Author Koren Zailckas, whose best-selling memoirs Smashed and Fury chronicled her troubled youth, again taps into her own life experiences—but this time, she’s writing fiction. Her debut novel, Mother, Mother, is the story of the Hurst family, whose perceptions of themselves have been twisted by the machinations of their narcissistic and overbearing matriarch, Josephine. We caught up with Zailckas to ask her a few questions about her debut.
Did you find it more difficult writing your first memoir (Smashed) or your first novel? How did the processes differ?
Smashed was probably the more difficult of the two. Before Smashed, I had only written poetry and interoffice memos, so I had absolutely no concept of pacing. All I had was youthful enthusiasm and the kind of poor boundaries that lead a person to overshare. I wrote the first draft in four months and it was at least twice as long as it was supposed to be. My editor really had to help me crack it open and find the book encased within this crazy word count. I guess you could say in Smashed, bingeing was both the subject and the process. I wrote it the same way I used to drink: with no sense of moderation.
By comparison, Mother, Mother was an exercise in restraint. Structurally, I was aiming for something that was a bit like Rebecca—one of those books where the sense of unease builds and builds until the moment of clarity (however twisted) feels like a perversely joyous relief.
That said, withholding information has never been part of my writing process. It took me a number of drafts to get the release valve just right—to find that place where the characters revealed their true colors slowly and organically.
I had an aha moment when I realized not all the Hursts could be self-aware because a narcissistic family doesn’t have a realistic self-image. From that point on, the book became more about finding the meeting place between the Hursts’ reality and their delusions of grandeur.
This story is told through the points-of-view of two of the Hurst children, William and Violet. Did you find that you struggled with either sibling’s voice, or did they both come naturally to you?
There were definitely moments when it was easier to tap into Violet than Will, and visa versa. But mostly, I felt like I could relate to them both. To me, Will and Violet represent the two dominant thought processes in the mind of anyone who’s had early life trauma.
Will is a little bit like the amygdala in people with post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s stuck in his childhood fear and he constantly feels like his safety is at risk.
Violet, on the other hand, has more intellectual understanding about why the people around her behave the way they do. But she can also be a little too scholarly and metaphysical about it. Violet is kind of a Buddhist punk, and by the time we meet her, she’s heavy into drugs and Eastern religions. She smokes pot, she meditates, she stands on her head. She’s desperately hunting for a coping mechanism—some jumble of Sanskrit words she can repeat to make all the self-hatred her mom instilled in her go away.
The irony is, each of them needs what the other has. Violet needs to tap into her painful feelings instead of transcending them. And Will needs to stop being ruled by his fear.
You might say that Josephine keeps her family in a perpetual “gaslight” state: anything she did to them, she later vehemently denies, convincing them it was all in their mind. Is this type of behavior common with narcissists?
Totally. Even if you see the method behind a narcissist’s madness—and that’s tricky to begin with, they leave a trail of confusion—it’s nearly impossible to confront them about anything. They’ll say it flat out didn’t happen. Or they’ll question your memory. Or they’ll say you’re the one who’s crazy. They’ll cry and rage. They’ll blame and demonize you, and likely rally as many supporters as they can to do the same. Narcissists are beyond reproach or compromise because they live in denial.
I used to think it was really calculating. But I realized, very recently, that they’re actually speaking their truth. Narcissists can be kind of dissociative. When their perfect image is threatened, they literally blank out and go somewhere else in their minds. One therapist explained it to me by saying, “They’re not thinking that they want to hurt you. They’re not thinking about anything at all.” Their emotional landscape is kind of like the static station on the TV. It’s not evil. It’s just kind of blank.
How much research did you do on Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
For the past three or four years, I tried to read everything I could find about personality disordered parents. There are a few very helpful titles out there. Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? is one. Christine Ann Lawson’s Understanding the Borderline Mother is another. There are also some shocking examples of narcissistic parenting in Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.
NPD is a spectrum disease, meaning some people just have a few narcissistic traits and still others are full-blown malignant personalities. A lot of narcissists you meet are those people who give off the impression that how things look on the outside—the appearance of the family, or the company, or the marriage—are more important than the reality within. They’re also really great gossips. They control the flow of information. They pit people against each other. They choose to surround themselves with people who either bring them attention and status or people they can use as scapegoats for the negative emotions that don’t jive with the perfect image they’re trying to project.
But two things are really at the heart of the condition. One is grandiosity. Narcissists exaggerate their achievements and talents. With Josephine, you can see that in the way she pretends she’s this groundbreaking educator. The second is lack of empathy. Narcissists are biochemically incapable of putting themselves in other people’s shoes. Jo is pretty shameless in this latter respect. Faced with news of a cancer diagnosis, she sees no problem using it as an opportunity to bash the woman’s vegan lifestyle (Jo’s attitude is: “See, it just goes to show. . . . All those years of tofu and oat groats, all for nothing. I’ve always said that woman needed a steak.”)
In an age where woman are repeatedly told to lean in, and that they can have it all, do you find that mothers—more so than fathers—feel pressure from society to look perfect on the outside (balancing a home, work, family life and relationship) while they may be struggling on the inside?
I’m not sure our society demands perfection from mothers, but I do think it scares the bejesus out of us. It’s constantly trying to convince us that we’re unwittingly inflicting irreversible damage. You see that all the time in TV news headlines: “What are you packing in your children’s lunch that has the hidden potential to kill them? Find out tonight, during Fox at nine.”
Now that I’m a mother myself, I feel that panic. And I see this smothering self-doubt in my female friends with kids. It’s this fear that you’re going to mess your children up by way of not being informed. The Internet has a lot to do with it too. If our parents suffered from lack of parenting resources, we suffer from too many. There’s just so much unqualified, polarized information online and no one really knows what to do with all of it.
"My relationship with my mother has been the source of much of my life’s pain, and her relationship with her mother was a difficult one too, so I live in constant fear of perpetuating that legacy."
Get a group of mothers together, and the number one question you’re apt to hear is: “How concerned should I be?” How concerned should I really be about the arsenic in rice? About BPAs in cans? How concerned should I be that my toddler can’t say 20 words? What about the fact that my baby doesn’t sleep through the night?
The antidote to parental narcissism is entering your child’s world. Noticing them. Talking to them. Acknowledging their full range of emotional expression and letting them clue you in to their own distinct, individual needs. When you’re looking at a computer screen, it’s easy to neglect some of that.
At one point Edie says to Josephine, “Ask any farmer, they’ll tell you some moms just aren’t naturals. Having a baby doesn’t make you a mother any more than buying a piano makes you f***ing Beethoven.” Do you agree with that statement? Did you worry about your own ability to adapt to motherhood?
Definitely. My relationship with my mother has been the source of much of my life’s pain, and her relationship with her mother was a difficult one too, so I live in constant fear of perpetuating that legacy.
Also, from a really young age (like, I was still playing with dolls) my mother would tell me that I wasn’t maternal. In retrospect, it seems like a strange projection, something she was just working through on her own, but you don’t understand these things when you’re little. As a kid, you simply take it as fact. As a result, I shied away from babies and toddlers for a long time. I sort of felt like the woman in the psychiatric ward during Violet’s stay—the one who has an Edward Scissorhands complex, the one who wants to hold people but fears she’s going to maim them in the process.
It took me a long time (and a lot of therapy) to realize I wasn’t my mother, but at the end of the day, I still felt like I was missing the maternal handbook. The things I remembered my mother doing when I had play dates over were not the things I wanted to do with my own kids’ friends came over. The things I remembered my mother saying when I hurt myself were not the words I wanted to use to comfort my own kids.
But then, I realized I’ve had a lot of other kindness in my life to draw from. I’ve had really maternal teachers, aunts, uncles, second cousins, in-laws, friends. And those people inspire the way I relate to my kids. They’ve given me a lot of love to pass on. Collectively, they’ve taught me a lot about mothering.
You are very open about your difficulties with your mother. Were you worried that writing a book about an abusive mother figure would worsen your relationship?
It’s been about a year since I spoke to my mother. I wish her well, and I understand the way her upbringing gives her certain emotional limitations, at least in the way she relates to me. This isn’t one of those situations where I stopped talking to her because I didn’t get enough hugs as a kid. It was more like the present issues had become far too disruptive.
Hopefully, if she reads Mother, Mother she will recognize it’s fiction—a way to deal with real feelings by way of a fictionalized family and an imagined scenario. Somehow I doubt she’ll see it that way, but it’s the truth. Life is full of thorns, and I’m just trying the very best I can to tend my own garden. Writing is a survival mechanism for me. I can’t not do it. It’s the only way I know to make sense and meaning out of difficult things.
How much of your past addiction history—i.e. the need/desire to escape through drugs or alcohol—did you draw from when creating Violet’s character?
Well, drinking was my drug of choice. Violet is more into drugs, but I still drew quite a bit from my own addiction history. It’s taken me 10 years, but I see now what I couldn’t when I wrote Smashed: my home life was so painful, binge drinking was an attempt to kill myself in a way that seemed accidental and, even, socially acceptable (at least for a teenager or college student).
Violet’s drug use, in part, is about numbing out. No one in her family cares what she’s feeling—in fact, any expression of emotion gets her into trouble—so why should she acknowledge her despair, even to herself?
There’s also another reason Violet turns to drugs (and this is the truly sick one): on some subconscious level, she’s really trying to appease her unappeasable mom. Josephine is angry, she’s sick, she’s out of control. But being kind of emotionally stunted, Jo needs Violet around to act out those feelings for her.
Jo has left Violet with little choice except to be the “bad” Hurst. If, say, Violet swung the other way and tried to be an honor student, Jo would swoop in and take all the credit. If Violet went out for school sports, her mother would mock her. If she put more effort into the way she looked, her mother would accuse her of putting on airs. The Hursts need Violet to be a slacker and a problem. Without that low-level distraction, they’d be forced to confront the source of their issues. And no one in the Hurst family feels safe doing that.
What are you working on next?
I’ve got a few other psychological thrillers in the cooker. It’s strange the way imagining scary stories can feel almost healthy. I feel like I’ve had a kind of awakening. In all my years of writing, I’ve never had more fun.