Who Do You Think You Are by Alyse Myers is a sad and depressing book. Alyse Myers tells the story of her unhappy childhood in Queens in the 1960s, her turbulent relationship with her mother, and her struggle to be a better mother to her own daughter. Myers doesn't cover a lot of new ground in this book, and I found her writing to be claustrophobic and at times annoying as she repeatedly revisits her pain and her anxieties. However, I think the portrait of Myers' mother is really interesting, and some readers (especially women of a certain generation) will recognize aspects of their own mothers and grandmothers in this character.
Myers' ne'er-do-well father died when she was 11, leaving her mother (who remains nameless throughout the story) to raise Alyse and her two younger sisters alone on very little money. Her mother's limited skills and education meant that her options were few -- she got by on low-wage office work. Never loving or affectionate with her children, she turned abusive after her husband's death, focusing most of her rage on Alyse. Alyse used education as her ticket out and escaped from her mother at the earliest opportunity. Only after Alyse was happily married and a mother herself did she fully reconcile with her mother.
Why was Alyse's mother so abusive? Why did she direct her anger at Alyse and not at her younger sisters? And why were they finally able to reconnect, toward the end of the mother's life? Myers never explicitly spells out her interpretation, but I have a theory. Her mother's life was difficult and disappointing. She was an extreme example of the consequences of limited options and poor choices.
Alyse, on the other hand, was a smart girl who was aiming high. This was threatening to her mother, but even more, her mother saw it as dangerous. What if Alyse ended up as disappointed in life as her mother was? Better to rein Alyse in, push her back down, than to see her dreams crushed like her mother's were. Alyse's younger sisters were not as challenging to their mother, not as obviously destined for success. It wasn't necessary to send the same message. The two women could only reconcile when it was clear that Alyse's life was happy and complete; the abuse was no longer necessary.
I think it was common for girls raised in the 1960s and earlier to hear the question "Who do you think you are?" The subtext of that question is "don't get above yourself, don't think you are anyone special." It's a way of diminishing expectations, of protecting against future disappointments. No one will treat you like a princess when you are grown, so don't expect it now. Of course Alyse's mother carried this to extremes, but I don't think her motivations were so unusual, or even necessarily evil.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.