I recently read a novel that I felt captured the all-too-common heartbreak that comes from unresolved issues with a parent. It is this issue that brings so many adults to therapy. Elizabeth Strout’s “My Name Is Lucy Barton” brilliantly illustrates how painful it is to live unseen and unknown by a parent.
Clients retell their stories from childhood in the hope, (often faint hope) that in the act of retelling they will see what they haven’t seen before, will understand what they haven’t understood before, and so gain insights that will allow them to put to rest their sadness, their disappointments and their unmet needs.
The novel’s brilliance is in the richly expressed resonance, not of what is said, but of what is not and cannot be said. In many ways, this is actually the opposite of what happens in psychotherapy where we spend so much time in trying to name and understand the impacts of what was said and done years ago. What this novel illuminates so well is how painful is the wound of not being seen and known by a mother. It also explores beautifully, the limits of what we can know and understand, and the extents to which we will go in order to be known by those we love most. Strout holds and conveys this pain with gentleness, respect and deep understanding.
Critics say that the mother-daughter story in “My Name is Lucy Barton” is as much about what Lucy, the narrator and daughter, is not able to say to her mother as what she can actually say. I would agree. And I would further suggest that the book is also about what Lucy doesn’t know and will never know about her mother, and what her mother will never know about her.
Perhaps because I am a psychotherapist and frequently find myself listening not only to what my clients say but also to their silences and what they cannot speak to the ones they love most, that I engaged deeply with the silences and inability to communicate that highlight Lucy’s journey. Perhaps it is also my own unanswered, unanswerable questions from my own mother-daughter relationship that kept me riveted to this quiet and deeply moving story. Strout repeatedly and sharply renders the pain Lucy experiences as the shortfalls in knowing and communicating with her mother unfold. One experience stands out as capturing this pain.
Lucy’s mother has been at Lucy’s New York City hospital bedside for five days. She announces she is leaving and returning to her rural Illinois home. Mother and daughter have not seen each other in decades and mom has probably never left her hometown community before this trip. During the five days together mom’s conversations are casual, without acknowledging the large time amount of time since they’ve seen each other. Lucy’s has this last exchange with her mother upon her leaving.
“Oh mommy,” I said. “I’m so tired. I want to get better.”
“You’ll get better,” she said. “I’ve seen it clearly. You’ll get better, and you’ll have some problems in your life. But what matters is, you’ll get better.”
“Are you sure?”
“What problems?” I asked this in a way that tried to sound joking, as though what did I care about a few problems?
“Problems.” My mother was quiet for a while. “Like most people have, or some people. Marriage problems. Your kids will be all right.”
“How do you know?”
“How do I know? I don’t know how I know. I’ve never known how I know.”
“I know,” I said.
“You rest, Lucy.”
The underlining is mine because it is a vulnerable moment for Lucy. She doesn’t know when she will see her mother again or if she will. And there is still so much she hasn’t been able to say or hear. But she realizes she won’t hear anymore nor will her mother need to hear anymore. She has all that she’ll ever have with her mother and that has to be enough. This is such a difficult place for Lucy to arrive at and simply be with. This is also one of most difficult places clients arrive at.
For clients, as with Lucy Barton, accepting this shortfall is a painful and necessary process. I believe that as we make peace with this heartbreak, we are able to open more fully to the contemporary significant others in our lives. Much of the therapeutic process is learning how to live in these contradictions and uncertainties, to feel them rather than react, to feel them rather than guard against or try to escape them. Clients often ask what they should do once they realize they have arrived at this threshold where so much remains unsaid by them or there is so much they haven’t heard and fear they never will. Being with it is usually not the answer clients want to hear. Equally my being present with clients in their vulnerability is not something often welcomed. And both are understandable since as with Lucy it is such a difficult place to arrive at in oneself. But it is real and however unpleasant it is undeniable.
“My Name is Lucy Barton” is a poetic exploration of the longing to know and be known by one’s mother. And it is also a depiction of the gradual process that allows someone to openly and without defense experience the limits of what is possible and make peace with it, even as it falls dreadfully short of what had been hoped for.