Sunday, September 14, 2008

Alice Sebold on Matricide, Grief and Freedom in "The Almost Moon"

By Dylan Foley

In the first paragraph of Alice Sebold’s new novel “The Almost Moon”(Little Brown, $24.95), Helen Knightly admits that she has killed her mother. “When all was said and done,” says Helen, “killing my mother came easily.” After two decades of caring for her cruel, mentally ill mother, Helen is now free. As her life unravels in the following 24-hour period, Helen botches hiding the body and muses on the love, anger and the hatred she has felt for her mother.

“I always start with obsessions in my writing,” said Sebold in a telephone interview from her home in San Francisco. “For me, it is always an obsession in the culture that greatly affects the culture. Now it’s the phenomenon that people are living longer and longer lives, and the caregiver, usually a she, is living longer and longer under the auspices of being a caregiver.

“There’s really no kind of roadmap of how you can gain your freedom while you’re being a caregiver up into your seventies,” said Sebold. “I kept thinking about that, and the basic idea of freedom and identity from one’s parents.”

Helen’s mother Claire, once a lingerie model, is an agoraphobic shut-in. At 18, Helen escapes her dead-end Pennsylvania town to college and then a doomed marriage to her art professor. Sh e returns to the small town with her young daughters, and after her father’s suicide, takes care of her mother for the next 22 years, locked in a brutal codependency.

At 86, the mother has entered an end stage of obscenity-laced dementia. Following a harsh exchange, Helen smothers her with a bath towel. After the unpremeditated murder, the 49-year-old Helen seduces her best friend’s son, drives around aimlessly and through flashbacks contemplates her shattered family life as the police close in.

“All bets are off in the 24 hours after the murder,” said Sebold. “Helen does need human warmth right after the murder. She goes looking for her friend Natalie, but finds Natalie’s 30-year-old son Hamish and sleeps with him. She’s been brought back to the living. I was interested in what happens when you go so far and kill your mother. It’s not like you’d go home and have an espresso and mow the lawn.”

Helen’s ex-husband Jake flies in from California to support her after the killing. A neighbor finds her mother’s body and Helen becomes a suspect. In a flashback, Helen remembers how Jake accused her of making her own prison with her mother.

“In Helen’s case, the prison can be a more comfortable place than the enlightening reality of freedom,” said Sebold. “You know the prison, you know the warden, and there are comforts within. If you do literal transference with the character, you c an fight Helen and say, ‘She could have gotten out.’ Some people could have and some people would have, but many don’t and many people wouldn’t have. Helen’s lack of ambition brings her back to the prison rather than going into the scary outside.”

Like Sebold’s earlier work, “Lucky,” a memoir of her own 1981 rape, and her bestselling novel “The Lucky Bones,” narrated by a murdered child, “The Almost Moon” is a dark tale, but it incorporates wit and compassion in telling Helen’s story of duty, breakdown, grief and freedom.

In Helen’s decades of caring for her mother, the line between duty and love have become blurred and murky. “One’s mother, one’s parent, is one’s responsibility,” said Sebold. “Even if that person is very difficult to deal with, they are your responsibility. We are obligated to fulfill this duty, even if you see it is hurting you, other members of your family or the person themselves. Then there is this love, which is hard to see sometimes. Young children who are actively being abused by their mothers still want to be with them.”

One macabre mother-daughter story jumps out at Sebold. “I always think of the mystery writer Patricia Highsmith, whose mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine,” she said. “Highsmith supported her mother her whole life by writing these deeply misanthropic novels. She was locked in to caretaking for this woman who had literally tried to kill her. To me, that is an endlessly fascinating relationship.”

Society’s view on mother-daughter relationships is a bit too candy-coated for Sebold’s tastes. “We live in a society that makes the mother-daughter baby thing so sweet, puffy and pink,” she said. “I distrust that and I think it’s not the experience that most people have.”

At the end of the novel, Helen sleeps with Hamish a second time to borrow a getaway car from him. He bitterly notes that Helen can be very harsh and judgmental, like her own mother.

“You are in training, like ‘Grasshopper, here is a pointed barb. This is what you use when you weigh half the weight of your opponents,’” said Sebold with an infectious laugh. “In her mother’s case, this is what she used when she was trapped in the house. Helen learned this, but her mother used the weapons against her. Your teacher is your first opponent.”

Despite the fact that Helen feels little remorse over killing her mother, Sebold has written a horribly human character, sympathetic in her tortured own way. It was, however, a hard road to get to Helen.

“I wrote a lot of drafts,” said Sebold. “I started with other points of view because I didn’t have Helen. I had a woman with two grown up kids who had a very difficult relationship with her mother. I w rote a draft from her ex-husband Jake’s point of view. It was a lot of struggling in the dark.”

After three years, Helen came to her. “It was much more challenging to write a first-person story by the woman who does the killing and the 24-hour period afterward,” said Sebold. “As a writer, I got closer and closer to the ledge, then I just jumped off.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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