Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg

Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg (2008) was a difficult read for me because of (1) the nature of the "memoir" (see Author's Note below) and (2) the fact that I could have written something that, while different in the specific details, is essentially the same in spirit about my own father. And why would I want to do that? What could I hope to gain?

Here's the Author's Note (aka Disclaimer):

This is a work of memoir and subject to the imperfections of memory. I have been faithful to what I remember, and people in my family may remember shared experiences differently. In the interests of narrative, I have conflated or changed some events and dialogue, and created occasional composites. I have changed some identifying characteristics and have reconstructed some conversations and early experiences based on family lore. I have changed all names but my own to emphasize that this story could only be mine.

If you're going to make "composites" and "conflate," why not just write a work of fiction? This leaves me not knowing what I can trust as close to fact, while knowing that every memory and experience is colored by perception and perspective, and what is complete fabrication. Frustrating.

As for Sonnenberg's representation of her mother, I'm still struggling with thinking through her motivation for writing this painful book. Even with the best of intentions, parenting is difficult and comes with a lot of mistakes. When you have a parent who is self-absorbed, addicted, self-destructive, and, frankly, would have been happier without children, the end results aren't pleasant for the children involved. Sonnenberg and I know that first-hand, and I can say that, in my case, a lot of my father's dysfunction came from his childhood and his own mother. And so the line goes back.

Based on the portrayal in the book, I see a lot of Sonnenberg's mother in her own choices in her teenage years and twenties, when she was sexually aggressive, choosing inappropriate targets, and, ultimately, very self-destructive. Like anyone in recovery, I wonder how strong her hold is on her husband and her children, her seemingly normal life in the present day. Does she affirm her commitment to this functional life every day, and does she see how easily she could have become the person she shows in her mother?

I can't shake the feeling that, if one of Sonnenberg's own sons writes a "memoir" revolving a great deal around her in thirty or forty years, she will likely be very surprised by the content. Yes, she struggles daily to be a different kind of parent, a better parent, yet perfection isn't possible. And she can't see herself as a mother the way her sons see her as their mother. I empathize with her just enough to hope she doesn't live through the experience of having one or both of them write a book like this one.

Insert usual note that this is a frequent book club selection, a New York Times bestseller, etc.

My overall personal rating of Her Last Death is a C.


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