The Mother Knot

Kathryn Harrison

It felt appropriate to read this directly after Annie John since they are both beautifully spare books about difficult mother and daughter relationships, although they are very different stories beyond that. Twenty years after the death of her mother, Kathryn Harrison weaned her third child, setting off a depression with unclear origins. She begins to unearth feelings and experiences from her past — eventually in a very literal manner. Her mother had essentially abandoned her to her grandparents when she was a child, going so far to phrase it as providing Harrison as a stand-in hostage for her parents to control, although this hadn’t turned out quite as her mother planned. Inevitably Harrison’s experience of being a mother pulled her back to her experiences of being mothered, the two entangled together.

I read some responses to the The Mother Knot that described the book as self-indulgent, yet for me the willowy structure of the prose provided a lightness that conveyed how the events proceeded over some time, as regular life continued. In a few places she recounts conversations with her therapist, so some people may knee-jerk react to therapy itself being self-indulgent, but I appreciated Harrison’s level of awareness and curiosity to probe further. She presents an account of mental health struggles that seems very real, that nothing is ever fully overcome, that old patterns can resurface under new stresses. While Harrison applied a certain level of artifice to this real-life story — the resolution feels rather tidy, for one — she doesn’t over-dramatize. She notes in the acknowledgements:

Though my mother didn’t prepare me for marriage or motherhood or the job of living, she did give me a muse. My love for her preceded and has outlasted my rage. Because her purpose was to elude she continues to fascinate. She provides what a writer requires, an eternally empty vessel into which endless characters and plots, and all the longing they represent, can be poured.