Growing up, growing old, growing closer

Erica Jong is a pioneer of the sexual revolution. In her 1974 novel 'Fear of Flying', she proclaimed the concept of the 'zipless fuck' - a fantasy of casual, guilt-free, and rewarding sex which released the inhibitions of a generation of women, and brought her fame and controversy. In her twenties she laughed off her mother's concern for her respectability. Now in her fifties, Jong is the mother of 18-year-old Molly, and is beginning to sympathise with her mother's point of view
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The Independent Online
"What's' the difference between you and your mother?" the television interviewer asked my daughter, Molly, when the two of us were being exposed to the ritual soundbite.

"Well, all the things my mother wrote about - I actually did," says Molly, with the unflappable aplomb of the only daughter, the child who has seen the inside of more hotels, television studios and aeroplanes at 18 than most people have at 80. Being interviewed comes naturally to her. Like her mother, she'll do anything for a laugh.

It's a life-saver to have her support and humour on this trip to the UK for the first publication anywhere in the world of my novel about mothers and daughters, Of Blessed Memory. To be a woman who sticks her head up and asserts her belief that she has a right to be heard still strikes many as transgression against the order of things, though I find it hard to understand why outspoken women still provoke the rage and envy that we do.

Molly takes on the mother role when she sees me attacked, chewing out uppity journalists and defending me from their barbs. She is so identified with me that every affront to me becomes an affront to her. Flattering as this is, it worries me.

It has not been easy for the children of my generation. We were making it all up as we went along and our children were pushed to be wise beyond their years. They were often forced into the role of mothering when they needed to be mothered themselves. The only thing they most craved - stability - we could not give them because we didn't have it ourselves. A child needs a mother to be a Rock of Gibraltar - but we were often swept away by the tide.

I WORRY about Molly becoming a clone of me - fearfully competent, comfortably outspoken and yet... where is the freedom for her to make her own mistakes and be unlike me? If she had a host of brothers and sisters she could try on a variety of roles, but because there is only her and me, the bond between us is tight almost to snapping point. I'm always consciously trying to give her space. But because there is only one of her, she has to be all things to me. It's a heavy burden.

Once the single daughter opens up her own life to her own sexuality, she wants no competition from her mother. Molly has made it very clear to me that she dislikes me to wear seductive clothes, she gets nervous if I am flirtatious and I want the sexual sphere all to myself. How many times have I retreated into the role of duenna because that was what Molly wanted me to be!

Last summer at a literary conference in Norway, I lay in my bed in a room adjoining my daughter's, wondering what on earth she was doing in her room with that local journalist - talking it turned out. I had been wholly supplanted as a sexual creature, and I had to forcibly restrain myself from knocking on the wall.

Looking at her now, I am filled with a mixture of trepidation and envy: she has a perfect body, gorgeous long hair and all those adventures ahead of her. Then I remember how awful it was to be a young woman, and I laugh at myself for wanting to go back into that turmoil.

Because I have had a lot of tortured relationships, I hope I listen to Molly with more empathy when she is wondering about the phone call that doesn't come, or when she is being obsessive about whether she said the right thing at a party. I think you can only listen: wait for the questions, and answer them as honestly as you can. Spend a lot of time resolutely keeping your mouth shut.

I remember how annoyed I used to be when my mother fired bromides at me: don't wear your heart on your sleeve, she said, make him chase YOU. I thought she was hopelessly primitive, didn't understand the modern world and had nothing to give me but old wives' tales. I understand now that she felt that terror for me that I feel for Molly, and that she was patching her terror with proverbs.

HOWEVER much the outer world changes for women, the inner feelings of mothers don't change much. In Of Blessed Memory I tell the story of the 20th century through the lives of women. The matriarch of my family, Sarah, leaves Russia in the aftermath of a pogrom in 1905, and goes to New York where she sets up as a portrait painter. By the 1920s the family is prosperous and Sarah's daughter, Salome, sails to Europe in 1929 to write the great American novel. There she meets the expatriate world of Paris in that era - Henry Miller is a lover; Edith Wharton and Scott Fitzgerald are friends.

Her daughter becomes the most famous folk singer of her generation, and her story is told by her daughter Sara, the family archivist. Writing a family history enabled me to study the way that great-grandmothers influence great-granddaughters they may never meet. It shows how strength passes down the female line; how mothers seed their daughters through their dreams. Each mother-daughter bond undergoes a period of separation and rebellion and then a reunion and reconciliation after the daughter has a daughter of her own. As the daughters become mothers, they understand the compromises that their mothers have made, and they begin to love, and forgive them.

The process of maturing is a process of learning empathy. As the Yiddish proverb goes: "Kindness is the greatest wisdom". When a daughter grows up, she becomes kinder to her mother and, in turn, kinder to herself.

Molly and I have had to accelerate all these processes in our relationships. Because a mother and daughter standing alone against the world have an intense connection - especially when the mother is single, as I was for many years - we have had to transform our relationship many times, to discharge all our feelings and to contend honestly with each other. It hasn't been easy, but it has been the richest relationship I have ever known.

All the mothers in my novels write letters to their daughters. Of Blessed Memory is my letter to Molly. In it I am trying to make her understand that the stories you tell yourself about your past and your future do in fact determine what your past and future become. Telling a story is a form of prayer.

When I was little I used to kiss the pictures of authors on the backs of books. If someone told me an author was dead I was amazed that a person no longer among the living could still have such power. That was why I wanted to be an author, to make magic with words and go on making it after I was gone.

What do I wish for Molly? To have work she loves, and a child to bring her enlightenment. To tell the story of her life so as to expand its magical possibilities. To have love and work because one enhances the other. To be the heroine of her own life.

One of my fictional mothers writes to her fictional daughters: "When you were born, I felt that all the holes in my life were healed. Not like a patchwork quilt but like miraculous new skin." The theme of my new book is mothers giving birth to daughters, and daughters giving rebirth and resurrection to their daughter.

It is the theme of my life.

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