Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth

Parent-child relationships have been complex as long as families have existed. While I've seen many examples of what I'd characterize as normal, loving families, I've also experienced dysfunction both first- and second-hand. And as I've grown older and come to the realization that I won't have any children to which I will pass along any of my emotional burdens, I've tried to reconcile whatever issues I have with my parents by various methods – mutual agreement to avoid certain subjects, concentration on things we all prioritize, rising above the situation when I sense I'm being baited – so that I can get on with living my own life.

Perhaps someday I'll write in greater depth about my parents than I have so far in this blog, but I don't see that my conflicts with them are anybody's business but mine. I'd rather write about the personal-as-universal than, you know, whine. Of late I seem to be in the minority on that count, though, as a lot of talented artists work out their familial frustrations via (and conveniently seek to profit from) their creative outlets. I recently read a review of the new documentary My Architect, in which Nathaniel Kahn examines the life of his late father Louis, one of the world's premier modern architects. Says Lisa Schwarzbaum, "The filmmaker interviews his mother, his half siblings, his father's contemporaries, and, it sometimes seems, the stones themselves. The son is obsessive and petulant, punishing and self-pitying, and by the time he gets to a talk with his hurt old mother, we understand why. The architect of his own revealing work of art, Nathaniel Kahn has built something affecting he can call his own."

I felt much the same way after reading Gay Block's new book, Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed. Except that the "affecting" was of the negative variety. The more Block whines in this pictorial biography about how her late mother never gave her what she needed, the less sorry I felt for her. Particularly when her mother's words and visage belie the very points she's trying to hammer in. In photo after photo, the two are smiling at the camera and each other with what appears to be genuine affection. For me, the most telling passage is the following conversation:
Gay: In terms of personal relationships, I'm with women instead of men. Do your friends ever ask you about that?

Bertha Alyce: No.

Gay: You have very polite friends. How do you feel about it?

Bertha Alyce: How do I feel about it? I'm not overjoyed, but if this is your lifestyle – you're at an age that this is your life. It's not MY life anymore. I brought you this far and I can't take you any farther, and neither can I force or impose anything on you in your lifestyle anymore.

Gay: But is it an embarrassment for you?

Bertha Alyce: Oh, the world is different now. That's why I guess it isn't.

Gay: I think that's something you could definitely be complimented for. That's an obnoxious way to give a compliment. I appreciate your feeling that way.

Bertha Alyce: I only accept it because it makes you happy, and that's all I want. I couldn't ask for more than that. That's all I wanted for you. That's the only reason I can accept it.
We're supposed to take as a given, on the book's back cover blurb, that Houston-based philanthropist and bon vivant Bertha Alyce Schlenker was an "unusual and difficult mother," but the more I read through the book the more I thought that Gay was the difficult one. She seems to keep prompting relatives and other interview/photography subjects, in the same way that she appears to prompt her mother above, to say mean things to prove what a horrid person Bertha Alyce was. And I just kept wishing I'd known the mother and wanting to steer far, far away from the daughter with her issues. Block's probably older than me, if she hasn't worked out whatever her friggin' problems are by now she has no business, to my mind, whining about them, particularly in public to make a buck— I mean, further her "art," of course. (Full disclosure time: I've always thought of professional photography as more pretense than art, and fully admit this prejudice, but this book does nothing to dissuade me from that view.)

One thing for which I'm grateful after reading this book was that it showed me how much more together I seem to have my life, regarding my relationships with my parents, than does Block. I'm fully convinced that she'll now start searching for something or someone else about which to be vindictive and unhappy, and will doubtless publish another book about that. I've decided to give Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed to my own mom when next I see her, and have invited her to review the book on this blog, so we'll see if she takes me up on it. Natalie Davis is scheduled to interview Block soon, maybe she's gotten some value out of this book that I couldn't. It just makes me want to read a Shakespeare soliloquy.