by Vivian Gornick
- This is a powerful mother/daughter story. The major issue for Vivian and Mama is letting go. Have you witnessed other mother-daughter bonds that have been as difficult to live with and/or break as that between Vivian and her mother?
- What are some of the major conflicts in Vivian's relationship with her mother? Are any of them similar to conflicts you have now or have had with your mother?
- Think about the relationship between Vivian and Nettie. Vivian's love and admiration for Nettie is similar to feelings a girl might have for a pretty aunt or an attractive older sister. What roles do these striking, worldlier women play in our growing up years? What do they have to teach us that our mothers do not? What do they contribute to our lives? On the other hand, what is the value of such a relationship for them? Why do you think Nettie had a desire to influence Vivian's life? Have you known a Nettie in your life?
- When Vivian realizes that Mama and Nettie are indeed competing for her allegiance, she sees her choice as one or the other. Following Papa's funeral, Vivian is drawn to Nettie in the kitchen, then breaks free and goes to Mama on the couch: "Mama was where I belonged. With Mama the issue was clear: I had trouble breathing but I was safe." How would you describe Vivian's attachment to Mama? What does the word attachment mean to you? Do you think of security and safety? Or of something that stifles or suffocates? Why or how would an attachment be a desirable choice over freedom?
- "When I stopped seeing my mother with the eyes of a child, I saw a woman who helped me give birth to myself." ~Nancy Friday, My Mother / MySelf
Vivian makes it clear that she is inextricably attached to Mama. What do you think Gornick would say to Friday's statement? Why would Mama say? Why does Mama want to make Vivian in her own image?
- Vivian describes the differences among the three women as, "Nettie wanted to seduce, Mama wanted to suffer, I wanted to read." Are any of these desires likely to result in a life lived rather than simply going by? Who in this story was the most successful in living her life? What made the difference do you think? What choices have you made in your own life that have enabled you to live it more fully?
- Consider the relationships Vivian has with the three men-Stefan, Davey, and Joe-were there any similarities? What were the differences? Which relationships would you call "fierce" and why?
- Many of us are living under the persistent shadow of the Terrible Mother, imagined or real-or both. On pages 99-105 in Writing from Life, Susan Albert talks about the mother bond and healing it by releasing any resentment we may feel toward our mothers for being what they were. By the book's end, has Gornick released her resentment? If she has, how did it happen? If she hasn't, what do you think is holding her back?
- "We visit best by walking." Vivian says this of her talks with her mother. Do you see any significance in this? Does being in motion make it easier to say what's in one's heart? Have you had this experience?
- In a memoir the author chooses to focus on particular events or themes. What do you want to know that Gornick doesn't tell us in this story? Additional Questions.
- Mama worships at the altar of romantic love and says finally that it was all she had. What could she have done? Do you agree or disagree? Do we have things we choose to remain fiercely attached to regardless of the wisdom of doing so? What are they and why?
- Think about the rectangular space Vivian describes that opens up inside her enabling her to work well, produce and create. Have you had a similar experience? Mama, with one remark, can take the space away from her daughter. How do others enter into our creative energy and do they have the power to enlarge or destroy it for us?
- Gornick talks about going to City College as opening another world. "What divided us was me thinking," she says. Have you had a similar experience of going to college and entering a new dimension of life, discovering ideas and intellectual conversation? Did it divide you from your family or old friends? How did you feel about it?
- Gornick's relationship with Joe raises questions some of us might have thought about or had experience with. When Joe withholds information from Vivian he says he has done it so they will enjoy their vacation time together. Would you feel as outraged as Vivian does by this? Why? What about Joe proposing an affair with Gornick's friend and telling her that love has nothing to do with friendship, rather it's an adversarial relationship. Vivian wants love to be more than romantic attachment. How do you feel about this?
- Gornick says she never doubted that the desk, not love, was the potential lifesaver. What do you think? How difficult is it difficult for a woman to integrate the two in her life? What has your experience been?