Journalist and author Katie Hafner kept no secrets where her difficult upbringing was concerned. Moved from place to place with her older sister by their self-involved, alcoholic mother, the two girls were ultimately removed from her custody but remained in touch with her over the years. When her mother fell on hard times in 2009, Hafner decided to forge a new bond by bringing her to San Francisco and a home shared with Hafner’s 16-year-old daughter. Their idealized experiment in multigenerational living quickly became contentious and unlivable. Mother Daughter Me tells their story, then sifts through the fallout for larger truths about the roles of parent and child.

Hafner has said throughout her life that “parents do the best they can, given what they have to work with,” and somehow hewing strongly to that belief has allowed her to be both forthright and compassionate in portraying her mother (whose name is changed in the book). Hafner’s mother was a genuine monster early on, but stabilized considerably in later life. Her struggles to connect with her daughter and granddaughter at age 77 could be seen as deserved comeuppance, but Hafner also directs our attention to her mother’s skilled work at starting a new life in a new city, and her admiration does not feel grudging in the least. Their fights are real, and often have unexpectedly deep roots, but the love is constant as well.

This is a heavy story—not just a memoir of parents and children but of infidelity, job loss and death—but Hafner can apply a light touch as needed. Anyone who has cared for an aging parent will identify as she and her mother stock their new kitchen with combined utensils. Hafner is insistent on hers taking up the bulk of the space, in part as testament to her superiority as a parent and provider, a sentiment she considers “too obnoxiously smug to say in words. So I say it with flatware.”

Mother Daughter Me is a story of bonds frayed well past the point of breaking, yet somehow held tight in the grip of a fierce and forgiving love.

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