It’s been painful watching Amy Chua, our culture’s new "mommy dearest," squirm and backpedal under media scrutiny. Now the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother says she’s not such a monster, that she has let her kids go on playdates and of course she cares if they hate her ! Despite having written my own robust rebuttal to the book , I think it’s time to defend her. She complained today in a New York Times story, "Retreat of the 'Tiger Mother’" that she has been forced to answer questions about a book she did not write, which is half true. Much of the media storm has been about her excerpt in the Wall Street Journal, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," which only reflects half of the book’s intention. So far we have digested the book as if it is some kind of parenting manual, which it sort of is. But is also a memoir about one very particular woman, and quite a riveting one.
In the book Chua is precisely the kind of narrator you want from the genre: just self-aware enough to tell the story in all its terrible detail but not quite enough to save herself from the horror of her readers. I can’t defend her on the playdates; she’s pretty clear about those in the book: "Why why this terrible Western institution?" she laments, and then says how she lied to other parents to avoid having her daughters ever wasting their time on one. And then later, more absurdly: "Do you think our Founding Fathers had sleepovers?" (You can often not tell if she is joking).
But she is definitely not lying about the larger question of her children hating her. About two-thirds of the way through the book takes a sharp turn, and the narrative thread becomes about her second daughter Lulu. Her dutiful daughter Sophia recedes into the background and all the tension revolves around her increasingly brutal confrontations with Lulu, who is rebelling against the Chinese mother system. You could say that Amy Chua is not aware of her effect on her daughter but she is, because she quotes her in wicked detail, and over time Lulu comes to represent us, the horrified readers. Here are some of the things Lulu says (and they will sound familiar from the comments section of the Wall Street Journal piece)
"It’s all your fault. You’re a freak."
"Stop it. You’re diseased."
"Do you know how crazy you sound? They’re not from 'bad’ families. What’s a 'bad’ families?"
"You’re a show-off. It’s all about you."
"I don’t want to be Chinese! Why can’t you get that through your head? I hate the violin. I HATE my life. I HATE you, and I HATE this family!"
This comes right before a loud, glass smashing confrontation in a restaurant. "I’d made a career out of spurning the kind of Western parents who can’t control their kids," she writes, and now she was one of them. Chua walks out on her family and when she comes back she says, "Lulu. You win. It’s over. We’re giving up the violin." Later, when Lulu starts playing tennis Chua’s controlling energy comes out in what she clearly knows are compulsive ways: She texts the tennis coach with questions and practice strategies, and then deletes the texts so Lulu won’t see them. Remember, she is the one telling us this about herself.
There is only one Amy Chua, a phenomenally uptight, slightly paranoid, second generation Chinese woman married to a Jewish guy and obsessed with Chinese family decline. Or maybe there is an Amy Chua type. But there is no central parenting strategy here we can all follow or reject.