" My relationship with my mom remains tentative and strained. I worry that it may be damaged permanently ," writes Double X contributor Anna Balkrishna, who goes into great detail about her mother’s exuberant attempt at happiness in an ultimately doomed second marriage. "In 1996, my mother met and later married a man incarcerated in a New Mexico state prison, an inmate who began as her pen pal and ended up as her lover," she writes. Balkrishna shares her Modern Love-style tale of a second chance gone predictably wrong, titled " My Mother Married Her Prison Pen Pal ." The author tells us that 13 years ago, when she was launching her college life, her mother, now in her 50s, "would prod me and my sister to take photos of her in the backyard wearing slinky slips from Victoria's Secret" to send to the mother’s inmate boyfriend, and of her own resentment of the mother who emotionally abandoned her in favor of the unworthy new love. Balkrishna also chronicles her now-twice divorced parent’s emotional recovery: "My mother is back in her house and currently renovating all traces of him away."
I feel great sympathy for both the mother and the daughter in this story and admire my young colleague’s efforts to examine the painful semi-estrangement she describes. ("We have reached a stalemate, sometimes respectful, sometimes not.")
It is the nature of families to know details and maintain strongly held perspectives on other member’s most personal foibles. Loving but dysfunctional relationships are practically the definition of family, and traditional roles shift as children become independent. I wrote about my son a year and a half ago in a personal essay that was published in Slate . Even though he read the final draft, and not only gave me permission to submit it, but suggested edits (sub in: "he thought his parents would disown him " for "... were going to kill him"), when it published, six pages of reader remarks , nearly universally negative (yes, I read them all), in Slate 's "The Fray" suggested I had been offensively invasive of my college-age son’s privacy. I wondered if I had broken some unwritten rule of family discretion.
If there is such a commandment (thou shalt portray relatives only in the most favorable light), many essayists are guilty of breaking it. Emily B . wrote here about the fuzzy boundaries of the parent-child confidentiality rule. In the reaction to my article, one Fray poster suggested I was actually trying to send my young son a disciplinary message that I had been unable to convey more privately. I don’t agree but I admit it gave me pause. As for Anna, I hope she will able to get past whatever compelled her to write so disapprovingly about her lonely mother and can find her way to visit her for a heart-to-heart talk.