Honestly Tough Love

A review/reflection of Elizabeth Strout's book My Name is Lucy Barton

          There is a common narrative that suggests that when one dies, he or she will be before St. Peter who will open a book and look at how you lived your life. If you lived well, then the gates of pearl will open and you will be invited into whatever bliss you imagine living among clouds will offer. If you did not live well, then the floor opens up, and you fall into a lake of sulfur and fire and it is not a good experience for you. This story has become a satire of a real belief that many hold – you will be judged for how you live.

            I wonder if this notion is what fuels many people at funerals who struggle to say something nice about the deceased. You can see them try to justify the ways that their mother was always angry or that their father was always distant. You can see the survivors of the deceased working hard to say that it was due to circumstances, due to the time, due to a bum leg that the dearly departed was so hard, so mean, so aloof. It is almost as if they are trying to shout verbal indulgences to St. Peter on the dead’s behalf, trying to be an advocate so that their loved one will be able to walk through those pearly gates and enjoy a life of clouds, harps, and tacky wings.

            Those funerals are not helpful for the deceased or the living and are not honest. Putting the memory of someone on a falsely constructed pedestal is a lie and does not help with one’s grief and work to reconcile a relationship that was difficult and painful. Perhaps there is a different way to remember someone.

           Elizabeth Strout’s short and well-written work, My Name is Lucy Barton offers a different model of naming the reality of a difficult relationship in one’s life. In her book the main character is remembering and reclaiming her relationship with her mother. There is a real sense that Lucy’s mother loves her, but that the love and the relationship between mother and daughter has not been easy. It is a very well written book, almost poetic in places, bringing the reader into the mind and experience of Lucy Barton, and bringing the reader to feel her love as she feels it for others, and the pain that such a love carries. It is early on in the work when the reader feels Lucy’s pull between placing her mother on a pedestal, elevating her to a status of sainthood, and being honest about who her mother was/is, warts and all. At one point in the story, Lucy Barton is recollecting a conversation she had with the writer, Sarah Payne about her difficulty in recounting her relationship with her mother. Sarah Payne implored Lucy to:

Pg. 107 – “Never ever defend your work… This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

Strout’s book tells a story of an imperfect love and does it in such a way that the reader does not walk away hating the mother or feeling that she is unapproachable. She was human and lived a human life, warts and all. And after examining all of the warts, after seeing all of the flaws, the reader walks away not seeing Barton’s mother as a villain or an angel, but as a flawed human being who was trying to do good in the best way that she could.

            In that short and poignant quote, Barton reminds the reader that none of us can love perfectly. We are reminded that no matter how hard we try we are going to hurt each other, we are going to miss hints and cues, and we are going to be awful. And at the same time we are going to be amazing and generous and loving in ways that we never thought was possible. We are going to be imperfect.

            The notion that we cannot speak ill of the dead, that we need to put the deceased on a pedestal can be harmful, for it advocates a lie. This notion advocates a lie in life as much as it does in remembering the person in death. Part of grief is finding a sense of closure in one’s relationship with the deceased, and covering up the imperfections complicates that closure. It is important to tell the truth. It is important to say that your loved one had a temper, struggled with addiction, never cleaned up after himself, or just smelled. It is important to tell the story of how your loved one hurt you and to observe and show those wounds. But it is also important to speak to those things, those moments that are good, that are honest, those times when the deceased was there for you, when he or she listened, and loved and healed; the moments of hope and grace that is found in relationships of love. It is difficult to be honest about one without the other and in neglecting part of the relationship leads to a lie.

            My Name Is Lucy Barton is about an honest relationship between a mother and a daughter that moves beyond the two-dimensional portrayal that we often find in poorly worded and watered down eulogies. It speaks to the honesty of life that complicates all of our relationships. We all have flaws and we all have moments of blessings. Do not defend your life. Do not defend the lives of others. Celebrate the effort that you made in the relationship and the efforts that the other made. Tell their stories, and let the imperfect love that we all strive to claim and show be the thread that binds the narrative together.

            So when facing Peter (or whoever or whatever), you will not be able to show all of the perfections of your life, but rather the efforts and the desires that were behind all of your errors and your triumphs. In that, may we be celebrated, judged, and seen as real.