‘Just Make Sure You Don’t Forget’

Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate’s mother, Frances Lopate, in a portrait made by a photographer who worked for Lincoln Studios, Newark, New Jersey, 1939

“Usually I try to get patients to confront their families, but in your case I would recommend putting several thousand miles between you and them,” a therapist told Phillip Lopate in 1980. Along with his older brother and their two younger sisters, Lopate had spent his childhood in Brooklyn as an unwilling witness to a marital crime scene. Frances, their mother, complained to eight-year-old Phillip of her sexual and romantic frustrations and confided in him about her affairs. She habitually berated and humiliated their father, Albert, who responded with detachment, coldness, and passive aggression. Somehow the two stayed married for more than fifty years. Divorced in 1985, they nevertheless continued to share an apartment until Albert entered a nursing home.

Lopate took the therapist’s advice: he moved to Houston to teach creative writing. A few years later, though, he did confront his mother. Over a few months in the summer of 1984—she was then sixty-six, he forty-one—he tape-recorded her telling her life story. A naturally garrulous woman who began a career in show business at age fifty, acting and singing in dinner theaters and commercials, she relished the experience. “I suspect she had been waiting for her close-up all her life,” Lopate writes. For more than twenty hours, Frances Lopate spoke of her own miserable childhood, her early marriage, her disaffection with her husband, her numerous lovers. Phillip listened, asked questions, and occasionally challenged her recollections. Then he put the tapes in a shoebox in his closet, where they stayed for more than thirty years.

Frances Lopate died in 2000. Only recently did her son decide to revisit the tapes. He was afraid of how much he missed her, he explains, but also of being “overwhelmed by her intensity.” The very form of A Mother’s Tale demonstrates the validity of that fear. A transcript of their conversation forms the basis of the book, which Lopate describes as neither memoir nor essay—the forms in which he has distinguished himself—but part “dialogue,” part “oral history.”

The author of several works of fiction and seven essay collections, as well as To Show and to Tell, a guide to writing literary nonfiction, Lopate has chosen to allow his mother’s voice to dominate the page virtually unmediated, interrupted only occasionally by his own. He shapes the conversation into brief sections and gives them simple titles, but otherwise his editorial hand is difficult to discern. Sometimes we hear forty-one-year-old Phillip offering a prompt or asking a follow-up question; at other points, present-day Phillip reflects on both sides of the conversation, his and hers. (He intervened, he said in an interview with Kristen Martin of Literary Hub, only when he thought “there were key issues involved that needed some elucidation.”) But for…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.