In these 10 essays (some of which were published previously in Harper’s, The American Scholar and Salmagundi), Gordon revisits topics familiar to any reader of her work over the years, including art, aesthetics, religion and her friendships and encounters with Catholic priests, as well as the larger themes of the primacy of memory and the poignancy of loss. In the process, she paints a moving portrait of her mother, Anna, a troubled but admirable woman whose struggles became clear to Gordon only in the remembrance and the retelling.
“Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, but “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Indeed, a certain strange pride in the dysfunction of one’s childhood is a common enough trope in memoir, but Gordon does not wallow in the difficulties she faced as a child; instead, she evokes memories of her life with her mother largely to demonstrate the unique circumstances that formed her own character as well as that of her mother. In Gordon’s case, her father’s eccentricities and sudden death when she was 7 thrust her mother into a position of almost complete dominance in her upbringing, coloring all her memories of her childhood. Crippled by polio (and later by alcoholism), her mother comes across as a stubbornly unyielding figure who by sheer force of personality extracted from the world much that it was unwilling to give and toiled without complaint to provide for her daughter.
Despite the deeply personal subject matter and obvious level of devotion to her mother found throughout the book, Gordon is rarely sentimental or saccharine in her treatment of complicated and painful issues. In fact, she is often the contrary, offering unsparing analyses and no-nonsense reflections on familial cruelty, alcoholism, the excesses of youth and even the rampant dysfunction she now sees in her parents’ marriage. “They never should have married,” she notes, a shocking statement that requires serious emotional distancing from the subject matter. While the rhetorical effect is to give Gordon enormous credibility as a narrator, this approach can also come off as dispassionate, as it does when Gordon describes her mother’s physical appearance in language never euphemistic and often blunt, calling her “distressful to look at, perhaps even grotesque.”
Like almost all of Gordon’s work, Circling My Mother is deeply religious, shot through with Gordon’s constant grappling with her nuanced relationship with the Catholicism to which her father converted and which, she claims, her mother never questioned. The priests who have played such a large role in Gordon’s fiction are also present here, as her mother’s friends, pets, spiritual confidants and allies against the world. Her mother’s life spanned an era when, Gordon notes, priests were often the “rare men at that time who took seriously a woman’s inner life.” These figures have individual qualities that an ambitious reader might recognize in Gordon’s fictional priests from such works as The Company of Women or Final Payments, men whose approach to the world included a Hazel Motes-like moral certainty but also a secular glamour of manicured hands and sports cars and hard drinks. Her mother, Gordon writes, would find it impossible to believe that many people associate Catholic priests these days with moral scandal; unlike her daughter, she remained throughout her life deliberately blind to their foibles and failings. In fact, it is her mother’s alcohol-fueled profanity directed at a priest that finally convinces Gordon that in her later years her mother has lost everything she held dear.
Ultimately, Circling My Mother is a task of interpretation and of reinterpretation, Gordon’s intensely personal and yet public attempt to come to terms with the complicated, confusing, difficult person who defined so much of her own life but slowly vanished into a fog of dementia and eventually a merciful death. Both in structure and in tone, Circling My Mother forces the reader toward deeper and deeper understanding of Gordon and her mother. Paradoxically, as her mother departs slowly from life, for the reader she becomes more and more alive in the very act of Gordon’s writing and retelling. “She has become my words,” Gordon writes in the closing chapter, “or dust. Both. How is it possible to comprehend this?”