Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments: A Memoir
(1987) explores the nature of the mother-daughter bond, and how it is not always a healthy relationship. Recognized as one of the leading memoirs of the twentieth century, critics praise the book for its honest assessment of filial relationships. A nonfiction writer and literary critic, Gornick typically writes about controversial subjects, including politics and gender, but she also enjoys exploring familiar topics from new, novel angles. She is best known for Fierce Attachments
and her feminist essay collection, The Men in My Life
In Fierce Attachments
, Gornick explores what it means to be a woman, a mother, and a daughter. Specifically, she reflects on her own relationship with her mother, “Ma,” and what this filial bond teaches her about womanhood. She concludes that there are many ways to be a mother, noting that female influences are often just as important to growing girls as their mothers.
Gornick begins the book with one of her earliest memories. She is eight years old and lives in a Jewish community in the Bronx with Ma, who spends most of her time judging the neighbors and what they get up to. Looking back, Gornick realizes that Ma wasn’t nosy at all. She was keeping an eye out for the other women in the building because women must look out for each other.
Gornick describes her mother’s upbringing in some detail. Ma grew up in a one-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side, sleeping on two kitchen chairs because the family couldn’t afford a bed for her. Ma’s uncle came to stay with them, and he frequently assaulted her at night. She couldn’t tell anyone because she knew that no one would believe her. Reflecting on Ma’s story, Gornick doesn’t just understand how it feels to be silenced; she recognizes that there is so much about a mother that her daughter can never understand. The mother-daughter bond, then, is always shrouded in mystery.
As Gornick grows up, Ma tells her how important it is to be educated and to make something of herself. It is important to never rely on a man for anything because modern women should never feel subservient. Ma doesn’t want Gornick stuck in a loveless marriage like their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Drucker, who despises her husband so much that she makes him shower before she will sleep with him. He won’t let Mrs. Drucker get a job, and so she is stuck in a miserable life.
Although Ma is outspoken, brash, and opinionated, she truly wants the best for Gornick growing up. Ma loves being in control. She forgets that she is raising a daughter to think for herself and to challenge her preconceived ideas. Tensions rise in the home.
The problems reach boiling point, Gornick notes, when she takes Ma’s advice and gets herself an education. She graduates from City College in 1957 with a publishing degree, and she then completes an MA in journalism. Now, she talks back to Ma. She openly disagrees with her on many issues. Ma doesn’t know how to handle this new daughter. Ma feels that Gornick doesn’t love her, or that she thinks she is better than her because she is educated.
What really happened, Gornick explains, is that she grew up. She loves Ma dearly, but she doesn’t see her through rose-colored glasses. She sees Ma for who she truly is—not her mother, but an imperfect woman with as many flaws as anyone else. It is only once we grow up that we see our parents as real people; it is not always a comfortable experience.
Gornick reflects on the other women who shaped her youth, forging her into the woman she is today. She is particularly indebted to Nettie Levine. Nettie lived across the hall, and she was Ma’s opposite: coquettish, liberal, and feminine. She encouraged Gornick to flirt, date, and use her feminine charms to get ahead. To Gornick, Nettie and Ma represented two very different models of femininity, and she struggled to reconcile the differences throughout her adolescence.
Gornick expresses her sadness for how Ma’s life turned out. She sees that Ma is an intelligent, driven woman who deserved more than the life she got. She grew up in an era where poverty, social conventions, and a lack of education condemned her to a life as a housewife. As a result, she secretly resented the wealth of choices available to Gornick, even though she wanted Gornick to have a better life. Although Ma loved Gornick’s father deeply, and although she thrived on a sense of marital duty, there is no doubt that she wanted something more, too. Only now, looking back as an adult, can Gornick see how complex her mother truly is.