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A Gorgeous Memoir of a Personal Hell

Nobody’s Son: A Memoir
By Mark Slouka
W.W. Norton & Company, 278 pages, $26.95

For the epigraph of his gorgeous, devastating memoir, Mark Slouka turns to the pre-eminent poet of hell, Dante: “Each one wraps himself in what burns him.”

The quotation, it becomes clear, applies to Slouka, his mother and — above all — their relationship, marked by intense love, anger and, finally, estrangement. “Nobody’s Son” is replete with ironies, not least among them Slouka’s attempt to revisit his memories at a time when his mother, deep into dementia, has irretrievably lost hers.

The narrative is nonlinear, guided by emotional rather than chronological logic. It takes readers to some dark and uncomfortable places, but its arc is toward forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. Beyond its affecting personal story, it is both a reflection on the power of history to shape individual lives and a canny meditation on the art of memoir.

Plunging into the current debate about the authenticity of the memoir genre, Slouka reminds readers that every narrative involves choices, which, in turn, inevitably lead to omissions and distortions. Beginnings and endings are illusory, he suggests — a point that his own jigsaw-puzzle narrative underlines.

The past, he argues, infuses and haunts the present. “There can come a time in your life when the past decides to run you down,” he writes. “You’re not going to get away. Take the hit.” The death of his father, in 2013, accelerated the process; so, too, the death of his mother’s late-life partner.

But the root of the memoirist’s problems is the unreliability of memory itself. “I’m suspicious of memory, though I’ve played in its fields all my life,” Slouka writes. “I don’t trust how it accommodates us, how it adjusts to whatever it thinks we want, smiles or snarls as we do.” Nor can memory necessarily be corralled, though every memoir is an attempt to do just that: “We don’t always remember what we deserve to, or want to. We remember what we have to, which isn’t quite the same thing. We remember because one memory has elbowed aside the others.”

Circling around his pain, Slouka begins with what seems like a benign memory, from age 12, of a family summer vacation and an early crush, on a woman named Karen. A few paragraphs later, he recalls picking black-eyed Susans “for my mother, who was going crazy.”

His mother’s mental deterioration manifested itself, on that occasion and others, in bitter, angry altercations between his parents, from which Slouka, an only child, sought to hide. Eventually, after decades of marriage, Olga and Zdenek would divorce, and both would return to their native Czechoslovakia.

Slouka’s own relationship with his mother, once his soul mate, frayed over time. His mother’s bizarre behavior escalated — his account of her meltdown on a Dutch highway is particularly chilling — and they ultimately had a fight that estranged them for a biblical seven years.

His parents’ bad beginning may have helped doom them, Slouka suggests. They were both teenagers when the Nazis overran Czechoslovakia. According to his mother’s vague account, she was being sexually abused at the time by her own father, a Nazi sympathizer. When Slouka’s maternal grandmother discovered the incest, she pressured her daughter into a marriage, at 19, with the man she’d been dating, Slouka’s father. “What chance did they have?” the son writes.

During the war, Zdenek joined the resistance, committing acts of sabotage. In 1942 the couple hid a Jewish man for a single terrifying week. The postwar Communist takeover posed a new threat. A journalist audaciously defending free speech, Zdenek was tipped off to his own imminent arrest. In 1948 he fled the country — and his wife, despite the problems in their marriage, left with him.

That was a fateful choice, perhaps a surprising one — because, as Slouka reveals, his mother already had fallen in love with someone else, a fellow teacher she met at a language camp. “My mother’s love for the man I’ll call F. was a big love, unstoppable,” Slouka writes, “and if it left blood on the floor and wreckage in its wake, well, that’s all right. The blood was their own, mostly, and love that matters can be messy.”

In the end, Slouka cannot attribute his mother’s subsequent descent into madness to any one factor. She may have been bipolar; she was also, he discovers, a pill addict. Then there were her circumstances, including the displacement she felt in the provincial town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “Was it the toxin of incest, the loneliness of exile?” he wonders. “Was it depression, her marriage to my father, her nature?”

A series of tragically missed connections with F. solidified her fate. Or so it seemed — until a chance meeting, more astounding than fiction would permit, that allowed her a few precious seasons of happiness. “With him she soared — repaired, reborn,” Slouka writes.

The author’s own reconciliation with his mother comes very late — after she is, in most ways that matter, long gone. What remained behind was “a nest of memories, a tangle of anecdotes, told to me and misheard, misremembered; of regrets and revisions forced by time….” Even so, Slouka, wrestling with their intersecting narratives, is able to contrive the ending — and find the peace — he requires.

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward. Follow her on Twitter, @JuliaMKlein

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