When I was writing my novel, Lady of the Snakes, I was careful not to model the baby in it on my own baby. My daughter was plump and placid with fine blond hair. The child in the book, then, is skinny and wriggly with dark paintbrush hair. When the child in the book gets to be two years old, I never let her say a single one of the charming things my own daughter said. This was tough, but I was strict. I had my reasons.
When I was a child, my mother was getting to be well known for her poetry. It was an exciting time. I was proud – thrilled – to have poems written about me: how I came into the world, how I came to be named, how my mother bent in fascination over my crib. Later, when I was a teenager and a young adult, it was a different story. One poem was inspired by my constant complaining about being bored, and another was written out of the pain caused by something I did. Now I thought: How could my mother write about such things, however guardedly? What rights did she have to my life, and how long would she have them? When would my life be my own?
These questions nagged at me; they stayed with me. I wanted to be a writer too, but I would never exploit my children for art! I would be disciplined. I would stick to making stuff up.
In my late twenties, right around the time I started having children, I became obsessed with the photographs of Sally Mann, specifically the ones collected in her book Immediate Family. Here are gorgeous, shocking portraits of Mann’s children. Often nude, they look knowingly at the camera, or they pose with bloody noses, or with popsicle drippings on their loins. In one extraordinary picture, a daughter hangs naked, white and dead-looking, from a hay hook. In another, the title provoked me as much as the image: “The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude.” How did it happen that he let his mother know he was done? How much anger did he have to muster to break free from her thrilling project? From being, quite literally, the focus of her attention?
I loved these photographs. I showed the book to everyone. I asked them, “Did Mann have the right to take and publish these pictures?” “Did part of their power come from the exploitation itself?” It was a bargain with the devil however you looked at it, I thought, turning the pages with one hand and holding my new baby with the other, and wondering – constantly, consumingly – when and how I was ever going to get back to my own art, my writing.
How bored I was in those early months and years of my daughter’s life! More bored than I could have imagined back when I was a teenager and my mother wrote that poem about my boredom. I had longed for this baby – I adored this baby – but who knew a day could be as endless as the days we spent together? And she never slept. And she wanted to be held every moment. Just as I had when I was younger, I wondered, When will my life be my own?
These were the questions, miseries, joys, and struggles that I built into the novel I started to write a few years later, Lady of the Snakes. In it, a young professor of nineteenth-century Russian literature struggles to find some way to do her work and to raise her daughter, not to mention keep her marriage intact. Caught between passion for her work and love for her family, Jane is fascinated by the life of a nineteenth-century Russian woman whose life, though very different from Jane’s own, was defined by the same essential problem: Do we give ourselves up when we become mothers? Do we lose our right to follow our passions? And what is the cost of a such a relinquishment? All my ambivalence, exhaustion, boredom, despair: I wrapped it up in language and bestowed it on Jane.
“Knit two, purl two, / I make of small boredoms / a fabric / to keep you warm,” my mother had written years before, when I was small, in “To A Daughter.” Now I wrote, “The days dragged on, hour after tedious hour, watching Maisie like watching grass grow.” All my ambivalence, exhaustion, boredom, despair: I wrapped it up in language and bestowed it on Jane. And, “Nothing was ever sweeter than holding her daughter, except for all the times Jane longed to put her down.”
This year, when the book came out at last, my precious, precocious, now-thirteen-year-old asked if she could read it. “Sure,” I said.
A while later she came back into the room looking troubled.
“These feelings Jane has about Maisie,” she asked, “were they your feelings?”
My instinct was to lie to her. But she’s too old to lie to, and besides, one day she may have children of her own.
“Yes,” I said, and we waited together in the sunny living room while she took that in.
Not, Is that baby me? but Is that mother you? I saw then, for the first time, that they were the same question. If the mother was me, then the baby was her by definition. How laughable my efforts to keep the real and fictional babies separate! So they didn’t have the same color hair; who did I think I was fooling? Not to mention that, like my own daughter, Maisie hated being put down in the bassinet, or that she got that scary respiratory virus at two-and-a-half, or . . .
But enough. You get the point. I did it after all; I exploited my child for art. And how I could not? And wouldn’t I do it all over again?
In writing this essay, I guess I have.