Inter-review with Colleen Higgs about her memoir, My mother, my madness

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Photo credit for picture of Colleen Higgs: Kate Olivier

my mother, my madness
Colleen Higgs
Deep South, Makhanda (2020)
ISBN: 978-1-928476-36-8

Review by Janet van Eeden

Colleen Higgs’s memoir is an understated and unemotional account of the task of caring for her mother, Sally, during the last eight years of Sally’s life. Higgs’s writing style is deadpan, prosaic, almost flat. She lists the duties she has to perform daily as a daughter, mother and wife, as well as an independent publisher, as baldly as a shopping list.

This apparently simplistic style belies the deep emotions which underscore every word. The mundane events described – "month end and Sally’s bills start rolling in, the pharmacy bills, the telephone bill, and the statement from the LRR [Luxury Retirement Resort]" – are simply reflections on the surface of Higgs’s reality. The depth of a lifetime of tortured emotions runs beneath them. One line of the memoir describes Higgs’s task of listing the medical issues she had encountered throughout her life, to a nurse for the purpose of a new life insurance policy, as being "like a river, all the things beneath the surface" (113). So it is with Higgs’s writing: her words simple on the surface, but the depth of meaning is condensed with subtext. In this way, her style is poetic yet muscular. There is no room for flaccidity.

Higgs begins the memoir when her mother lives in an assisted-living facility in a retirement home, the Luxury Retirement Resort, as Sally is unable to take care of herself effectively due to her bipolar disorder. Higgs takes on the task of managing Sally’s life, and her duties are, among other things, to "pay her bills, organize doctor’s appointments … buy her snacks, four packs of 9 double ply toilet paper, the You magazine, Cokes – 70 x 2 litre bottles for the month, and cigarettes, seven cartons of Rothmans 30s – the blue pack. And shampoo, tissues, soap, toothpaste, shower gel, roll-on deodorant, facecloths, body lotion, moisturiser, depending on what she needs or has run out of" (7).

It is in almost throwaway lines that Higgs refers to the trauma her mother’s life has wrought on her, not least Sally’s many suicide attempts and Sally’s complete lack of taking responsibility for herself and her actions. Higgs mentions a day that she (Higgs) has forgotten to take her pills and feels "wobbly", a nod to the fact that she has to cope with her own demons with antidepressants. Higgs mentions a dream she has one night, where she and her siblings have to clean up a literal river of shit when a toilet overflows in the house where they live together with their mother. In the dream, Sally ignores the effluent which starts to seep through the ceiling of the house, and leaves to go to work, oblivious to the mess, which she ignores or does not see. Her children have to clean up the detritus left behind. Higgs does not belabour the metaphor, but it is without doubt that Sally’s children are left to deal with the effluent which Sally’s broken life has left them with.

In the early part of the memoir, Higgs mentions that she has regular therapy sessions which keep her stable, and she tries to maintain her physical health as well as her mental health through these encounters with therapists. They are a lifeline throughout her adult life. She deals directly with the aftermath of having a dysfunctional mother on page 41: "The after-effects of inadequate mothering have a long shadow; it becomes a lifelong condition one has to learn to live with." Higgs tries to give her only daughter, Kate, the attention and care she never had herself, and accepts that she is at least a "good enough" mother. She feels inadequate, however, balancing being a "good enough" mother to her daughter with the unending lists of duties which need to be done, and "sometimes I feel like I’m gasping for air, hardly ever feel like I have it all done, all sorted" (42).

Higgs’s husband makes an appearance on occasion in the memoir. Although his presence is a distant one, there are good moments – a trip to the beach as a family – but more often, there are moments of lack of understanding. "Are you cured yet?" he asks her when she returns from a therapy session. When the exhaustion of carrying an enormous emotional load threatens to overwhelm Higgs, she has to lie down. Her husband perceives that she lies down all the time. Migraines often render her helpless, too. The strain of the many burdens she carries, not least being an independent publisher, seems to be discounted by her marriage partner.

And always in the background comes the refrain: more Cokes, more cigarettes, more toilet paper, more phone calls, more visits. More care for an uncaring parent.

When the final release comes at the end of the memoir, it is inevitable and tragic, and yet almost bathetic. A life unfulfilled passes just like that. The years of demands and guilt and unsatisfying interactions are quite simply gone, leaving no trace except the "madness" that was Sally’s legacy. Higgs is blatantly honest throughout the memoir about how she has to navigate her own illness, and that could be why she ends it with another metaphor: "… the grass dies in the summer and the sand shifts and rises, and only some things grow, but not the lawn, especially not the lawn …" (124).

Higgs’s memoir casts light on the complicated relationship between a dysfunctional mother – a product of her era as well as her circumstances – and a dutiful daughter who attempts to create her independent path through life, while weighed down by the burden of a narcissistic parent. It is quietly brilliant.

Q and A:

Your memoir resonated with me deeply, Colleen, not least because my mother, who lived with me, died on 4 December 2019. The paragraph below, taken from the memoir, describes the character of someone who has lost touch with her deepest needs or has sublimated them under the guise of physical addictions.

"She breaks my heart …. Clearly she wants something more from me, but not enough to know what it is, to be able to visualize it, to articulate it. She only knows how to complain, to say what she doesn’t want, what she doesn’t like. She doesn’t know how to say what she does like or want. Apart from the obvious things like Coke and cigarettes" (23).

Were you ever able to break through that barrier with Sally, through the wall of complaints and needs, to find out what it was she really wanted?

No, I wasn’t – because I don’t think that my mother knew. We had some friendly and some tender moments. I suspect her inability to express what she wanted was part of the general trouble women of her generation in particular had with desire. Women’s desires and wants were beside the point. She  had coped with her life before by doing art projects and pottery, taking over-the-counter pain medication, smoking, sleeping excessively. Alcoholism runs in her side of the family, but she didn’t drink alcohol, just Coke. Her early memories of her parents’ drunkenness left her with an antipathy for alcohol.

It appeared to me, the reader, that you were left to deal with the responsibilities of caring for your mother largely on your own. How did this responsibility fall onto your shoulders?

Much of the backstory of caring for my mother is left out in the book; it’s all from my point of view, and to do with my experience of coping with it. I don’t feel that the responsibility of caring for her was dumped on me; it was really just more practical. Sally, my mother, had lived with Sean in Muizenberg for a few years before I took over, so he did his share of caring for her at that time. Geraldine has lived in the USA since about 2004 or so. And Michael lives in the Fish Hoek/Kommetjie area, which is 40 kilometres from the care centre where she lived. He did help with things, having her for Christmas, buying her a new TV, visiting her and taking her out for lunch. He and his family always celebrated Mother’s Day and her birthday with us. In any case, it is easier to manage a responsibility like this on one’s own, as one can make decisions and one knows that things have been done. I would have wanted to check up on anyone who was delegated to do something like buy cigarettes. As I mention in the book, Michael also came with me to various meetings at the centre to deal with issues that arose.

You describe the guilt you felt almost all the time. This must be one of the most debilitating aspects of being the sole carer for an aging mother, especially one with a history of suicide attempts and mental illness, as Sally had. Have you felt that the guilt has left you since she passed? Is life easier for you without her there, or do you miss her in spite of the difficulties of caring for her?

Yes, the guilt has lifted, and I am getting to grips with guilt I feel in other situations, and learning to let myself off the hook a bit. It has been a relief to be released from that guilt. I don’t miss Sally, because the whole period with her had little joy for me; it was unrelenting duty and chores, with her grumpy demeanour. My therapist has said to me, "Guilt is the price of freedom."

I miss not having had a mother that I could have had a good relationship with. Sometimes I wish I could ask her something, a question to clarify the past, but in the last part of her life she was an unreliable narrator, and her sense of her own history had become a bit muddled. I still have my mother complex to deal with; it is still activated at times and trips me up emotionally.

A friend who had an extremely difficult relationship with his parents, especially his mother, said that you mourn them twice when they die. You mourn the parent you wish you’d had, and then you mourn the actual parent with their flaws. Does this comment resonate with you?

Yes, absolutely. Gillian Rennie, who reviewed the book for Grocott’s Mail, used the term "ambiguous loss", which captures how it felt for me. I think I had grieved my mother and what I had longed for in therapy and in my life for so long. As I said in the book, it was slightly bewildering for me to receive condolences for my mother’s death. I knew people meant well, and that was how I took it. But inside, I was at sea; most of what well-wishers said to me didn’t address my experience.

Your mother seemed like she was a very colourful person, to put it mildly. The description of the house in Fish Hoek where you lived for a while when you were growing up made me long for photographs. You describe it here: "her house [was] cerise, she painted a frenzy of colourful flowers on her garage, she painted the inside vibracrete walls bright orange, she planted a wild garden filled with gnomes, stone frogs, metal birds, bird baths, tortoises – an enchanted secret garden bursting with colour and life" (122). In a kinder time, she might have been seen as the Helen Martins of Fish Hoek. I believe Helen Martins wasn’t celebrated by her fellow villagers in Nieu-Bethesda during her lifetime, but I was intrigued that you are drawn to the town, too, and spend most Christmas holidays there. Do you think this has anything to do with you identifying the character of Helen Martins with your mother in some way?

I hadn’t ever thought about my mother as being like Helen Martins. She was artistic and very intelligent – in later years, sly. I always thought that if she had had the right opportunities, she could have been a good doctor. She was good at diagnosing illnesses and prescribing treatments. She trained as a nurse and worked in a pharmacy when we lived in Maseru. She was also an excellent cook, and kind to waifs and strays. Some of her art projects included mosaics, batik, water colour painting, and painting pottery. Her art projects were a creative outlet, but Sally didn’t have the same creative intensity and vision that Helen Martins had.

My connection to Nieu-Bethesda doesn’t have anything to do with Helen Martins. It has been a spiritual home for me for 30 years. Close friends of mine, two brothers, bought a house there in 1990, and since then I have returned almost every year, sometimes more than once, especially in the ’90s when I lived in Grahamstown (now Makhanda). I love the quiet, the quality of my dreams and sleep. The way days unfold without making big plans. The quiet isn’t silent; there is the sound of animals, donkeys, cows, some cars and even music during the "season". I love how it feels like a return to an older, slower way of life. For a long time, there wasn’t electricity. The roads in the village are dirt roads.

One of the gifts of having children is that we are able to become the mother we wanted to have ourselves. Your relationship with your daughter, Kate, seems to be one in which you cherish her and see to her needs in ways you’ve never experienced yourself. Do you find that your relationship with your daughter has allowed you to heal some parts of yourself that your mother neglected?

I think that in some ways I have overcompensated for what my mother was not, and what I longed for. I’m not sure this has always been ideal for Kate. But I have tried my best to see her as herself, and have been as conscious as I could be in the situation. I have also been in psychotherapy my whole adult life. Yes, having a daughter, a child, and raising her, has been healing for me in that it has also helped me to understand what kind of mothering I had and the wounds it left me with. I think I have been a good enough mother, but I started off without a healthy experience/role model, and I have learned everything on the job. And made many mistakes. At times, I have felt that I was not up to it and didn’t have the capacity to be what I needed to be.

Did you find that life was simpler after your mother passed, or did it leave you with a loss of purpose? If so, how has life changed over the two and a half years since she passed?

I think my mother’s death released me; I felt the burden of responsibility lift from me. After about six months, I reread the blog and thought that I would like to have it published, as I could see that it had something to say. This has been important for me, that the endlessness of those years is documented.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book? Did writing it help you come to terms with the difficult relationship you had with your mother, and has it eased the depression – which is what I assume you refer to when you mention your "madness"?

I’ve had many people write to me about my memoir, and talk about their own lives and how it has comforted them, or made them see their own relationships with their mothers in a new light and helped them to feel a bit kinder to themselves. I didn’t really know what I wanted readers to take away, but the responses have allowed me to feel that it offers each person some insight and reflection and objectivity for their own mother/parents, their own difficulties.

I wanted my writing to offer an account of what it was like to take care of my mother, the details of that experience, the feelings, the lived experience. Women often do work like this that is unacknowledged, unseen. So, I guess I wanted to make it visible – not just my work, but this kind of work of taking care of elderly parents, of a child. And, at the same time, I was starting and running Modjaji Books and keeping that going. I don’t write about that work in the book, as I wanted to focus on the personal caring. And to describe my resistance to it, and to let readers know that they aren’t alone in feeling things that seem to be unacceptable. We aren’t saints, and we all have our own issues, and it is hard, often thankless work. But it has to be done. I used one of my key defences – a low-key, dark humour, which goes along with the flat style, the throwaway lines.

Also, to elaborate, my own "madness" is not just depression; that has been a side effect of the other madness. In Jungian terms, I have been living from within my mother complex, which has led me to make poor decisions and to want reparative mothering for myself from others, and to mother others when I should have a more straightforward relationship.

I have learned – or, should I say, I am learning – to mother myself. I’ve needed to learn late in life about boundaries, about being on my own side. Another side effect of my madness has been to be swept away sometimes by feelings of rage, envy and sadness. It would take another whole book to document all of the madness. Even starting Modjaji Books has been a form of madness. I thought I could do something that wasn’t really possible: to make a life as an independent feminist publisher, to earn my living publishing books by southern African women. And, to an extent, I have done it. It has been at great personal cost – enormous stress and financial insecurity.

Unexpected lovely things have also come out of the work I’ve done: making friends with independent publishers in other countries because of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which I’ve been to almost every year since 2011. I think that if I had been saner, I would have done more of my own writing, and if I had wanted to start a publishing enterprise, I would have done it collectively and as a non-profit.

Also, the fantasy of wanting to mother others reparatively has meant that my boundaries weren’t always strong and clear. And there was always a lot of room for hurt and disappointment from both sides. I don’t think that publishers and writers have the easiest relationship – a bit like landlord-tenant relationships, or marriage, even. There is often a great deal of projection from both sides. And, especially in a context like ours, where debut novels, for example, sell only 300 to 600 in 10 years in most cases, there is much room for disappointment. I think it is easy for writers to blame their publishers for all the things that have disappointed them about having a book published. And vice versa.

Colleen Higgs is a writer and the founder of Modjaji Books, a small, independent press. She has also written and published a number of works:

  • Halfborn woman (2004), Hands-On Books, collection of poems
  • A rough guide to small-scale and self-publishing (2005), Centre for the Book
  • South African small publishers’ catalogue(editor with Maire Fisher) (2006), Centre for the Book
  • Small publishers’ catalogue – Africa, 2010 (2010) (editor with Bontle Senne)
  • Lava lamp poems (2011), Hands-On Books, collection of poems
  • Looking for trouble and other mostly Yeoville stories (2012), Hands-On Books, collection of stories
  • Small publishers’ catalogue – Africa, 2013 (2013)
  • My mother, my madness (2020), Deep South
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