The relationship between a mother and a daughter can be conflicted and tenuous at best. Sometimes the ties that bind are slippery slopes that, upon closer scrutiny, reveal how much the mother’s disappointments are reflected back to her when she gazes at her daughter.
When the author of Unraveling Anne begins her story, she jolts the reader with the fact of her mother’s tragic end immediately. She describes how others react to the word. She says:
“My mother was murdered.
“It’s a shocking word, murdered. I don’t like to use it. But it is the truth. Murder is the only word that honestly describes her death. So sometimes, when someone asks what happened to my mother, instead of holding onto this word, toying with the small pain of it as if it were a loose tooth, I go ahead and spit it out. No matter how many times I do, no matter how many people I tell, the raw strangeness of the fact of my mother’s death never changes….”
Thus begins the chronicling of a life, by first reenacting her death. Years before, when the author first learned of the tragedy, she was living on the opposite coast; her journey to deconstruct her mother’s life and death begins twenty years later with a visit to LA and an examination of the murder book.
Saville’s descriptions of growing up in LA in the sixties and seventies and the ongoing party that was her mother’s life are interspersed with tales of her mother’s beauty, her art, and how the daughter felt proud of her in those moments. But as the party guests morph from artists, musicians, and celebrities to street people, and as Anne’s drinking consumes her life, there now remains an eerie and gritty detritus that shows little resemblance to what once was. The beautiful model, designer, and golden girl has toppled into disarray.
The moments of pride fade away, and the author recalls “taking care of herself,” but she adds that this necessity helped her develop self-reliance. There was also a supportive presence of a grandmother nearby, along with the libraries where she found comfort after school, and even teachers who built up her self-esteem.
So the story continues, as the author resurrects her childhood and those memories, and then goes deeper into an examination of her mother’s life. She is startled to discover at some point that the grandparents who were the stopgap caretakers were also the two who first helped “create” the fears, insecurities, and demons that taunted her mother. And the generation before them had its own role in the damage inflicted. In understanding those who came before, the author begins to understand and accept who she is, in spite of, and because of, her mother.
In the haunting cover photo, in which the photographer is carrying out the mother’s wish to create “income-producing models or actors,” we see the tattered theater seats set up by the photographer who displayed, along with the author (as a child), the “detritus of my mother’s modeling days—dresses with beads falling off, bright boas that left feathers floating in the air, floppy hats with bent flowers on the brims—”
A gritty, revelatory exploration that was occasionally difficult to follow, as it jumped around chronologically, I still could not put it down. I am awarding this memorable memoir four stars.