A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for His Mother by Jeremy Gavron

img_0485A Woman on the Edge of  Time is a memoir that reads like a mystery, as Jeremy Gavron, a journalist, interviews family, old school friends, neighbours and colleagues of his mother Hannah Gavron, whom he has little memory of.

It documents his long-delayed search for a greater understanding of why she took her own life at 29 years of age, a married, working mother of two boys aged four and seven, living in Highgate, London.

It was 1965, she had been on the cusp of publishing a manuscript encapsulating the findings of her sociology research into the conflicts faced by young housebound mothers in North London, The Captive Wife. It was two years since another mother of two young children Sylvia Plath, had done the same thing.

Hannah Gavron was an out-going, confident child, an accomplished, confident teenager, popular and desirous of growing up. She wanted to do something with her life, to share her views with the world, but she also wanted freedom, to leave the constraints of family, to be in love, to claim her place in a rapidly changing society. She married at 18, went to RADA drama school for a year, quit, had two children, then realising her prospects were limited, went back to university to study sociology, attained a PhD and then a teaching post at the “iconic British art institute”, renowned for its experimental and progressive approach, Hornsey College of Art.

It seemed she had everything going for her, and yet at that tender age of 29, when her youngest son Jeremy, was 4 years old, she took her own life, shocking everyone around her.

Now the father of two girls himself, having previously just accepted the subject of his mother was a taboo subject never raised, he is seized by an urgency to know and understand the mystery, for how could it happen that a woman with so much going for her, two small children and a manuscript about to heighten her career, could suddenly end it all?

He interviews an extraordinary number of people and succeeds in recreating the jigsaw of Hannah’s life in incredible detail and begins to understand the multiple forces that may have played a part in leading up to that tragic decision.

As gripping as any mystery, it reads like a pageturner providing an interesting insight into the subject Hannah Gavron wrote her thesis about, ‘The Captive Wife’ and the struggle of women in the early 1960’s, a period just prior to the second wave of feminism, an era whose attitudes and dilemmas were encapsulated in Doris Lessing’s powerful account of a woman searching for her personal and political identity, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962.

 

Looking back from our own times, the subject seems an obvious one, still relevant today, but in 1960 it was neither obvious nor easy for her to get past her academic supervisors. For all the advances gained by the suffragette movement, and the opportunities the war had given woman to work and experience life beyond family,  the woman’s movement was in retreat in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. in the post-war period, emphasis had been put on the role of motherhood in rebuilding Britain. The Beveridge Report, the basis for social reforms, spoke of how ‘housewives as mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British race and of British ideals in the world’.

A woman attempting to forge an academic career in sociology at the time and proposing studies which focused on women as the subject, was provocative and a gesture not ready to be accepted by many in power in academia.

In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport

In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport

It reminded me of reading Nancy Rappaport’s In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide, she too was 4 years old when her mother, who was raising a large family as well as being involved in organising society events and political campaigning, suddenly committed suicide. That drama took place in 1963 in Boston.

They are tragic stories and serve to create a more substantial memory for the authors, piecing together the lives of these woman who should have been able to contribute so much more than they did.

It left me wondering about the author himself, as he keeps himself well out of the narrative, not shining any light on how it had been for him to grow up under this shadow, this absence. How was it for him to accept the love of another mother, how might this turning point have influenced who he would become. Rather he shines his light outward and builds an incredibly detailed vision of his mother, leaving just a hint of suggestion that within her, we may also finds parts of him.

Further Reading

The Guardian, Nov 2015 – Jeremy Gavron: ‘My mother was a woman who looked for solutions. Suicide was a solution’

The Guardian, Apr 2009 – ‘Tell the Boys I Loved Them’

Buy a Copy of A Woman on the Edge of Time Here

 

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In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport – exploring the mystery of a mother’s suicide #memoir

In 1963, Nancy Rappaport was 4 years old and the youngest of six children when her mother, an ambitious woman who balanced raising a large family, organising regular society events and political campaigning, committed suicide in the wake of a heart-wrenching custody battle.

Nancy now has three grown children of her own and has written this book both as a daughter needing to find answers and as a professional child psychiatrist, bringing together her education, experience, the wisdom of years and a compassionate perspective to narrate this compelling memoir of an extraordinary life whose end was sad and tragic.

From a childhood in which the nurturing love of a mother was ruptured so abruptly, through adolescence and early adulthood where the subject of her mother appears to have been taboo, it is extraordinary and something of a blessed gift that Nancy comes across a trunk of belongings that has virtually been in hiding or at best forgotten all these years. It is a credit to her father and stepmother that it wasn’t destroyed and so Nancy in her quest to know her mother better, gains access to lists, notes, notebooks, a journal and astonishingly, the manuscript of a complete novel. At last, she begins to gain a first-hand insight into who her mother really was, aside from all that had been written publicly and most importantly she begins to piece together how her mother was thinking in the time leading up to her death.

Rappaport follows leads like a master sleuth hesitating to question herself only briefly in pursuing her mother’s former lover, an estranged best friend and a former confidante of her grandmother, to unearth as much information surrounding the events of that period during her parents’ marriage and subsequent divorce. Little by little, she draws back the carefully drawn veil of secrecy, though not entirely without getting her fingers burnt.

It’s tempting to search for the villain and it could be said that each of the main characters in this true story are tried out and tested in that role, but none endure. Such is the faculty of being human, perhaps we all have the potential if pushed sufficiently but here we find few heroes or villains, just victims, bystanders and those trying to do their best under the circumstances.

It is a bold move to publish a family story when so many are touched by past events and family ties remain tenuous. Nancy suffers the expected consequences to a certain extent though she tries to navigate her way with compassion and empathy as much as she can. It’s a difficult and interesting topic, to write a version of the truth that recalls the faded memories of real life characters, while respecting those who wish to remain silent.

In my reading of this courageous memoir, some of the lessons come not from digging in the past or even from the professional perspective, but from Nancy’s own children, who are a constant reminder of the present that we live in and the role and responsibility of a mother to her children, doing her best, learning as she goes, loving them above all so that they have the best chance to be loving, caring and successful people themselves and that no matter what anyone says or does or whatever the circumstances, a mother will maintain that role whether she is fulltime, part time, at a distance or just a faded memory.