The Good Mother – A Passive Life
Length: 1365 words (3.9 double-spaced pages)
"We live in a world...where the decisive deed may invite the holocaust." --John Updike
An interesting question that emerges while reading The Good Mother is: Why did Anna let it happen? Of course, this question must be included among many others, most of which elicit ambiguous answers: What really happened? Was there fault to be assigned? If so, who was at fault? What is a good mother? Can a woman be a good lover and a good mother? Where must sexual boundaries be drawn between children and couples in a household?
Regardless of what it is, the answer to the question Why did Anna let it happen is that she was rendered almost powerless by her gender, class, and social and family background to do anything but let it happen. She spent her life letting things happen.
Anna Dunlap, recently freed from a boring marriage and involved in a sexual awakening with an unconventional man, probably thought of herself as liberated in a very literal way before and during her affair with Leo Cutter. "I had a sense, a drunken irresponsible sense, of being about to begin my life, of moving beyond the claims of my own family, of Brian, into a passionate experiment, a claim on myself." (p. 10) As events played out, however, it became obvious that Anna had not escaped her history and that her "liberation" was just an illusion.
Anna grew up in the shadow of her wealthy, domineering grandfather, her emotionally absent father and her cold, achievement-oriented mother. Her mother ran her life, pushing Anna to practice piano in the hopes she would become a professional musician one day. Anna was learning that she was not in control of her life; she was forced to let life (through her mother's ambitions for her) happen to her.
When she visited her grandparents' summer home in Maine, Anna witnessed her grandfather's overwhelming dominance and saw her grandmother, mother and aunts engaged in interesting but meaningless (in Anna's view) "women's" conversations. When Anna was fourteen, her mother, realizing Anna was not a musical genius, loosened her grip on her daughter and, in fact, ceased to praise her for anything. As Anna's body changed and she became attractive to boys, she tried to define herself through sex, which she found empty and unsatisfying. Once again, Anna was not in control; she let it happen.
Babe, Anna's young aunt, provided Anna with an example of someone who had freed herself -- at a great price -- from the shackles of her family. Babe got pregnant at age sixteen. She was sent to Europe, where she had her baby and gave it up for adoption. (Of course this was not spoken of back home.) Babe became estranged from her family, executed a shaky reconciliation, and developed into an alcoholic. She drowned, drunk, at her grandparents' fifty-fifth anniversary party. To Anna, Babe began to seem "less a role model...than a cautionary tale." (p. 44)
Each time whatever Anna had "let happen" ended, her life took an almost opposite turn and she held on for the ride. When her mother relinquished control over Anna's life and Anna changed from a isolated music student to a "popular," semi-promiscuous high school coed, the new role ultimately proved demoralizing. "I didn't know what to do, and so did nothing (my emphasis) while a whole series of boys ground groaning against me, their eyes shut against seeing me, their hands on my breasts, and finally in my blouse, up my skirt." (p. 52) So Anna persuaded her parents to send her to a girls' school. In college there was another period of joyless sexual activity. It continued after she met Brian. "As soon as we'd slept together he began talking about fidelity, loyalty, marriage. In that context I became more responsive to him. I liked him, understood him. He was as stern, as judgmental with himself as I was with myself." (p. 129) They married, and Anna spent the next seven years sitting out the sexual revolution, "practicing the piano and making curtains." (p. 110) Their sex life, for Anna, was "so...nothing. So terrible." (p. 12)
Soon after her divorce, Anna met Leo Cutter. "Leo was everything my family, Brian, I, were not. A little of it was posture...but most of it was a genuine sort of recklessness of the heart." (p. 115) Again, Anna's life took a one-hundred and eighty degree turn and again, she followed its reckless path with little effort or thought.
The most important aspect of Anna and Leo's relationship was sex. It was wild, passionate and fulfilling, a kind of sex Anna had never experienced before. Soon Leo was spending nights at Anna's apartment, he and Molly fixing breakfast for Anna in the morning. Sometimes Molly would crawl into the bed with the couple during the night, once while they were engaged in sex, although apparently Molly wasn't aware of that. "We seemed fused, the three of us, all the boundaries between us dissolved." (p. 124)
It was this effortless fusion, this dissolution, that inevitably lead to disaster. And as the disaster unfolded, Anna once again fell into her pattern of passivity and let it happen. Although the very process of the custody fight took away much of Anna's power, her actions (or inactions) were remarkably non-combative, given that her life with her child and her life with her lover were at risk. She sacrificed Leo, approving an agreement that would allow her to see Molly as long as Leo weren't present. "Anna," (Leo) said suddenly, then stopped. "Now don't get pissed off, but isn't there another way to do this?"
"To do what?"
"Well, what I mean is, do you have to just, let this happen, all of this stuff? Isn't there a way to, some way, to fight it?"
"I don't think so."
"But this way, Jesus...I can't believe you have to allow it, just let it roll over you like this."
During all the custody proceedings, there was only once where Anna defended herself or Leo, and that was a halfhearted defense to Dr. Payne. She gave over all decisions to her lawyer, Muth, upon whom she came to depend in an almost daughterly way. Her relationship with Leo became utterly false, as she continued to live with him and have sex with him even though she was angry at him and unresponsive to him, sexually. These reactions bring to mind a daughter dealing with a domineering father, the daughter knows that the best way to avoid conflict and pain is through silence. In Anna's case, though, silence was not what was needed at this time. Anna's inability to assert herself seems to have been a large part of the reason she lost custody of Molly. Her friend, Ursula, commented on it:
"You were just so passive, Anna. You never fought back or anything. You should have told them all off from the start." She'd come over to help me pack, and was wearing an unusually conservative outfit for her: jeans, a gray sweatshirt.
"I thought I could get Molly this way."
"Yeah, but you didn't, did you? It didn't help. You played along with everyone and it didn't help."
"What was I supposed to do, Ursula?" I was folding clothes, all the dresses I never wore.
"Tell them off. Get witnesses. Me. I would have testified for you. I'm a psychologist. In some cultures, kids watch their parents screw all the time. Even in our culture, artists, creative people, have always been deviant. Those fucking rules they were talking about apply to a tiny percentage of the world's population. They were dealing with an incredibly narrow definition of right and wrong."
"But I knew that. I knew those were the terms." I tried not to think of Ursula on the stand in my behalf.
"Yeah, but why should they have been? Why shouldn't you have insisted on other terms?"
"Because the judge wouldn't have listened to a discussion on other terms."
"But you never even tried, Anna." (pp. 295-296)
This final passiveness was a continuation of Anna's lifelong pattern in dealing with her life: She just let it happen.