Central to Elizabeth Kadetsky’s stellar collection of essays about the nature of memory and grief, The Memory Eaters is her mother’s slippage from a world that once defined the parameters of her identity, and her own capacity to navigate it, as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. As Kadetsky grieves, memories from her girlhood and young adulthood come together to shed light upon her mother’s psychological absences and departures that plagued her throughout her life. In “Absences and Outages,” she ponders how her mother often seemed to be absent, staring into space minutes after being asked a question that she oftentimes wouldn’t answer: “There were outages, moments like a radio suddenly bereft of signal.” To understand these outages, Kadetsky dissects their shared fascination with their own physical beauty, considering how her mother’s forays into the world of fashion as a young woman in New York allowed her to build a protective fortress around herself in a city where she desperately sought to reinvent herself:
Beauty was innately wrapped up in disappearing. It was both a reason to disappear and the very quality of disappearance itself. We perfected the art of being looked at while at the same time feeling menaced by the ever-present eyes of the city on us everywhere. Silence and invisibility, like our home at the river edge of the city, were still our safe zones. Inhabiting beauty out in public, we disconnected from ourselves.
The act of disappearing carves out a space in which her mother can retreat not only from the predations of men, but also from the difficulties of her own life, whether it be her two failed marriages or other, deeper traumas from her past: “I go over these memories trying to figure out if my mother deliberately made herself absent as well, or if, rather, her relentless optimism was in fact real.” Perhaps what her mother truly wanted was for her past to disappear, but with this severance came a disconnection from herself, and from her reality as a newly divorced woman with two young children in the big city.
Contemplating her mother’s inability to retain memories of the immediate past as a result of Alzheimer’s, Kadetsky asks herself, in the essay “Swerve,” if her mother unwittingly finds a sense of peace by fully occupying the present and existing “outside of memory.” But then she also realizes how this “consciousness severed from context” can lead to a permanent untethering from reality that gives none of them, not even her mother, any reassurance that they will find their way through the muddle of their present condition: “My mother used to have this kind of trust in the universe, and so did I. But now I know it’s possible to be irrevocably lost, untethered from divine protection and mystical intelligence.” Throwing herself into her yoga practice to find peace within the immediate present amidst the chaos caused by her mother’s deteriorating health, Kadetsky realizes, “It makes me claustrophobic, this present—too fleeting to leave room for an identity of any kind.” Could this insistence on living in the present, untethered by the ghosts of the past or the demands of the future, be key to understanding her own mother’s lifelong inability to find her own moorings?
To answer these questions, Kadetsky explores her family’s history in “A Taxonomy of the Unknown” and “Ghosts,” hoping to understand her mother’s evasiveness in confronting her past and present by digging deeper into the stories their ancestors told, or refused to tell. In “A Taxonomy of the Unknown,” she examines how her mother’s Quebecois family traced their origins to a certain Ambroise Paré, chief surgeon to the kings of France, discoverer of anesthesia’s use in surgery, and “demonologist,” who may not actually be their ancestor, but whose opus On Monsters and Marvels, may shed light on their family’s desire to reshape their history in order to hide uncomfortable truths. Taking Paré’s cue to bring the unknown and unacceptable aspects of nature to light, Kadetsky parses through her mother’s documents, finding that “presences mark absences” in the records her mother attempted to keep of their family’s history. Instead of providing the answers she seeks, she finds bills, credit card offers, her and her sister’s report cards from the first grade. “The clutter masks elisions. So much missing,” she observes, before discovering a letter from her grandpapa to her mother, telling her that a trip to Acapulco would keep her mother’s mind occupied. “Occupied to avoid what?” Kadetsky asks herself, remembering that her mother returned from that trip a ghost of her former self. Nothing in her mother’s files provides an answer to this sudden change, making her wonder if all this record-keeping was meant to distract her mother, and her forebears, from the story they were meant to tell.
In “Ghosts,” Kadetsky journeys further into her mother’s family history, hoping to learn more about her mother’s sister, Renée, who never learned to walk or talk and died at the age of eleven. Beneath this quest for answers lies a yearning to understand her mother’s disconnections from the world by making sense of the silences surrounding Renée’s illness and death. “I already know the skeletal frame of this story that seems shaped by absence—an X-ray story,” Kadetsky writes, having been haunted by the incompleteness of Renée’s story while growing up, as well as her grandmaman’s violent alcoholism following Renée’s death. “Secrets are like this,” she writes. “They don’t disappear; they just become shadowy and cast an ambiguous darkness.”
Confronted by the evasiveness of her relatives when she attempts to ask them about Renée, she finally extracts a confession from her mother’s cousin that her own mother may have pushed Renée off a bed when Renée was a baby. “And what about everything that went wrong before?” Kadetsky asks, contemplating their family’s history of alcoholism, mental illness, and abuse. Does their family hope to erase these secrets from their collective memory by scapegoating her mother for what may have been a case of fetal alcohol syndrome? And was her mother’s coping mechanism, in the face of these silent accusations, to simply disappear?
Though losing her mother to Alzheimer’s disease is the main, organizing loss of this collection of essays, what Kadetsky also mourns are the losses she, her mother, and her sister, Jill, have had to endure as a result of the unspoken traumas that have made their own personal histories and identities incomplete. To cope with what she calls an “existential grief” resulting from this sense of incompleteness, her mother shuts down and disappears from this world, while Jill, who also struggles to deal with her mother’s outages, turns to drugs for relief. It is by making her way through her own grief through these luminous and exploratory essays that Kadetsky finds her way back into the world, healing herself by reclaiming the parts of her identity that have been erased from her history, or denied to her by those who sought to erase her from their histories.
There is a particularly poignant moment in the essay “Absences and Outages,” in which a young Elizabeth, having fled her stepfather’s home in Connecticut with her mother and sister, reclaims her old patronym, Kadetsky, while registering for the fifth grade in a New York school. Her Jewish father has cut her and her sister off after divorcing their mother, and after carrying her stepfather’s surname for a few years, Jill grabs Elizabeth’s enrollment form and writes down their old name. It is a powerful act of reclamation that Elizabeth is unable to perform for herself, but it allows her to write herself back into her Jewish family’s history of survival and persistence, and to confront the silent, unspoken traumas that are her inheritance from both sides of her family by claiming ownership over them. “Ghosts live with us. Things come full circle. We accept the existence of ghosts,” she writes in another essay, “Meditations on Survival,” freeing herself from the grip of her traumas by accepting their lingering presence in her life. It is by doing so that she makes herself whole, finding the kind of freedom her mother found elusive in life by returning to the world, and to herself.
About the Reviewer
Monica Macansantos earned her MFA in fiction and poetry from the University of Texas–Michener Center for Writers, and her PhD in creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington. Her debut story collection, Love and Other Rituals, is forthcoming from Grattan Street Press in Australia. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, The Masters Review, Failbetter, Lunch Ticket, and Anomaly, among other places. She has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the I-Park Foundation, Storyknife Writers Retreat, and Moriumius.