“Don’t underestimate the power of a negative role model,” my analyst had said when I was pregnant with our first child and fearful I might be less than the good-enough mother. Every dream we dismantled was a nightmare. My mother, 18 when I was born, moved through all of them like a vampire, pale and deadly. “You were supposed to ransom me,” she said, reporting epiphanies from her own sessions with a therapist, too few and too late. “Another daughter to give my mother, to replace me so I could escape.” By then it had been seven years since she’d moved out of her parents’ home, looking for a life she never found. I saw her on the weekends, each visit reminding me of my young mother’s misery, and its cause. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that all she wanted and didn’t have—college, career, husband (for she considered me baggage discouraging to potential suitors)—I had taken from her. She made me understand that I was the thief of her happiness.
My grandmother accepted the ransom. Her vicious battles with my mother ceased; the house grew calm; I thought I would die of grief. The person I wanted before any other didn’t want me. Years of psychoanalysis couldn’t deliver me from what I understood as a fall from grace, stranding me in the purgatory of those whose love goes unrequited, from which I was determined to escape. Love is given, of course, not earned, but I couldn’t turn away from the red taillights of her turquoise Pontiac, ever sliding away from me down the long driveway. Having arrived under circumstances that made me my mother’s unwanted burden, I looked for opportunities to prove myself worthy of love. If I could distract her from the form I’d assumed—a cross to bear—she’d see I’d eclipsed that unsatisfactory girl with a new, radically improved me.
It didn’t work, of course. Nor did her death, when I was 24, release me from the habit of wooing her: of trying to anticipate what loveworthy form I might tailor myself to fit. For a decade already I’d been the emblematic anorexic, precocious in my discovery of mortification of the flesh, punishing parts of my body before I set myself against the whole. I couldn’t balance a perfect arabesque on pointe shoes, but a burn might suffice to catch her eye. I was the good girl who got straight A’s, who hadn’t had a drink, much less sex, before college, the woman who never found a way to escape the long--reflexive habit of always becoming and never being, perpetually striving to evolve.
Shoved by therapy, I arrived at the familiar truism: It hadn’t been me who was unlovable but my mother who had been unable to love. Pregnant with our first child, I rehearsed the compressed litany that supported what still felt more like a conceit than a truth: My mother had been a child when I was born. Raised by governesses, each of whom left her, she never perceived herself as capable of sustaining a mother’s love. Resigned to abandonment, she couldn’t admit how gravely she’d hurt me without resurrecting the agonies she must have endured.