Rome, July. The midsummer air thick with cigarette smoke and exhaust. By the time my plane had touched down, I’d been awake for almost twenty-four hours, three of which I’d spent waiting at the airport for a rental car. I’d driven into the city amid bleating horns and darting mopeds. I parked in a questionable spot and wove through the crowded sidewalks until I found the address of the tiny apartment I’d rented. Upstairs, I pulled the curtains shut and crawled into the strange bed with its coarse white sheets. I posted a photo on Facebook of my shiny exhausted face—Italia!—and instantly fell asleep.
I woke to three text messages from my mother.
You're in Italy??
My ticket is for next month!
Months previous, she’d cleared her schedule of psychotherapy patients to meet me in Naples. From there, our plan was to drive to the tiny fishing town on the Sorrento Coast where her grandmother had been born, and where I’d rented another apartment for a week. I frantically scrolled through our emails, scanning for dates.
It was true. I’d typed the wrong month in our initial correspondence about the trip. Weeks later, we’d forwarded each other our ticket confirmations, which obviously neither of us had closely read.
The panic I felt was more than my disappointment at the ruin of our shared vacation, to which I had so been looking forward. It was more than the sorrow I felt at what must have been her hours of panic while I slept, or her imminent disappointment as she corroborated the facts herself. It was more than the fear that she’d be angry with me (who wouldn’t be angry with me?) because my mother’s anger never lasted.
Imagine a foundation as delicate and intricate as honeycomb, a structure that could easily be crushed by the careless hand of error. Now, atop it, imagine a structure that has weathered many blows, some more careless than others. The dread did not rise from my thoughts but from my gut, from some corporeal logic that had kept meticulous track of every mistake before this one. That believed there was a finite number of times one could break someone’s heart before it hardened to you.
My mother, who had been such a lonely child, wanted a daughter. Melissa, she explained to me, as soon as I was old enough to learn the story, means honeybee. Later, I learned that it was the name of the priestesses of Demeter. Melissa, from meli, which means honey, like Melindia or Melinoia, those pseudonyms of Persephone. Is it too obvious to compare us to those two?
I don’t know how it feels to create a body with my own. Maybe I never will. I remember, though, how my mother nursed me until I was nearly two years old and already speaking in full sentences. When I moved to solid food, she fed me bananas and kiefer, whose tartness I still crave. She sang me to sleep against her freckled chest. She read to me and cooked for me and carried me with her everywhere.
What a gift it was to be so loved, to trust in my own safety. All children are built for this, but not all parents rise to the task. Not my father, so she left him. We moved in with her mother and then, after several months, to a house full of women who had decided to live without men. One day on the shore, we found our sea captain strumming a guitar, the man who became my real father. From the day he and my mother met, he never knew one of us without the other. Now, whenever I see him, one of the first things he always says to me is, Ah! Just now, you looked exactly like your mother.
They dote on the memory of me as a child just as they doted on me when I was a child. Fat and happy, always talking. You were so cute, they say. We had to watch you. You would have walked off with anyone.
When my father was at sea, it was just my mother and me again. After my brother was born, it was me in whom she confided how much harder it became to say goodbye to my father, year after year. Her tears smelled like sea mist, cool against my cheek. Like they had doted on me, I doted on my brother, our baby.
After my parents separated, they tried nesting—an arrangement where they rotate in and out of the family home while the children remain. The first time my father returned from sea and my mother slept in a room she rented across town, I missed her with a force so terrible it made me sick. My longing felt like a disintegration of self, or a distillation of self—everything concentrated into a single panicked obsession. My toys were drained of all their pleasure. No story could rescue me. To protect my father, whose heart was also broken, I hid my despair. In secret, I called my mother on the telephone and whispered, Please come get me. I had never been apart from her. I hadn’t known that she was my home.
My birthday falls during Pyanepsion, the fourth month of the ancient Greek calendar. It is the month of Persephone’s abduction, the month Demeter’s despair laid all the earth to waste, and during which the women of Athens celebrated Thesmophoria. The rites of this three-day fertility festival were kept secret from men. They included the burying of sacrifices and the retrieval of the previous year’s oblations—often the bodies of slain pigs—whose remains were offered on altars to the goddesses and then scattered in the fields with the year’s seeds.
When I got my first period at thirteen, my mother wanted to have a party. Just small, all women, she said. I want to celebrate you. It was already too late. I seethed with something greater than the advent of my own fertility, the hormones catapulting through my body, the fact of our severed family, the end of my child form, or the cataclysm of orgasms I brought myself to every night. I’d been taught by my mother to honor these changes. But there were things for which she neither had nor could have prepared me. The sum of it all was unspeakable. (It is so painful to be loved sometimes. Intolerable, even.) I would rather have died than celebrate this metamorphosis with her.
Psychologists and philosophers have numerous explanations for the anger that attends this cleaving between parents and children. I have read about separation and differentiation and individuation. It is a most ordinary disruption, necessarily awful, sometimes severe—especially for mothers and daughters. The closer the mother and the daughter are, the more violent the daughter’s effort to disentangle herself can be. I’m not looking for permission or assurance that ours was a normal break; rather, a different kind of understanding. For that, I need to retell our story.
I imagine myself as my mother—which is to say, a lover, and my beloved as someone with whom I spend twelve years of uninterrupted, undifferentiated intimacy. It is an affair in which the burden of responsibility, of care, lies solely upon me. I imagine, also, simultaneous duties, now seemingly less important since my child’s arrival. In Demeter’s case, the earth’s fertility, the nourishment of all its people, and the cycle of life and death. After twelve years, my beloved rejects me. She does not leave. She does not cease to depend on me—I still must clothe and feed her, ferry her through each day, attend to her health and occasionally offer her comfort. Mostly, though, she becomes unwilling to accept my tenderness. She exiles me from her interior world almost entirely. She is furious. She is clearly in pain and possibly in danger. Every step I take toward her, she backs further away.
Of course, this is a flawed analogy, a loose allusion. I turn to it because we have so many narratives to make sense of romantic love, sexual love, marriage, but none that feel adequate to both the heartbreak my mother must have felt and the kinds of love I have known since. The attachment styles that define our adult relationships are determined in that first emotional connection with our parents, aren’t they? More than a few times I have felt the shock of losing access to a lover; it doesn’t matter who leaves. It feels like a crime against nature, a kind of torture, to be robbed of that presence. It must have been thus for my mother—for Demeter, as she watched Persephone be carried away in that black chariot, and then the earth broke open to swallow her.
Cape Cod, April. I was thirteen and had spent that Saturday at the library with Tracy. At least, that was what I had told my mother when I got in her car that evening. The sun was half-sunk behind a cluster of storefronts, the afternoon’s warmth had turned cool, a breeze from the nearby harbor carrying the soft clang of a buoy’s bell. I buckled my seatbelt, and waved goodbye to Tracy, who turned to walk home. My mother and I watched her stiff, straight-backed gait, the edge of her t-shirt rippling in the wind. She did walk a little bit like a robot, as Josh had observed when she left us in his room together, and then he fumbled in my underwear.
You smell like sex, my mother said. Her tone was one of exhaustion. Please, it said, just tell me the truth. I know it already. Let’s be in this together.
It was easy to present the shock of my humiliation and incredulity. I’d done so before and we both knew it.
I’ve never had sex, I said. I believed this.
My mother shifted into gear and turned toward the exit. Sex isn’t just intercourse, she said.
We drove home in silence. I don’t know if we had a conversation about trust that night. We’d had them so many times before, my mother trying to broker an understanding, to cast a single line across the distance between us. If trust was broken, my mother explained, it had to be rebuilt. But the sanctity of our trust held no currency with me, so broken trust came to mean the loss of certain freedoms. She didn’t want to revoke my privileges; she wanted me to come home to her. Probably, I knew this. If she didn’t like the distance my lies created, then she would like even less my silence and sulks, my slammed bedroom door. Of course I won these battles. We each had something the other wanted, but I alone had conviction.
How many times could she call me a liar, or believe me to be one? I was relentless in my refusal to acknowledge what we both knew. I slept over at friends’ homes where older brothers coaxed me into closets or found me in the kitchen, at midnight, drinking a glass of water. I went on drug deliveries with a friend’s mother, snuck boys into our home, or met them behind the movie theater. Grown men groped me in backyards and basements, on docks and in doorways, and there was nothing my mother could do to protect me.
The Rape of Persephone is depicted by hundreds of artists, across thousands of years. In epic poetry the word rape is often translated as a synonym for abduction to temper its violence. In most sculpture, Persephone writhes in the arms of Hades, torquing her soft body away from his muscled arms and enormous legs. Consider Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s famous baroque version, in which Hades’s fingers press into her thighs and waist. The white stone is so yielding as to seem flesh-like, Persephone’s arms fully extended while her hands push against his face and head. In Rembrandt’s Rape of Proserpina, as Hades’s chariot plunges through foaming water into darkness, and the Oceanids cling to her satin skirts, he grasps Persephone’s leg and pulls her into his pelvis. Her gown hides the rest.
My mother surely feared that I would be raped. It was a legitimate concern. In hindsight I’m surprised it never happened. Perhaps because I feared it as much as she did. Or because I so often yielded to those who would have otherwise forced themselves on me.
It must have felt like an abduction to my mother, as if someone had stolen her daughter and replaced her with a maenad. I chose to leave her, to lie, to rush to places where men might lay their hands on me, but I was still a child. Who, then, was my abductor? Can we call it Hades, the desire that filled me like smoke, that chased everything else out? I was frightened, yes, but I went willingly. Perhaps that was the scariest part.
In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson explores the term poikilos nomos—given in Plato’s Symposium to describe a “contradictory ethic” in which upper-class men were encouraged to fall in love with beautiful boys who spurned their pursuit. While nomos means law or convention, “[p]oikilos is an adjective applicable to anything variegated, complex or shifting.” Carson tells us that “this erotic code is a social expression of the division within a lover’s heart.”
A convention of Spartan weddings widely adopted across Greece was for a groom to seize his writhing bride across his body and “abduct” her by chariot, in a seemingly perfect simulacrum of Persephone’s rape.
“The Athenian nomos is poikilos,” writes Carson, “in that it recommends an ambivalent code of behavior. . . . But the nomos is also poikilos in that it applies to a phenomenon whose essence and loveliness is in its ambivalence.”
We all know the allure of the reluctant lover. But what of our own divided heart? My ambivalence tormented and compelled me. That eros was an engine that hummed in me, propelled me away from our home into the darkness. I knew it was dangerous. I couldn’t tell the difference between my fear and desire—both thrilled my body, itself already a stranger to me. There was a nomos for this. Daughters were supposed to leave their mothers, to grope for the bulging shapes of men, and then resist them. My mother must have anticipated this, must have hoped she would be spared.
But wasn’t my mother also my beloved, my captor? If eros is lack, then it existed between us. Wasn’t it against her arms that I fought most viciously? Like the Spartan bride, I would have lost my heart if she had truly let me go. A daughter is wedded to her mother first.
In the “Hymn to Demeter,” the Homeric poet tells that “for nine days did the Lady Demeter / wander all over the earth, holding torches ablaze in her hands.” After that, she takes a human form and becomes the caretaker of an Eleusinian boy, whom she tries and fails to make immortal.
When I was thirteen, my mother went back to school to become a psychotherapist. She took a lover with long blond hair who cared for us while my mother rode a Greyhound bus to Boston each day for class, textbooks propped on her lap. Is it narcissistic of me to wonder if she’d gone into psychotherapy to understand her own pain? Not only the loss of her daughter but also the end of her marriage. The job of a therapist is not so different from a mother’s, although it’s safer. It is collaboration and care, but not symbiosis. It is not reciprocal in its need. Her patients may have been the Eleusinian children who could never be made immortal, but she did not set them on fire as Demeter did that boy. She helped them as I would not allow myself to be.
When I told her, just a few months short of seventeen, that I was moving out, she didn’t try to stop me. I knew she didn’t want me to go. Maybe I should have tried to stop you, she has said to me since, and more than once. But I was afraid that I would lose you for good.
I try to remember what I was thinking, what my reasoning was. I recall that tension between us, how it could have snapped into a more enduring separation. By the time I moved out, I had already softened some. If she’d objected, would I have still left? No, I think, though maybe that’s the wish of my adult self for that girl.
Zeus insisted Hades return Persephone to her mother, and the dark lord capitulated, on one condition: if Persephone had tasted any food of the underworld, she would be consigned to return to Hades for half of every year. Did Persephone know? Yes and no. In some versions, she thinks she is smart enough to evade him, to taste and still go home. There are so many holes in myth, so many versions and mutations, most unstamped by chronology. A myth is the memory of a story passed through time. Like any memory, it changes. Sometimes by will, or necessity, or forgetting, or even for aesthetic purpose.
The pomegranate seeds were so lovely, like rubies, and so sweet, Persephone thought. In every version of the myth, she tastes them.
It was winter in Boston. I was seventeen. I didn’t start with heroin. I started with meth, though we called it crystal, which sounded much prettier than the burnt clumps of tinfoil that littered our apartment and whose singed smell hung in the air, as if an oven had been left on too long.
Imagine Persephone’s first season in hell. When I phoned home, I apologized to my mother for not calling. I’ve been busy with classes. I’m making such nice friends.
These were half-truths. I wasn’t missing classes. I did make friends. I had a job and homework and a bedroom without a door that cost me $150 per month in rent. My mother would have paid for more, but with it she would have also bought more claim on the truth.
When I rode that same Greyhound bus home and ate the meals she made and slept in my old room, it was like rising from some underworld to the golden light of earth. I missed it so much. And yet I couldn’t wait to leave.
Imagine Persephone loving Hades. Is it so impossible? She could not have escaped him by dying, after all. We often love the things that abduct us, that abscond with a part of ourselves. I imagine I would find a way, if I were bound to someone for the rest of my life—for half of eternity.
It was Christmas or Thanksgiving, I can’t recall. My mother, brother, and I joined hands around the table, the steaming food encircled by our arms. We squeezed each other’s fingers, pressed our thumbs into each other’s palms. That small triad, who had been so sad and strong and fiercely loving in my father’s absence.
After the dishes were washed, my mother sank into the sofa and smiled at us. Should we play a game? she asked. Watch a movie?
I need to borrow your car, I said.
I can hardly bear to remember her expression. As if I’d crumpled her heart and tossed it away.
Where could you possibly have to go tonight?
I don’t remember what I answered, only that she let me and how much it hurt to leave them. I pulled the front door shut behind me, and something tore inside, like a chapped lip that rends at a word. Still, the quickening as I lit a cigarette in the dark and turned off of our road toward the highway—I imagine that this is the way a man feels leaving his family for his mistress. I did feel part father, part husband, and maybe every daughter does. Or just the ones whose fathers have gone.
I didn’t tell her when I stopped shooting up, got clean. She’d never known I started. She knew what she saw and that was bad enough. You can’t crawl up to your mother from hell and not look like it. If I told her why she didn’t have to worry anymore, I’d have to confirm why she’d worried. I’d have to be done for good. What if Persephone had told Demeter not only what happened in hell, but that she might be coming home for good? What daughter would do that? Besides, there was so much more to Hades than heroin.
A year into my job as a dominatrix, my mother came to visit me in New York. She knew what I did for a living. It was a sexless, feminist pursuit, so far as she was concerned. Activism, really. Or, acting, at least. Like so many times before, she didn’t challenge me.
One evening, as we were leaving my apartment to go to dinner, she spotted a harness and dildo hanging from the back of my bedroom door. I don’t think I wanted her to see it; I really was that careless.
I know what they make you do with that, she said bravely. Probably, I figured, though I couldn’t imagine how she learned it. Sometimes I think how easy it would’ve been to tell her it was for my personal use. Embarrassing, to be sure, and untrue, but less painful. I made no response.
We occasionally discussed sex. What we didn’t talk about were the things I designated. The parts of me I thought she might find illegible. The things she might have disapproved of, or simply been wounded by, or that I had no words to name.
He’s not so bad, mother, Persephone might have said. It’s hard to explain. It’s a whole other world down here—half my home. Though I can also understand why she’d never bring it up.
Another holiday. After dinner, all of us draped over the couch, drowsy with food.
I need to borrow your car, I said.
Her pleading face, so pretty and so sad.
Where could you possibly be going?
I took a breath.
I have to go to a meeting, I said. Then I had to explain. Things have been bad.
She wanted to know how bad. Or thought she did.
I revealed very little. As she listened, her expression grew tired. It all makes so much more sense now, was all she managed to say.
I wanted to take it all back. How much are you supposed to tell someone who loves you that much, whom you want to protect? Is it worse for them to find out later, when you’re safely on the other side? I hated to watch my mother sort through the past, solving the puzzle of my inconsistencies with the pieces I’d withheld. Lies make fools of the people we love. It’s a careful equation, protecting them at the cost of your betrayal. Like mortgaging the house again to pay for the car. I was also, always, protecting myself. There were things I would no longer be able to believe if I had to say them aloud. I could only tell her the truth when I faced it.
Three years later, I sent her the book I’d written.
You can’t call me until you’ve finished reading it, I said. In it were all the things I’d never told her about the heroin, and the parts of my job that hadn’t felt like feminist activism or even acting. Take as much time as you need, I said, hoping that she’d take long enough to process it on her own, to not need to talk to me about how it felt to read those things.
The phone rang the next morning at seven.
I couldn’t stop reading it, she said. I kept putting it down and turning out the light and then turning it back on and picking up the book again.
When I asked what she found so riveting about it, she said, I had to know you were going to be all right.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to read, she said. It’s wonderful.
In the years that followed, she sometimes told me about the awkward things her colleagues said to her about the book, the ways she had to explain my past and the ways she couldn’t.
I’ve had my own experience of it, she once said. I knew she meant that she wanted me to make room for how it had been hard for her, too—the living and the telling. I had made a choice to tell the world the things I couldn’t talk about. In doing so, I had forced myself to talk about them, though I still barely could with her. My choice revealed those things to her and simultaneously forced her to have a conversation with the world. Even more unfair, I didn’t want to know about it. I couldn’t bear to listen.
Ten years later, I had a lover who wanted me to always be thinking of her. When I was, she lavished me with gifts and grand gestures of affection. When I wasn’t, she punished me, mostly by withdrawing. At this, I felt a touch of that old disintegration, that sickened longing. It was a torment—a compelling cycle to which I consented.
The first time I brought her home to meet my mother, she only looked at me. At dinner, she answered my mother’s questions but did not ask them. Her eyes sought mine as if tending something there. It was hard for me to look anywhere else.
She’s so focused on you it’s odd, my mother said. I could tell she was being generous.
My lover had brought a gift for my mother, a necklace made of lavender beads, smooth as the inside of a mussel shell. In the bedroom, she removed the small box from her suitcase and handed it to me.
Give it to her, my lover said.
But it’s from you, I said.
It’s better if you give it to her, she said.
I knew that my mother would also find this odd, just as odd as her need to be alone with me even during such a short visit.
We’ll give it to her together, I said.
In the months after I left her, it was tempting to interpret this behavior as an expression of my lover’s guilty conscience. But I don’t think she knew enough about herself to feel guilty in front of my mother. More likely, she saw my mother as a competitor. I suspect that she feared my mother would see something in her that I couldn’t yet. Still, for the two years we were together I withdrew from my mother almost entirely. I could not see what was happening to me and didn’t want to. Like my lover, I refused to look at my mother. I didn’t want to see what she saw.
A few times, I called her, sobbing. I’d also done this when I was on heroin.
Do you think I’m a good person? I asked.
Of course, she said. I could feel how much she still wanted to help me. I hung up the phone. I missed her so much, worse than ever before.
The morning that I decided to finally leave the relationship, I called my mother. This time, I didn’t wait three years to write a book about it and then send it to her.
I’m leaving her, I said. It’s been so much worse than I told you.
How? she asked. After I revealed everything, she wanted to know why I hadn’t confided in her.
I don’t know, I said. I was weeping. What if I’d told you and then didn’t leave her?
She was quiet for a moment. Did you think that I would hold that against you?
I wept harder and covered my eyes with my hand.
Listen to me, she said, her voice as firm as a hand under my chin. You could never lose me. I will love you every day of your life. There is nothing you could do to make me stop loving you.
When I didn’t answer, she said, Do you hear me?
When I sent my second book to my mother, we had an hours-long conversation. I explained how my writing created a place where I could look at and talk to parts of myself that I otherwise couldn’t. She explained to me that this was exactly what her mode of therapy allowed her patients to do. We had talked about this before, but never in such depth.
A few months later, at a conference my mother attends every year, we stood in front of a room packed with therapists. She began the workshop by leading them through an explanation of the model she trains clinicians in around the world. She was warm and funny, expert and charismatic. You could easily see why our mailbox filled with heartfelt cards from patients she’d stopped seeing decades ago. When she was done, I stood and spoke about how writing allows me to retread the most painful parts of the past and find not only new meaning but also healing there. Then, I led the audience through a writing exercise that exemplified this and drew upon my mother’s therapy model. Afterward, I invited a few of the therapists to share their work. As they read, the group nodded and laughed. A few people wept.
That whole weekend, people clasped our hands and praised our work together. They marveled at the miracle of our collaboration. How special, they said. Whose idea was this?
Hers, I told them.
As the memories of stories are changed with each telling, they are more irrevocably changed with each conquest, each colonizer, each assimilation of one people into another. But there are older versions of Demeter’s story, precursors to the Greek, that emerged from a system of matrifocal mythology, and likely a society whose values it reflected.
There was no rape, no abduction. The mother, goddess of the cycle of life and death, passed freely from underworld to earth, receiving those who died as they passed from one to the next. Her daughter, some of these older versions say, was simply the maiden version of that goddess, imbued with the same powers. Others suggest that Phesephatta was the very old goddess of the underworld, and always had been.
It used to scare me that I wanted things my mother wouldn’t understand. I think we both feared our difference. In hiding it from her, I often created exactly the thing I wished to avoid. It’s not that I should have told her everything—that would have been its own kind of cruelty—though I could have trusted her more. That younger version of our story, the one I’ve carried for most of my life, the one I’ve mostly told of here, is also true: I hurt myself, and I hurt her over and over. But like the matrifocal myth, there is another version, a wiser one.
In it, Persephone is already home. Her time spent in the dark is not an aberration of nature, but its enactment. I’ve come to see mine the same way. My darkness has become my work on this earth. I return to my mother again and again, and both realms are my home. There is no Hades, no abductor. There is only me. There is nothing down there that I haven’t found a piece of in myself. I am glad to have learned that I do not have to hide this from her. It helps that the darkness is now less likely than ever to kill me.
I can hold both of these stories together in my mind. There is room for one in the other. The first myth of mother and daughter I sacrifice on the first day of Thesmophoria, Kathodos, a ritual violence. The other, I retrieve on the third day, Kalligeneia, and sprinkle in the fields. All of my violences might be seen this way: a descent, a rise, a sowing. If we sow them, every sacrifice becomes a harvest.
As the Rome traffic heaved outside the window of that tiny apartment, I stared at my phone while dread thickened in me. I understood that I could sink this whole trip into it, spend every day punishing myself for my mistake. I didn’t have to, though. The part of me who feared the bond between my mother and me too fragile to withstand this blow was a younger self. I had to tell her about this new story, that there was nothing I could do that would make my mother stop loving me. I promised her. Then, I called my mother.
She was mad, of course, and disappointed, but by the end of the call we were laughing.
A few days later, I phoned her from the town where her grandmother was born.
You are going to love it here, I said.
There is a difference between the fear of upsetting someone who loves you and the danger of losing them. For a long time, I couldn’t separate them. It has taken me some work to discern the difference between the pain of hurting those I love, and my fear of what I might lose. Hurting those we love is survivable. It is inevitable. I wish that I could have done less of it.
A year later, I picked my mother up at the Naples airport, and we drove down the coast to that town, Vico Equense. For two weeks, we ate fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, and walked the same streets her grandmother had. I drove us down the entire Amalfi Coast and only scratched the rental car a little.
As I drove, my mother held my phone up to film the shocking blue waters that rippled below, the sheer drop from the highway’s edge, the wheeling birds that seemed to follow us, and the tiny villages built into the hillside. It was terrifying and beautiful, like all my favorite journeys.
Back home, I sort through the pictures, deleting doubles and smiling at our happy faces. When I get to that video and play it, I see an image of her sandaled foot—wide and strong like my own—on the gritty floor of our rented Fiat. Our voices, recorded with perfect clarity, comment on the scenery. She is holding the phone’s camera upside-down, I realize. I snort and keep watching her shifting foot as our voices remark on a passing bus. Then, alone at my desk in Brooklyn, I close my eyes and listen to our conversation rippling eagerly through time, our gasps as mopeds speed by us on hairpin turns, and our laughter ringing on and on.