To get a feeling for the memoir Who Do You Think You Are? you need only to imagine a vicious, violent, argument where those words are hurled at another person to wound them deeply. In this story, a chain smoking mother uses the question as a deliberate attempt to slash out at her daughter, Alyse, whom the mother fears is loved more deeply by her husband, and is intelligent enough to become somebody.
The story begins with three daughters sorting through their mother’s unkempt possessions after she has been laid to rest. More than any other possession, the eldest daughter sneaks away with a small padlocked, chest-like box which her mother forbade her to touch while she was still alive. “You can have it when I’m dead. In fact, it will be my present to you.” Although Alyse takes the box, she refuses to open it now that her mother has passed on.
From its very first pages, this tale is filled with the hatred Alyse’s now deceased mother harbored for her throughout most of her eldest daughter’s life. It also describes the growing mutual loathing Alyse bore toward her mother. I’m not quite sure I understood all the reasons why the mother singled out her eldest daughter for a life of physical and psychological pain, while the two younger daughters seemed to be treated less harshly.
Alyse grew up in this dysfunctional Jewish family where angered shouting, cursing, and ugly words of revulsion toward one another spewed from both parent's mouths. Their violent arguing was part of every day life, along with chain smoking. When Alyse’s father was home, he seemed to favor her, yet he rarely protected his eldest daughter from her mother’s barrage of degrading, insulting abuse. Alyse often wondered, why?
Her father was away from home quite often: days, a week, several weeks. When he did come home, he and his wife seemed to exhaust their sexual needs, then just as quickly they’d begin their fights and rip one another’s ego to shreds. It made little difference that their children or neighbors, for that matter, heard the couples’ screaming and ranting.
Alyse’s mother would accuse her husband of shacking up with a “blonde friend” with whom he’d spend his money while his family lived in a “shit hole” project apartment. “Don’t you care about us you piece of shit?”
Alyse would often ask when her father would be coming home? Her angered, distraught mother could not answer. “If you ask me one more time, I’ll get the strap.” Alyse knew well what that meant and learned not to step beyond her mother’s patience. She would count the days until dad came back.
In Who Do You Think You Are? it appears that Alyse’s father and grandparents, particularly her grandfather, were the only persons with whom she experienced any feelings of love. For her younger sisters she shared little warmth. They existed in her life as beings who showed little love or respect for her or either parent. A few of Alyse’s close friends treated her far more affectionately than her own sisters.
Unlike her mother, Alyse refuses to give up on life, even after the deaths of both her father and grandfather. She does well throughout her school years and moves away from her mother as soon as possible. She earns enough working at the New York Times to live in a fifth floor Manhattan walk up apartment. Although Alyse tries hard to cross the gap separating her from her mother, her growing success with the newspaper only deepens the chasm.
Alyse meets a young man whom her mother seems to like. This is a real puzzle, because throughout Alyse’s life, her mother seemed incapable of loving or even liking another human being. Eventually, Alyse marries happily and produces a daughter. Now she and her mother have something in common. This may be the only real bond between them.
But then, Alyse’s mother is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. As tragic as that may seem, Who Do You Think You Are? becomes a bit uplifting after this terminal diagnosis. Alyse does what she can to ease her mother’s suffering undergoing useless chemotherapy. She is with her during her dying hours.
Thus the story completes its cycle. Alyse now decides to open the box promised by her mother in the second paragraph above: “You can have it when I’m dead. In fact, it will be my present to you.” What Alyse discovers inside sheds some light on her mother’s irrational personality; her sense of loneliness, emptiness and despair; her inability to love.
Alyse Myer's memoir is fast paced and extremely easy to read. Its first person narrative pulls you into the author’s head as she desperately struggles to survive the daily, sometimes hourly, onslaught of her mother’s ire. To me as a reviewer, her mother's behavior seems pathological – even demented at times.
I would recommend Who Do You Think You Are? as a good read because it shows the endurance of the human spirit in the face of abject psychological and physical abuse. You will leave behind an unforgettable story thanking the gods your life is not so troubled. You will be satisfied when Alyse endures to become a loving wife and mother in spite of nature and nurture.