From Left to Write asks reviewers to connect the book of the month with their personal experiences. Accordingly, this is not a traditional book review, but rather, my response to this month’s selection. Find out more here. I received an advance copy of Mother, Mother for free, but I was not compensated in any way for this review. My comments are my own. Mother, Mother is available for purchase now.
So You Know What I'm Talking About...
The story opens with Violet in a psychiatric ward, ostensibly for attacking William the previous night. Yet Violet has no recollection of doing so. The story revolves around two major questions. First, what really happened the night her mother claims Violet came after her brother with a knife? And second, what role did her mother play in Rose’s disappearance?
I do not want to ruin the book for any of you out there who are interested in reading it, so I am not going to delve into the plot too much. Instead, I want to focus on a few of the book’s themes and how they relate to my clients, young adults pursuing a college education.
This is a long one. I want to talk about finding happiness, questioning "truths" about you and your character, and the problem with constantly comparing yourself to others.
Let's Talk About It: Finding Your Happiness
“…Violet was confronted by this small pickle: she was apologetic about wanting to live for her own enjoyment. She felt really guilty about having her own identity, and doubly f***ing terrified when she experienced something beautiful or even pleasant, accustomed as she was to her mother ruining it, usurping it, or passing it off as inconsequential.”
I went to the University of Notre Dame, and despaired when my GPA was only a 3.8 when I graduated (freshman year Calculus and Physics destroyed me).
I continued on to Harvard for my Master’s, where I cried (!) over a B. One B out of 8 semesters. But it might as well had been an F.
I enrolled in a PhD program at Arizona State University. I really just wanted to be a teacher, but felt like others expected me to do something more prestigious, and barreled on down the path to becoming a professor and scholar of Russian History. Nevermind if these external pressures were imagined or real; I felt compelled to finish what I'd started. Even if I didn't want the prize anymore.
Over the next three years my ambivalence turned into outright resentment. I was furious that I was being “forced” to get my PhD, for a career I stopped wanting a long time ago. I wanted someone to tell me, “Hey, Jessica, it’s ok. You don’t have to do this. Go do whatever it is that you actually want to do.”
Finally, I was approaching a complete meltdown. I had passed my Qualifying Exam, my committee approved my dissertation proposal, and I received a competitive national fellowship to complete archival research in Russia for the next seven months.
My husband was the one who suggested I speak with my adviser. I do not know if she realizes what a life-changing moment our conversation was for me. She is still my model of what an ethical teacher should be, telling me my happiness was more important than her obligation to graduate PhD students. She suggested I stop worrying so much about making my parents happy and do what I wanted. She told me I could be good at anything. That I was already good enough.
When you spend an entire lifetime thinking you aren’t anywhere near good enough, and in most cases, severely lacking, this was news to me.
So then what? My husband, my other great supporter, championed me on as I devised a business plan, launched Aim High Writing, and refashioned myself into an Applications Coach. My parents also helped me make the transition, allowing me to see that they had actually just wanted me to be happy and successful.
Now I am happily operating on the periphery of academia, in a teaching role, but not a professor. No prestigious institutional affiliations, but excited to help those students who want them for themselves. And it turned out that I have always (and will always) have a choice about finding and following what makes me happy.
Unlearning So-Called Truths About Yourself
I want to highlight a more subtle plotline that will potentially resonate with young adults, as it did with me. Violet’s separation from her family allows her the space to examine the so-called truths about herself that her mother has ingrained in her.
According to her mother, Violet is a screw-up, messy, stupid, violent, ugly, undisciplined, and socially inept. Over time, Violet internalizes her mother’s words into truths, and even manifests them by shaving her head, experimenting with hallucinogenics, and finding herself terribly angry.
Towards the end, Violet’s friend, Edie, tells her she needs to unlearn all the things her mother told her she was. Violet finds this task daunting; she has spent so long surviving, she does not understand what it means to just live.
You do not need to come from an abusive household to accumulate a set of potentially toxic “truths” about yourself by the time you are a young adult looking to leave home.
My interest in books, combined with my reserved nature, earned me the reputation for being shy. And I was. I was hideously shy throughout middle school, high school, and my freshman year of college. I turned down invitations to go to parties, I assumed any guy showing interest in me was just messing with me, and I accepted lower grades in classes because I refused to participate.
Starting my sophomore year of college, however, I became interested in taking Russian 101. Language classes terrified me. All that interaction with my classmates, speaking in my infantile Russian with an atrocious accent….
After leaving my PhD program, I became a business owner. I felt like my most authentic self for the first time, speaking with people about how I could help them with academic and professional goals. I knew I could help them, and because I believed in myself, others were also confident in my abilities.
I’m not going to tell you to “fake it til you make it,” since I don’t think it is about tricking anyone – yourself or others. Rather, I encourage you to examine some of the core truths you currently use to define yourself as a person, and more importantly, to measure yourself worth.
How many of those truths were inherited from someone else’s perception of you? Are they fair? Are you the same person? Do you see value in either retaining, losing, or modifying those truths?
College is a fantastic time to reinvent yourself. Just because your parents said you were unathletic, doesn’t mean you can’t join the campus tennis club. If your high school teachers thought you were lazy, show your professors you can meet deadlines.
Comparison Is The Thief Of Joy
I encourage you to stop comparing yourself to others, and fixating on the things that make you feel lesser.
Don’t worry about being perfect.
Just focus on being authentic.