In Never Simple (Holt, Mar.), PW contributor Scheier reflects on coming of age with a mother who struggled with mental illness and a proclivity for evading the truth.
When did it first strike you to write this story?
When I returned from maternity leave after having my son, I had two kids under a year and a half and realized if I was going to have any time that wasn’t work or diapers, that time was lunch. So I started a writing project. This dovetailed with the period of time in my mother’s life when things were really coming to a head. First it was sort of a therapy journal—a place to put all the anger and fear and love and confusion in one place. Then she died, and I looked up and was like, “I have 50,000 words.” I thought maybe this could be useful to someone.
Despite the trauma and deception you endured under your mother’s roof, there’s still a deep love and care for her present in your story. Do you think writing it helped you in a way to reach some kind of healing?
I think honestly it was her death that helped me reach a sort of understanding. During the last year of her life there were sometimes four to 15 calls coming in every day from my mother, social workers, lawyers, the police—whomever she’d run afoul of. Her death marked a line in time when what often felt like an onslaught of lies and challenges stopped. Now I can sort of come to terms with what a lot of that meant.
I thought the book elegantly wrestled with a fear nearly every adult harbors: that we’re all becoming our parents. Talk to me more about that.
I think we’re all very informed by the way we were raised. Sometimes that means we end up like our parents and sometimes it means we go pretty far in the other direction. Sometimes I find myself doing whatever the opposite is because my fear of becoming my mother is great enough for that. I do believe, though, that most parents are trying their best and, in some cases, that best is not particularly functional. And a lot of that has to do with the support systems we have. Obviously the support systems we have in America, particularly when it comes to supporting mothers, are... minimal—and that’s putting it nicely.
What do you hope your story adds to the discourse around mental health today?
I hope that I have been fair-minded about portraying my mother, who was obviously very damaging to a lot of people but who also had a lot of terrible things happen to her and who tried very hard to be a good parent. I wanted to portray her as a full human being of which mental illness was only one part. I’m just hoping to get the message across that this happens to a lot of us. Many Americans have children, and some large subset of them have had very challenging upbringings. For a lot of us, those two things are going to be working in concert.