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Monday, January 02, 2006

Scarlett Johannson

is on the cover of Elle magazine this month, but the real revelation is Daphne Merkin's essay "Sins of the Mothers." The essay, which isn't available online, is about "the stranger-than-fiction story of the Paula Fox-Linda Carroll-Courtney Love axis of maternal dysfunction." I had known a little about Courtney Love's estrangement from her mother, but I was surprised to find out that Paula Fox, one of my favorite novelists, is Courtney Love's grandmother.

Several of Fox's excellent novels have just come back into print, in part due to the efforts of Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem, who wrote introductions to the reprints of Desperate Characters, Poor George, and The Widow's Children. These books are the antithesis to Franzen's sprawling The Corrections in that they're short, spare, and unsympathetic. They'd be perfect sources for Lars von Trier's next anti-consolation trilogy. Fox also wrote children's books in the 1970s; she won the Newbery award in 1974 for The Slave Dancer. Another children's book and Newbery honoree, One-Eyed Cat, is one of the chilliest children's books ever written.

In 2001, she wrote an extraordinary memoir, Borrowed Finery, about her childhood spent shuttling between grandparents and other family members in upstate New York, Montreal, and Cuba; her parents were mostly absent from her life. Borrowed Finery is as spare as her novels, a welcome departure from the confessional memoir genre. In the Elle essay, Merkin discusses the effect of that spareness in the final chapter of the memoir, where Fox mentions meeting the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 20 years old. Merkin argues that it's difficult not to read some autobiographical elements into the troubled mother-daughter relationship in The Widow's Children.

Fox's daughter, Linda Carroll, has just published a memoir,Her Mother's Daughter, this month. Carroll's estranged daughter, Courtney Love, has denounced the book as selfish and full of lies. Merkin describes Carroll's life after her adoptive parents reject and abuse her:

After high school Carroll drifts into the archetypal '60s crack-up: She becomes a Haight-Ashbury habitue and is knocked up by Hank Harrison, whom she portrays as a charismatic, smart-talking hustler. She decides to marry him and have his child in spite of deep apprehensions that will readily be appreciated by anyone who noticed Harrison's alarmingly furious and foul-mouthed walk-on part in Nick Broomfield's unsettling documentary Kurt and Courtney.

Courtney Love has written some powerful songs about motherhood and rejection on Live Through This ("Softer, Softest" and "I Think That I Would Die"), and those songs hold up ten years after the album was released and everyone said the songs were written by Kurt Cobain. I've come around in the past few years to believe Cobain had a lot to do with Live Through This, but I think there are more productive ways to discuss their collaboration than to believe Love was a talentless opportunist during the 1990s. She was a magnetic, canny rock star, and it's sad to see what she's turned into.

The first half of Merkin's essay about mothers and daughters is mostly generalities about the fraught relationship every pair has--about how mothers and daughters continually reject and then reach for each other, about how this cycle defines women's lives, about how it would be impossible to re-gender Sylvia Plath's famous line into "Mommy, mommy, you bastardess, I'm through." When I told her about it, my own mother rolled her eyes at Merkin's essentialism and bad use of Plath. She teases me about my high tolerance for super-spare writing like Fox's. She was suspicious of any attempt to draw a grand theory about mothers and daughters from an extraordinarily sad story, especially one involving Courtney Love. My mother also nixed any of the wry titles I came up with for this post, which is why I had to resort to false advertising about Scarlett Johannson.


Blogger SЯK on Wed Jan 18, 06:16:00 PM:
Dear Ben and Alice,

Having just discovered the Paula Fox-Courtney connection myself, I just googled them - and viola! - found your site. (Paula Fox is great and I have loved Courtney in all her violent paranoia and shamelessness ever since watching "Kurt and Courtney") But here's what's even more strange - I know Ben! (and possibly Alice?) from when I lived in Brooklyn. We even hung out at a pub once. I'm very excited to learn you're working in Saakashvili's for me, I went in Iowa for a while, and just recently I had a story published in the NYker - which was, obliquely, about Georgia - it's where I'm from if you recall! Anyway, alway's good to reconnect. My email's Would love to hear how you ended up in Gruzia. cheers.