Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

I went to a workshop last week about schema therapy and our attachment relationships. I am a bit obsessed with attachment theory because it pops up in so many ways for my clients (or does it pop up because I look for it?!). It’s particularly relevant in terms of adult relationships and how a person grieves. Anyway, that’s a long way of explaining that I selected Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, because of the title. How could I not?

The blurb states that Gornick ‘battled’ with her mother for independence.

My mother’s wishes are simple but they are not negotiable.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Gornick described her family as ‘urban peasants’, with little opportunity to extend their education and break from the ranks of the working class. When she was a child, her father died unexpectedly and from then on, the household was dominated by her mother’s dramatic bereavement and depression.

Mama’s suffering elevated Papa’s death, made us all participants in an event of consequence… It was as though we had all been absorbed into her spectacular abandonment, become witnesses to her loss rather than mourners ourselves.

The memoir is essentially chronological, however Gornick uses ‘present day’ walks with her mother, where they observe the happenings of their neighbourhood, as the starting point for her recollections. It sets up a repeated theme between Gornick and her mother – she, progressive and educated; her mother, tied to old ways and set opinions.

“You’re growing old together,” she said to me. “You and what frightens you.”

Gornick describes her tumultuous relationship with her mother –

We are locked into a narrow channel of acquaintance, intense and binding. For years at a time there is an exhaustion, a kind of softening, between us. Then the rage comes up again, hot and clear, erotic in its power to compel attention.

But what the story misses are thorough descriptions of the incidents that spark the rage. And I wanted more of the ‘fierce’ that was promised in the title. Gornick breaks away from her mother in many ways, but she returns over and over to comparisons that see her confidence faltering –

To be ‘in tragedy’ was to be saved from what I took to be the pedestrian pains of my own life. These seemed meaningless. To be saved from meaningless, I knew, was everything. Largeness of meaning was redemption.

Gornick’s descriptions of the Bronx and their apartment building are the highlight. Perhaps she is describing something that is already familiar through popular culture but nevertheless, she brings it to life –

I hardly remember the men at all. They were there of course – husbands, fathers, brothers – but I remember only the women… Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness…

Ultimately, this memoir demonstrates that it is very difficult to break away from the patterns set by our early attachments. But more importantly, it is a reminder that breaking away shouldn’t necessarily be the goal – rather, knowing how those relationships shaped you and the parts of that which you choose to keep or discard is the key.

3/5 Interesting but not all-consuming.

…irrepressible Mrs Zimmerman, stirring her own soup at the stove, would mutter, ‘She lays there crying like a lunatic. If I would come home and find mine dead, it would be a blessing.’

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 17): Belfast 11°-17° and Melbourne 9°-14°.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. Yes. It sounds as if she persisted with what was really a toxic relationship for her, because she had lost her father and so her mother was all she had left.
    So then the question becomes, what does she hope to get from that relationship? Not the parenting that she wants, that’s clear, because she’s not getting it. The prospect of support if she becomes bereft in some other way for some other reason? She’s not likely to get that either. Does she fear guilt about neglecting her mother if she severs the relationship? She’s feeling guilty anyway.
    She wants something else. Once she works out what this is, to explain to herself why she keeps going back for more pain, then she will be able to weigh up whether it’s worth it.

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