Ariel Leve came to understand how her life was painfully affected by her truly disturbed mother relatively late in life. In her beautifully written memoir, she shares her journey to a healthier inner world and way of relating with others. The book began as a work of fiction in her 20s, becoming a more courageous work of biography in her 40s. In it, we learn how profoundly her trust in the world was corrupted by the narcissism and staggering inconsistency her mother relentlessly played out, and how she builds it up again. We hold her hand as she takes stock, and squeeze it tight.
An accomplished journalist – with a reputation for emotional honesty about her vulnerabilities – Ariel understandably wanted, and perhaps still wants, affirmation of what she went through. Abused children can’t have a sure sense of how distorted their care is, as we know:‘My mother made me doubt and question my perceptions. The loving and warm persona that followed the tirades confused and destabilised me. I wanted a witness. An ally. To verify. To have proof.’
Looking back from the safety of a relationship with Mario, as silent as her mother was noisy, I suspect it was this that partly enabled her to examine, reflect and write about all that went wrong. But also her relationship with ‘Emily’, her therapist, who teaches her about the effect of mothering like Ariel’s mother did would have on any young mind and soul. Learning that her brain development could have been compromised leads Ariel to visit Dr Teicher, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School who researches the effect of early abuse on the brain. Their conversation comforts her: ‘As I listen to him describe how consistency, continuity, and routine are the foundation for children to develop a cognitive understanding of trust and security, there is vindication in his proof. My emotionally impaired beliefs have a source.’
An Abbreviated Life is a frequently painful read, lapping from the past to the present in a sometimes lyrical way, perhaps like the sea Ariel moved to be by, with Mario, after years of New York and London living. Raised in ostensible wealth and privilege in Upper East side Manhattan, Ariel’s mother was a Bohemian and accomplished poet, marinating herself with the self-absorbed thinking of fellow poets, artists, and authors of New York. Andy Warhol and members of the Velvet Underground turned up at her wedding party, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth would hang out in her flat. ‘Narcissism flourished’ in such circles, and Ariel was inevitably squeezed out – and desperate for the parties to stop so she could get to sleep.
Ariel’s mother was always suffering as a result of her unquenchable thirst for attention, admiration and rapture. She would attract and repel people in equal measure and her polarised behaviour played out with her daughter too: Ariel would be told that she was loved and hated in equal, successive measures. Too fearful to let go of the ‘phone as it would mean ending a conversation, and therefore attention, she would pee herself. If she was at home, she would be entertaining until the early hours or lying around on her bed, or sealed away ‘working’ – oblivious of her daughter unless she could satisfy an all-consuming desire for attention.
One disturbing way of satisfying this urge would be to play ‘making Being Born’. This meant Ariel would climb between her mother’s naked thighs and curl up into a ball. Her mother would then noisily mimic labour until at some point she would shout “Pop!”and Ariel would be born – the gift Ariel would be reminded of time and again. Understandably desperate to please her mother, as tender moments were so rare, Ariel collaborated until one day, when she enlisted a playdate to join in the game too.  “After that day,” Ariel recalls, “Danielle was never allowed to come over again.”
Ariel’s mother would rarely stick to her word: promising to eat a meal with Ariel, or tuck her into bed before doing neither and leaving to party or see a boyfriend, sometimes disappearing until the next day. Ariel took solace, and emotional nourishment from long-suffering nannies – Josie in particular who hung on in there the longest, despite her tyrannical employer – along with a clearly important relationship with her father’s ex girlfriend Rita. Rita would visit often, offering consistent love, and Ariel learned much later on that Rita had kept Ariel’s father updated of her turbulent life by regular letters to him.
Ariel’s far more kindly, introverted father is sadly absent while she is young (Ariel sees far more of him in later life). He was posted to Bangkok for his job which meant he spent time with her during the long summer school breaks. She wanted to live with her father, and we wish that for her too, but one attempt on both their parts to make this happen so incurred the wrath of her mother, it wasn’t risked again.
Ariel was repeatedly told why it was that her mother suffers so much, and the lack of responsibility for her damaging behaviours still challenges her. It was:‘the story of her victimhood. The story of her abandonment. The story of her life.’ Sent to boarding school at seven after her parents’ marriage dissolved, Ariel’s mother Mae went on to marry another man and have three children with him. So, the story was that ‘my mother was thrown away.’ This would be repeatedly told in an effort to elicit sympathy rather than apology: ‘My mother would point out how fortunate I was to have a mother who wanted me around. ‘At least I don’t throw you away,’ she’d say. Pain was her province. My grandmother, as my mother repeatedly frequently, scarred her for life.’
But after deepening her understanding of the roots of trauma, Ariel begins EMDR with Emily which seems enormously healing: ‘EMDR reminds me of a neurological do-over. The trauma – which I don’t even recognise as trauma but for me was everyday living – I envisage as dense and intractable ice sculptures on display in my brain…..Now these ice sculptures can be thawed.’ Two years on since her last EMDR, in a new relationship with Mario and his twin daughters, ‘my days are filled with what I can’t imagine.’
Through this powerful small book, we come to understand, close up, Ariel’s great efforts not to repeat the cycle of pain nor transmit her mother’s trauma, and it is heartening to learn that nurturing isn’t too difficult for her after all.