Obsessed: Beneath Every Plot, My Mother Remains

November 24, 2015 § 17 Comments


A  guest post from Gabriela Frank:

Gabriela Frank

Gabriela Frank

How many times have I killed my mother? In reality, she died once, but if you count every essay and story of mine in which she appears, the woman has expired countless times at my hands.

In a recent workshop I was asked to share my obsessions, the topics I can’t stop writing about. My shallow confession was an addiction to travel writing—true enough, I’ve written a book about it—but that night as I lay daydreaming about my latest story, I realized that I am actually obsessed with the far-reaching effects of my mother’s death. She died of brain cancer when she was forty-five and I was sixteen. Since then, I’ve written obsessively about losing her—my journals a fire hose of raw emotion, my fiction and essays populated with quests for a sense of self—and mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters and friends, all dying of cancer.

Obsession is defined as the domination of one’s thoughts by a persistent idea; the mind experiences a rush of fulfillment whenever the object of obsession is conjured. Unlike addiction, obsession isn’t an escape into the same experience but a search for richer prizes—hidden artifacts that deepen and validate the mystery—clues, not conclusions, a delicate balance.

My mother was my best friend and the buffer between my father and me. After she died, my life escalated into a cycle of neglect and abuse. The night my dad punched a hole in the wall next to my head then begged me to lie to the nurse who cared for his broken hand, I knew I had to leave.

Twenty-five years later, my obsession with her death simmers below the surface. Tempered by time, my loss is no longer the raw anguish I felt at her passing, in 1990; instead, it’s a low hum, a sandbag of reality: my mother is dead, my world forever changed. That’s life, I reason, but a voice inside refuses to accept this.

While I never consciously adopted it as therapy, writing is how I instinctively examine the loss of my mother. As I’ve gotten older, my obsession has grown to include my mother’s inexplicable decision to remain married to my father, whom she attempted to leave several times prior to her death. Why didn’t she untether herself when she had the chance? And why, despite my befuddlement with her life choices, have I mirrored some of them?

Journals from my teens and twenties blaze with early attempts to wrestle with this—uncontrolled, unbalanced inquiry, grossly unfair to those named within. But over time, writing has been a saving alchemy, tempering my grief into malleable material, the stuff of humanity and empathy that enlivens and warms my characters, including me.

Obsession is a hunt for complexity, a drive to uncover clues that we’re positive exist behind doors we cannot yet access; finding the next portal is as much a goal as unlocking it. That is why my mother keeps turning up in my work; each doppelganger presents another locked door, another clue to puzzle over. She may appear as a woman with espresso-brown curls, an Italian with olive skin. She might be from Detroit or drive a maroon ’79 Pontiac Grand Prix. She might have a precocious daughter. She might be on the run from abuse. The only common link between these women is death.

It sounds cruel to kill them and their loved ones in my writing, but it isn’t mindless the way real death is. For instance, I can tell you why each character had to die—personal growth or karmic justice—necessary plot devices that drive stories. Isn’t that what I’m searching for when I draw my mother into my writing? Reasons to accept my loss—perhaps my teenage self needed to be taught self-reliance? Even today, I still need something to point to with certainty and say, This is why it’s okay my mother died and left me. 

After my divorce, my obsession with her boiled over again. If I could make hard choices, like ending a dysfunctional marriage, why couldn’t she? My fixation on understanding why fueled a novel and several essays in which I punished her for not being strong enough to leave my father despite her ability to leave me. It felt cathartic to write the horrible things I could never say: that I was mad at her for abandoning me at sixteen, and for not being strong enough to leave a bad marriage. I wrote and wrote until the blood finally ebbed from my ink.

As I approach 45, the heat of my obsession has reduced to a simmer. I no longer write for revenge but to explore the severed link between my mother and me, drawing on fuzzy memories and family myths to reconstruct her in relation to who I’ve become. I am learning how to love her and her flaws in the same breath, to understand the social pressures she lived under, how women’s rights were different then than they are today. My obsession is a red thread that knits it all together: love and loss, past and present, fiction and nonfiction. The tiny fissures of my scarred heart extend into both worlds.

Beneath every plot, my mother remains. To disinter her would mean undoing a part of me that I can’t live without; you cannot separate the obsession from the writer. The same goes for my teenage self—the persistent interlocutor deep inside. She is why I’m drawn to write about the great and terrible moments upon which literature and life are based, the questions that cannot be solved. I’m not ready to not be obsessed—with my mother, with love, with loss, with living. Besides, that girl inside, the one who keeps asking why, she isn’t alone in the dark—she has my mother to look after her.

Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her work appears in The Rumpus, Word Riot, Works of Fiction in Progress Journal, Bird’s Thumb and ARCADE. She lives and writes in Seattle.



§ 17 Responses to Obsessed: Beneath Every Plot, My Mother Remains

  • Kaye Linden says:

    I obsess the same way with my father’s passing. So much lies underneath our writing, in subtext and implications. My favorite poet is Elizabeth Bishop who wrote with such precision and subtext about loss of all kinds. Read her famous poem “One Art” Dealing with loss is a skill. We become expert at letting it go, pushing it down, until it kicks and screams through our writing. Kaye Linden http://www.kayelinden.com

    • rachaelhanel says:

      I feel exactly the same way, Kaye. I keep returning to my dad in my writing and always felt badly for doing so–like, why do I have a one-track mind when it comes to writing? Gabriela helped me figure out why that is.

  • Good god, this is one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read here. Thank you!

  • Kristine says:

    “Obsession is a hunt for complexity, a drive to uncover clues that we’re positive exist behind doors we cannot yet access; finding the next portal is as much a goal as unlocking it.”

    That is the best definition of obsession I have ever read!

  • herheadache says:

    I write a lot about loss in my life too. The question of why people leave, through death or by something else, is best explored through writing of all kinds. That’s the best therapy.

  • sonyalea says:

    Exquisite essay Gabriella. Thank you.

  • Jen A says:

    Honesty and self-reflection offered to us through your authentic voice. What a gift! Thank you, Gabriela.

  • christine says:

    I came across this blog by accident really, when you said that your mother was a buffer between you and your father, my mother was my buffer between me and what feels like the world, when she died 10/13 It felt like the umbrella that sheltered me had been lefted and the world got real big, this must be strange as I just turned 50 but she was my mother and my best friend and as soon as I was able to live day to day I have spent much time reflecting on this new life and I wish I was a writer I think it would be a blessing to get the thoughts and pain on paper. Thank you for sharing

  • Kiri says:

    “Tears are words that need to be written” – Paulo Coelho
    So true for me.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Reblogged this on We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down and commented:
    Is there one theme you keeping coming back to in your writing? Have you taken the time to explore why that is?

  • darlene479 says:

    I’m new to blogging, my vocabulary and grammar is rather generic. As I stated I’m new to blogging, there’s a recommended page, I read your title and I thought why not. What I didn’t know , you , your followers are writers and I didn’t belong here. I then realized after reading your blog and your followers comments, the verbiage used for expressing and description will be advantacious me. I’m on a life’s journey I’ve never been, dark, painful etc… I attempted suicide July 30th 2015. After being a WHISTLE BLOWER I recieved aggressive and severe retaliation from the Veterans Affair Medical Center. Be patient with me, I’m going some with this, I promise. A young and very intelligent nurse manager arrived on my unit Dec. 2013. The young lady’s intelligence reeked arrogance, pride, so she and I didn’t mix well together. I’m older than she, my convictions lead me to stand up for the rights and wrongs, the nurse manager, she was not my supervisor but this woman harassedfor 14months and escalated to aggressive retaliation beginning Mar. 26th thru June 18th 2015. Now, I wanted to shed a very insight of my situation so you would understand why I believe I was led to your blog. Because of my poor use of words and anxiety, I have great difficulty trying to express and describe the severity of the abuse inflicted on me, so, I’m going to read your blog , your followers replies and hopefully I can describe and express the situation at hand. I’ve always been told “a picture is worth a 1000 words” I need to describe this picture. From Mid Jan. 2014 thru Sept 18th I have accrued 240 page documents validating these events. Before I send these documents, I want to present this tactfully and professionally, no rambling BUT the most important part is I need to describe the impact, before and the residual of … I’ve told my parents “there is no vocabulary that can describe the pain”. They triggered my PTSD and sent me spiraling. This was a lot sharing and I really didn’t need to share with why I knew this blog could help me. I guess I was just needing to share. If you read this… Thank you… Have a wonderful holiday.

  • […] Read the full piece on Brevity‘s blog: Obsessed: Beneath Every Plot, My Mother Remains. […]

  • This post is so miraculous that words practically fail me. It’s gorgeously written, which can be hard to pull off with a difficult subject. It’s also profoundly insightful, and I feel I’m now allowed to allow myself to want just about all my essays to be about my chic, contradictory, contrarian mother.

    Thank you!

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