With or Without You and Other Memoirs about Monster Moms

Mothers. They gave us life, and yet, sometimes, we could just kill them. Those embarrassing jeans. Those horrible dance moves (Michelle Obama excepted.) The way they lick their fingers, then wipe food off our faces. Even when we’re thirty. Some moms, of course, make most of our complaints look like child’s play. These mothers so outsized in their personalities, so egregious in their maternal lapses, so outrageous in their narcissism and self-absorption, it seems incredible their children lived to tell the tale. But tell the tale they do.

In “With or Without You,” Domenica Ruta introduces readers to Kathi, a hard-living, drug-taking (and sometimes dealing) matriarch whose ideas of child-rearing involved keeping her daughter home from school to watch the Godfather movies and encouraging her to drop out of school and get pregnant. After getting over her own addictions (and cutting off contact with Kathi), Ruta tapped into her mother’s love of story telling to relate the tale of her own dysfunctional childhood. The following writers did the same, turning the angst of their upbringings into catharsis-by-memoir.

"Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal" by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson’s adoptive mother was a mystery to her: a religious zealot, she burned books, and kept a gun in her dresser for Armageddon. She despaired over her daughter’s lesbianism, intellectualism, and lack of religious fervor. Inverting the cliché that all a parent wants for her child is happiness, all Winterson’s mother wanted for her was to blend in with the crowd. In this memoir, the writer attempts to understand her mother’s at-times monstrous behavior, and even summon some sympathy for the woman who raised her.

"Chanel Bonfire" by Wendy Lawless

What might be adorable behavior in a wacky aunt – wearing a mink coat every day; moving in and out of hotels around the world – gets old, fast, in a mother. Wendy Lawless grew up having to be the adult to her impetuous, irresponsible, and alcoholic mother, who viewed Lawless and her sister more as BFFs – and competitors for male affection – than dependents. Over the years, Lawless learned to cover for her mother’s lapses and bad decisions, despite the fact that her mother admitted she didn’t like children, and told Lawless she would have left if her daughter hadn’t been pretty. The writer had to become an adult – and a mother herself – before she could finally break her mother’s spell.

"Oh the Glory of it All" by Sean Wilsey

To be sure, Sean Wilsey’s mother, Pat Montandon, deserves some sympathy. Her husband left her for her best friend, humiliating her in the tony San Francisco social circles they all ran in and sending her into a suicidal depression. But did she have to invite her eleven-year-old son to join her in the act? In this memoir Wilsey writes about life with his mother post-divorce, when Montandon was struggling to remake her identity and dragged her son along on her journey of self-discovery. Pat was, Wilsey writes, like “a celebrity you never heard of” – all the glamour and drama, with no actual claim to fame. After this book was published, his mother wrote her own version of events, “Oh, the Hell of it All,” in which she admits some maternal flaws – the suicide invitation was accurate – but also argues that she was not nearly as self-absorbed as her son believed.

"Running with Scissors" by Augusten Burroughs

The only thing worse than being raised by a bad mother might be being given away by one. When Augusten Burroughs was a boy, his wannabe-poet mother, in the midst of a life crisis, sent her son to live with her therapist, where he had to contend with an on-site pedophile and the doctor’s mentally unbalanced daughter. Throughout, he tries to maintain a relationship with the mother who is slowly losing her mind, and whose obsession with her therapist prevents her from seeing the harm he, and his dysfunctional family of drug addicts and criminals, are doing to Burroughs. As his mother suffers breakdowns in the style of her idol, Anne Sexton, divorces Burrough’s alcoholic dad, and comes out as a lesbian, the writer is along for the ride, taking notes and trying to keep his sanity.