondering…What is it like to compose a book like this? To go back, page by page, into that experience of your daughter’s life-threatening illness?
Writing Motherhood Exaggerated was like trying to regulate my body temperature in a room with a whacky thermostat. When I began writing, I didn’t know I would be creating a book. Rather, I composed individual pieces based upon certain aspects of Nadia’s experience. These were not nuanced compositions; they were raw, often without reflection or a view of any larger picture. They were vessels into which I could deposit my sorrow and express my fear and confusion. As I began to think about a book, I knew I had to assume some distance. Unfortunately, what I had thought was distance was more like intellectual posturing; I wrote the way I thought someone with distance should write and ended up sounding aloof. And so the pendulum would swing back. I wasn’t going to flinch from anything. I was going to be brutally honest even if it meant I ended up being only brutal.
Eventually, the swings became less pronounced. But during the numerous phases of revision I found my heart breaking and I had to stop working. There is a description of Nadia after her surgery which observes, “Alone in her web of tubes, Nadia looks out on the rest of us—unencumbered, scarless, full heads of hair…” I don’t remember this sentence being hard to write because I felt as if I was still in that room. But reading and re-reading those lines feels as if visiting hours to such visions of Nadia have no end.
It is still so easy to see myself in the hospital a week after Nadia’s surgery when she discovers what she looks like. She was furious. “The friends whom Nadia was so happy to have seen just the day before—those who came free of entanglements, on strong legs, and in their crisp school uniforms; those who had seen Nadia in her pajamas try to guide melted ice cream into her numb mouth around the feeding tube [in her nose], who saw it dribble unnoticed down her chin, who weren’t quite old enough to disguise their glances at the thinning tangle of hair on Nadia’s uncovered head—were not allowed to come back.” There is no way for me to return to this scene without again feeling the extent of what I had seen as my betrayal of Nadia because I didn’t protect her, not from cancer but from the shock of her own feelings.
The final revision to Motherhood Exaggerated came after it was accepted by CavanKerry Press. Publisher Joan Cusack Handler spent over an hour with me and showed me how I had not yet addressed the signs of some of my more jarring mood swings, particularly those in which I had confused honesty with enlightenment. Once I had beaten down my automatic defensiveness, I dove into developing my mother’s and husband’s stories, which had remained skeletal and missing in compassion for them. I was surprised at how freely the words came, as if it had taken me more energy not to write these sections than it did finally to tell a fuller story.
While Motherhood Exaggerated tells of the changes I went through as a mother, what remains the same is the ache that arises each time I am witness to Nadia’s vulnerability—which happens to some degree each time I read from the book—and Nadia’s own struggles to regulate her moods, her need for me, and her desire to be what she thinks she would have become if she had never had cancer.
Not to sound grandiose, but I feel as if I was transformed by reading this book. Was it transformative to write?
I would have to say that it was transformative in the sense that I didn’t really know what the book was going to be about until I started writing it. After Nadia had finished treatment, we were both in search of books to read that told our stories. Finding very little, I thought I would write the book I wanted to read. I thought that book was about what it takes to care for a child with cancer. But apparently, the book I wanted to write was different than what I wanted to read. Motherhood Exaggerated tells that original story, but the act of writing it took me into larger and more universal themes of motherhood and self-reflection. It made me examine what kind of mother I was at the time of Nadia’s diagnosis, why I was that way, and whether or not I liked being that kind of mother. It made me look more critically at characteristics I clung to as indelible parts of who I am, such as my instinct, when faced with a crisis, to shut out everyone around me and focus only on what is in front of me. In a scene where my husband John joins me and Nadia at the end of the day in the hospital, I do little to help him when Nadia pushes him away. “John’s boisterous entrance, meant to be uplifting, was too loud; that Nadia couldn’t stand people breathing on her because the smell made her sick. I had figured out these things without being told; therefore, I thought John should know them too. I couldn’t be sympathetic, even though I knew how rejected he must have been feeling.” At that moment, I thought I was in the right—no, I thought I was righteous. But writing the moment meant I had to go more deeply into my relationship with John, how we had functioned together as man and woman, mother and father, until Nadia was diagnosed. Some people might read the book and think I am not very kind to John, but when I finished writing it, I loved him more than I had when I started.
The book was also transformative in that I discovered new ways to use language, and as I found new language I could name more feelings. It was a circular process. So I had pendulums swinging and circles spinning. Funny, since the reader of the book will learn I hate carnival rides!
As I was reading, I kept wanting to circle passages and present them as prose poems, especially the allegory in chapter one, which reads like a Rumi poem.
Did you ever take creative writing classes? Or did you study literature? What authors have you loved deeply? Who has influenced you?
Once upon a time, there was a soul whose tiny embryonic form was not thriving like those of the brother and sister with whom it shared the womb.
The doctor said, “It won’t survive beyond the first trimester.”
The soul was frightened. “I want to come into the world, too,” it whispered.
Such was the goodness of the stronger soul named Nadia that she could see tears flowing in salt water. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You can come with me.”
The soul was grateful. “I promise not to stay too long—just enough time for me to taste Mama’s milk, feel the lightness of air, know how colors explode and water sparkles.”
Nadia protected her extra soul the way most children secure treasures in hidden places and thoughts in locked diaries, away from the prying camera, the probing question.
For the nameless soul, living only created longing. “I can’t leave now. Not before experiencing the vastness of the sea, the first day of school, one more kiss from Mama.”
The soul became greedy, taking up more space in Nadia’s being. Running around in search of a place to hide, the soul’s internal combustion would cause Nadia’s fever to rise. The soul dashed into Nadia’s jaw bone.
“See me, Mama,” the soul cried. “Please see me,” she begged.
But all Mama heard were Nadia’s annoying hums. On Halloween, the soul cracked Nadia’s jaw. It had gone too far.
I wrote this allegory in Nancy Aronie’s Chilmark Writing Workshop, which I have been attending every summer for one or two weeks for the past ten years. I had never taken creative writing in school or college, although I had years of experience as a writer during my tenure as a professional fundraiser. I liked that kind of writing because it was like a puzzle—how to fit the words together to sell an idea or a project to a particular person or market. It appealed to the scientific mind I inherited from my father. But I have always inhaled books and absorbed a passion for the written word. So after years of driving by the sign at the end of Nancy’s driveway going to and from my house on Martha’s Vineyard, I finally decided to sign-up. Not surprisingly, my first efforts were self-conscious, although nicely composed logical pieces with parts that fit together and tied up at the end. I would never have been able to write the above allegory at that time. I not only had to acquire confidence, I had to unwind myself and remove my intellectual self more from the process.
I wrote the allegory in response to an assignment to write about The Good Girl. Motherhood Exaggerated depicts the ways in which Nadia shouldered the concerns of others; I could think about no better “good girl.” She was born a twin, but I had originally conceived triplets. The third embryo was never what they call viable, however, and when it didn’t survive I was told it would be absorbed. I think they meant by me, but it was easy for me to see Nadia responding to the cries of this soul.
I can’t tell you how flattered I am by the comparison to Rumi. As part of my writing practice, I participate in a Writer’s Beit Midrash, a group that studies Jewish text and then writes personal responses to what we read. Our texts are often supplemented by Rumi and it his work that has prompted so much of my writing in the group.
Before Motherhood Exaggerated, I had never written anything longer than 2,500 words, and so I did seek out mentors to help me, and this has been a central part of my education as a writer. Recently, I have been considering applying to a low-residency MFA program because I love the mentorship relationship and, to be honest, I lack a significant amount of discipline when left on my own.
The list of authors that I love changes all the time. For example, I used to love magic-realism. But I outgrew that phase, except when it comes to the work of Linda Hogan who writes Native American mythology into her stories in a way that seems less magical and more organic. Annie Dillard is another favorite because of the way she uses images of nature and how connected she is to the natural world. I use many references to nature, including the ways I used extreme weather when I moved to New York City to compensate for the lack of oceans and forests. “During one particularly frigid winter, on clear nights with the air crackling with cold, I would walk down silent streets, daring myself to shiver, gulping arctic air into my lungs, feeling the iciness refresh my skin as if I were dousing myself with cold water on a sultry summer day.” That winter, I was reading Mark Helperin’s Winter’s Tale and was so taken by his descriptions of cold and snow that I wanted to experience and write about it for myself.
Recent favorites include David Grossman’s To the Edge of the Land and Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. These are two completely different writers in terms of style and theme but each was captivating because the writing was so evocative and the brilliance of the writers so apparent. As far as memoir goes, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face is a gold standard for me, as are the introspections of Mary Gordon and Kay Redfield Jamison. But I feel unfair singling out just these authors because my tastes are so eclectic and if I had to answer this question last year or the year before, my answers would have been different. And any real list would be too long to be included here.
Recently, I have been nurturing a nascent interest in poetry—partly because of the many excellent poets at CavanKerry whom I have had the pleasure of reading (your own work included). I also work with the poet Catherine Barnett at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan where we co-lead a writing group for homeless single mothers. I have learned a great deal from that collaboration about both teaching and ways I can build upon my natural inclination to incorporate some of the strengths of poetry into my prose.
Music has played an important role in your life. I can almost feel it in your prose. When you describe your mother’s life and death, and your relationship to her, you describe events as if there were music playing in the background. Does music still have a place in your life? (I know you weren’t able to keep up with it when your daughter was ill.) Or has writing taken its place?
One of the earlier references I make to music in the book is in describing the distance I felt from Nadia when she was little and all she wanted from me was that I watch her. “It was like the difference between playing chamber music, when I would use my flute to engage in conversation with other players, and listening to an ensemble without gaining access to the intimate dialogue among the members.” I played music for so many years that I naturally think in terms of musical metaphor. I returned to my flute only briefly after Nadia’s illness, but constant tooth grinding and clenching harmed my jaw enough that I was told not to play for a year. A year turned into eight. I miss the act of making music, but returning to the flute now would bring me little satisfaction. The ability to play well is too ingrained in me; attaining some satisfying level of proficiency would take more work than I am motivated to undertake right now.
When I began to explore writing as a creative form of expression, I would use it as a diversion when practicing my flute got too hard, and would practice when the writing wasn’t flowing. Sometimes one discipline enhanced the other, but rarely, because I would switch my art form as a way of avoiding a hurdle. I can’t avoid the hurdle now when I write (unless I have a sudden urge to clean the bathtub) and it’s as good as making music.
But music affects me like a food or a drug and its impact can be so powerful that I have to be careful about what I listen to and when. I am unable to have music on when I work because I don’t know how not to listen to it. Like my grandfather who always wanted me to play music in a minor key, I gravitate to the melancholy. It fit how I felt and how I saw myself. Samuel Barber’s Adagio in G, the work I mention as the one representing the last years of my mother’s life, is one of those pieces whose melancholy impact I would enhance intentionally by listening to it when I was pre-menstrual. I still love that piece and will always listen to it, similarly Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, Op.34, No. 14, and other works whose beauty transcends pain even as it expresses it.
But I am currently undertaking a complete makeover of my iPod, setting aside all those sad-voiced singer-songwriters I loved and replacing them with dance music, some golden-oldies and more ethnic music, particularly music from Israel like the Idan Raichel Project
I have always loved dance. I studied it alongside my musical training up through high school, and because Nadia is a dancer, I am rediscovering the connection between sound and movement and, how just by watching others move, I can be transported outside of myself. And I want to emulate my son Max who sings and whistles all day long, sometimes because he is feeling joy, but sometimes, I believe, because making song is a weapon against anxiety and fear.
One of the things I so loved about the book was its refusal to provide easy answers, platitudes, or solutions. For example, I love this excerpt from page 114:
Why can’t our culture look at pain more honestly? Why must I sit chained to Nadia’s side feeling like a freak because I haven’t achieved a state of grace? Why must I look at my daughter, for whom my only wish is that she would stop hurting and live, and think that she’s never qualify for an entry in Chicken Soup for the Soul with its uplifting stories of brave children who overcome tragedy with the peace of Zen masters?
Did you write this book so that there would be at least one memoir, willing to look honestly at the pain and suffering of a child with cancer?
I think at the beginning of the process, that was very much a part of what I wanted to address. In his memoir, A Whole New Life, the now late Reynolds Price wrote of his cancer, “I needed to read some story that paralleled, at whatever distance, my unfolding bafflement—some honest report from a similar war, with a final list of hard facts learned and offered unvarnished.” This is what I hope I have written. There are some beautiful memoirs out there written by parents who ended up losing a child. They are important because we must always speak about grief and what it does to us. But what I discovered in these books is that the loss of a child makes it nearly impossible to be completely forthcoming. How can you express anger or frustration over something your child said or did or how he or she behaved, when all you have left is a memory? I doubt I would be able to.
But it isn’t just these stories that give a skewed picture. Look at the advertising for any children’s hospital and all we get to see are these brave little heroes. But they hurt, they are sad, they are angry, and they do not see anything beautiful or transformative in what they are experiencing. The contrast between what we see of children’s illness, a version that has been “. . . sanitized, stripped of its tragedy and ugliness. . . like looking at a faded bruise, the shock, pain and blood of the initial impact having dulled to a soft yellow,” didn’t mesh with what I was feeling, that “I don’t want to be alone with Nadia anymore. Being in the presence of her suffering is peeling away the layers of my sanity.” But I stayed, fuming. What an awful time to be angry at your child.
Ultimately, however, this theme became just one of several that I would put in the category of lifting the scrim on what we do not want to see. My stance softened a bit over time, since I think some of the book’s earlier harshness came from this desire to shine almost too bright a light. The fact is that, as Nadia’s treatment progressed, scenes like those in which I can’t wait to get away from her became fewer and, if I am to help guide others, I have to be careful about how I walk the line between facing reality and being depressing. As I eventually discovered when I stumbled upon a video of Nadia in leotard and tights after her last round of chemo, “People with cancer can dance.”