Goethe had his Eckermann, Napoleon his Las Cases, and Fran Lopate, her son Phillip. In the 1980s, at age 41, Lopate, author of personal essays and champion of the genre, recorded a series of conversations with his mother, who was then 66. The mother told her life story in the course of about twenty hours, and now, some thirty years later, Lopate has turned her account into a book called A Mother’s Tale. The book features long stretches of Fran’s voice, which is wounded, wise-cracking, rapid-fire, sometimes coarse and barbed. Now and again her son—sympathetic, sardonic or aggrieved—slips in a comment or a question, or reflects on their long-ago dialogue, but mostly what we get here is straight, shoot from the hip Fran Lopate. She’s almost as funny as her son, which is saying something; but A Mother’s Tale does not play for laughs. Its game is bigger, more serious, and likely to provoke a dreadful curiosity: who are those people who made you—your parents—and what are you to them?
Lopate paraphrases Czeslaw Milosz “to the effect that when a writer is born into a family, that family is finished,” and his mother charges that he has been exploiting her for material ever since he started writing his essays. But the crisis in the Lopate family long precedes Phillip’s birth. Fran, the youngest of eleven siblings, becomes an orphan at age eleven when her father and mother die in quick succession. Staying with her sister Larly, the fifteen-year-old Fran runs away from home. When she returns, she learns that Larly spread a false rumor that Fran has been sleeping around, and so Fran attempts suicide. Against her better judgment, she marries Al Lopate, a worker in a textile factory, who consoles her during this desperate time. The Lopates stay married for forty-some years, living mostly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, then “a shabby Jewish slum,” despite Fran’s claim that she detested her husband nearly the whole of this time. (When the tapes were made they had finally gotten divorced, though they were still living together due to the New York housing crunch.) Fran works at a beauty parlor, in the family candy store, in factories during World War II, and in her own camera store. She is also a homemaker and the mother of four children, one of them by a man not her husband. In her fifties she enters show business, appearing in some famous TV and magazine commercials: Levy’s Jewish rye, Alka Seltzer’s “thatsa spicy meatball.” A middle-aged newcomer to show business, she tours the country in musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and The Reluctant Debutante and has a ball.
Lopate jokes that he, along with his brother Lenny (the radio host Leonard Lopate) and his sister Betty Ann, was “the product of the most fraught of mixed marriages: German Jew and Russian Jew.” His mother, from the German side, esteemed culture, especially music; his father was a disheveled Dostoyevskyan autodidact, with his head sunk in Schopenhauer and Faulkner when he wasn’t working his factory job. Theirs was a bookish family: Lopate mentions matter of factly that at one point they were all reading Tanizaki’s The Key, that crazy wild card of a marriage novel.
“I was thankfully spared that cliché of the overprotective Jewish mother, mine being far too self-absorbed to watch my every move,” Lopate writes. Fran is convinced that she deserves center stage, but has spent her life being shoved aside by mean-spirited family members: she even accuses her husband of having a “phony stroke that wasn’t even a stroke"—"he trapped me again!” She needs the limelight, and in A Mother’s Tale she gets it. Fran is earthy and blunt, sometimes scarily so. Speaking about a home abortion that “‘didn’t take,’” she tells her son, “‘part of it came out on the kitchen floor, like a piece of liver.’” “‘And then you threw it down the toilet?’” Phillip asks. “‘What else was I gonna do? Put it in the crib?’” Fran responds. “Both of us laugh; such is my family’s black humor,” Lopate concludes. The family that can share such Grand Guignol tastes surely has something going for it.
Lopate is clearly drawn by Fran’s passion and outspokenness, but he shies away from her heavily weaponed capacity to hold a grudge. Fran can be genuinely frightening when she hurls vitriol at her siblings and her spouse. “There are kind people in the world. They just don’t happen to be in my family,” she says. Fran has a disconcerting mean streak, mated with her vulnerability—a common enough pairing. Surprisingly, though, she comes off as attractive in her gusto and her blustery no-nonsense view of life, even though arguing with her is like confronting the hardest of stone walls. She is, undoubtedly, a phenomenon.
Fran is no stranger to boasting. In the late Fifties, when she is nearly forty, she gets a job as a bookkeeper in midtown Manhattan. Painting a picture of herself, she comes on like a bombshell in a Frank Tashlin movie. “Jesus, I had lost all that weight,” Fran tells her son, “and I really looked terrific. I walked along the street like I had a broomstick stuck up my ass, great-looking behind, spiked heels on, all the eyes used to pop out of their heads.” Ever the sex magnet, she has affairs throughout her married life: there’s Herbie, Benno, Willy, and more. Like a Brooklyn Bovary, but with showbiz flair, she barrels on.
As the tapes near their end Phillip pushes novelistic complexity on his mother—people are ambiguous, interesting creatures, even her husband, he tells her—but Fran is having none of it: she prefers the simplicity of the vendetta. The chief thing that Phillip wants her to concede is her ambivalence about her husband, the fact that she doesn’t simply hate him. Question: Will she accept what her son calls “her undesired pity for my father”? Answer: Well, sort of, but not for long. Moreover, pity is not love, and that she will certainly not admit to.
“I felt sorry for both of you,” Lopate tells his mother. “Growing up in that household we had to fight through to our own selfishness, because we were overwhelmed by the tragic frustration of our parents.” Fran quickly changes the subject: “Either she hadn’t heard” what he said, or “couldn’t acknowledge it,” Lopate writes.
The bookish Albert was always the likely role model for his son Phillip. In earlier essays Lopate aligned himself with his father’s somewhat close-mouthed persona, though Phillip’s own wit is warm, his father’s rather sour. Albert’s disheartened nature presents a danger for his son the essayist. In his writing Lopate stays away from the Zentraleuropäische gloom and the spiritual ache of a Cioran or a Weil, and by doing so rejects as well his father’s sad sack contemplations. In the end the middle-aged Lopate resembles his father more than his mother, though he is not a Bartleby like the father, more agile and entertaining and less of an inert sufferer: an improved Al Lopate, and therefore a fitting interlocutor for his mother.
Toward the end of the tapes Fran plays out with her son her favorite drama of not being loved: she charges Phillip with coldness, just like his father. Phillip retorts that she can’t recognize his love for her; she even took his teenage suicide attempt as an attack on her (like the father’s “phony stroke,” which was all too real). For her, the reader senses, Phillip will always be the disaffected adolescent, the one who spurned her. He flares up: “You say I tell the truth when I reject you. I don’t tell the truth when I don’t reject you. [She laughs] It’s as simple as that. Never could it be more clearly stated. That’s what I’ve learned from you: The truth is rejection. Love is not the truth.” Remembering how Al talked her down from despair after she tried to kill herself, she says, “Maybe to him it was just a challenge"—she couldn’t ever believe that her husband actually loved her, Lopate tells his mother.
Fran Lopate needs her son’s empathy: she wants him to feel her story from inside. For this son, that’s a hard assignment. In his essay "The Limits of Empathy,” Lopate rebuffs his wife’s demands that he feel not merely sympathy for her troubles but empathy, full-bore identification. It doesn’t work. He can’t identify with her occasional panic and depression, he writes, because his parents smothered him by inflicting their darkest moods on him. And so he keeps his distance. “Given my empathy-challenged nature,” Lopate concludes, “I am faced with the choice of trying to fake an empathy orgasm—a distasteful proposition—or waiting out my wife’s rage, hoping that in the end she will come to accept my defects, as I hope and pray to accept hers.” In “The Limits of Empathy” Lopate, sounding fragile and earnest, admits his own limits: the essay starts out as a criticism of empathy but then becomes a self-criticism. It’s not empathy that’s limited, as it turns out, but rather Phillip Lopate. In fact, the scary thing about empathy is its lack of limits, its ghoulish propensity to devour human souls by rubbing out their boundaries. Projection and empathy feed on each other. Am I empathizing with you, or am I becoming you? No child wants to ask that question about a parent.
Lopate the essayist discloses much that is hidden about himself and others, but in the end he keeps the boundaries between selves tight. He characteristically nudges an essay toward exposing some (too much?) revealing inside dope about himself or other people. Then, with superb humor and humane good feeling, he pronounces that, now that the beans have been spilled, we might as well go further, into those secretive or embarrassing folds where truth lurks. He is neither a bluff observer of peccadilloes nor a delver into traumas; most of what’s interesting and appealing about us, he thinks, lies in the mid-range. He often writes about how he has changed his feelings and judgments over time, and implies that looking back on an earlier self provides useful flexibility. About the characters he’s closest to—his brother Leonard, for instance—he discerns a rich and troubling ambivalence in himself.
At his best Lopate is a real wisdom writer. He can be aphoristic without showing off, and even better, he actually probes his aphorisms to see whether they hold up. In his knockout essay “Against Joie de Vivre” he writes, “There is something to be said for disappointment. The least respected form of suffering, downgraded to a kind of petulance, at least accurately measures the distance between hope and reality.” In this essay, as so often, Lopate’s down in the dumps tone is only part of the picture: with full savor he describes the sexual joys he has known, raptures whose simplicity demands careful description. Such describing is an enjoyment in itself for this writer. But what would joy be worth without some moroseness around the edges?
Usually the essayist is a flaneur, brushing by experience with a certain aloofness, and Lopate is no exception. He is not a connoisseur (happily), but he knows what he likes. He gives the high hat to the people and works of art that are not for him, and on these occasions he can be hilarious but never cruel. When he does take someone or something more personally, which is most of the time, he recognizes first of all that his feelings are entwined with his object in a way that makes a high-handed approach impossible.
Like Montaigne, Lopate relishes our unsuspected uniquenesses. In “Portrait of my Body,” an essayistic strip tease in which he examines his physical self piece by piece, he comes at the end to his penis, as we knew he would. Lopate’s down to earth magic is that he is never affected or theatrical when he reveals such intimacies. In all his essays he likes to control how and when the intimate appears, and he doesn’t seem at all nervous about the matter. Giving the microphone to Fran Lopate means giving up this control, taking the plunge into the parent’s voice, being at most a kibitzer rather than the one who structures the information.
A Mother’s Tale makes a sharp swerve away from Lopate’s usual style. Fran is disarmingly straightforward: A Mother’s Tale lacks the artful to and fro typical of the essay, where the reader watches to see what the writer will do next. Of course, the book isn’t an essay or even the mother’s memoir, but rather Fran’s confession, along with Phillip’s reaction to it. Lopate gives as complete a picture of his mother as he can by letting her decide on the pace and the tenor of her revelations. In this he resembles a psychoanalyst. And like a psychoanalyst, he jumps in only when he thinks it will do some good.
Fran Lopate has some traits in common with Vivian Gornick’s mother, as depicted by Gornick in her memoir Fierce Attachments. Fran shares with Gornick’s mother a razor-clawed taste for vengeance, an obstinate resistance to self-analysis and a will to distort other people’s experience. But these two women are humanly appealing in spite of all this. What they have done and suffered has a purpose: they’ve become authors of themselves. Lopate lets the spotlight remain on Fran instead of focusing like Gornick on the mother and child partnered in struggle. Both Lopate and Gornick face a problem in reader response: their unruly mothers are sometimes appalling to watch in action. Both of them brilliantly surmount this obstacle by drawing us closer to a life story that is stymied, defiant, self-thwarting, and somehow strangely victorious.
Lopate’s transcription of Fran’s monologues is a big step toward empathy. But he became the writer he is only because he skirted her demand that he prove his love by taking her side absolutely. If there’s one thing that an essayist can’t live with, it’s absolutes.
In his epilogue to A Mother’s Tale Lopate writes, “I sometimes think that I was put on earth to understand my mother’s pain.” He also says that he hasn’t gotten very far in this project, even now, at age seventy. It hasn’t been for lack of trying. He rebels when Fran demands empathy rather than understanding—since understanding, as every writer knows, means practicing your stance and having the edge on your subject. Instinctive loyalty Lopate cannot give. What he can give is a willing ear, and the wish to see his mother as she really was. We should all have such a son.