“Are we all narcissists who simply haven’t chosen violence yet?” asks Lebanese–Australian lawyer, artist and author Amani Haydar, who was catapulted to public life in 2015 when her father murdered her mother, Salwa.
There were no warning signs. He’d never hurt Salwa before. Never abused her. Or so Amani thought. In The Mother Wound, named for the theory that mother-daughter bonds are tainted by unhealed traumas passed down matrilineal lines, Haydar excavates and deconstructs history and memory, picking at national and personal lacerations in an attempt to answer the unanswerable questions, why and what if?
Despite the title, this requires her to contemplate her father and their relationship. Of course there were red flags – abuse isn’t always visible or physical. There was the time he told his wife she looked too ugly to attend a family wedding and she didn’t go. Or when he ignored Salwa’s pleas and relayed gruesome details of a Lebanese family blown up by undercover Israeli agents (“part of them were on the roof”), knowing that his mother-in-law had been killed by Israeli air strikes on Lebanon in 2006. Her grandmother’s violent death, Haydar asserts, is not so different from her mother’s: family violence and state violence are mirror images.
Haydar’s works of visual art seep into the book’s non-linear structure. She pulls out memories like images in a photo album, poring over her own life and that of her family here and in Lebanon, pausing to turn over a tattered picture, presenting it to the reader in the hopes of deciphering its contents to herself as well as to us. Inviting us into her pain, Haydar hints at her feelings of complicity, of missing the warning signs her mother gave her but that she was too ill equipped to understand. She calls out a society that fails to take emotional abuse seriously. She defies members of her father’s family whose “support ended where my need for accountability began”. She questions her faith in a legal system she’d always thought of as sacred. Through it all, she bears witness to her mother’s life, reminding us that victims of domestic violence are people long before they become statistics.
In the particular, The Mother Wound is an elegy for Arab women who deserve so much more from life than they are usually allotted. In the universal, it is a clarion call for global female emancipation. Although the latter chapters buckle slightly under the gravity of the subject matter, as the author’s personal recollections compete with her social commentary, Haydar has managed to spin inscrutable darkness and brutality into a gilded memoir of significant insight and generosity.
Macmillan Australia, 352pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 as "The Mother Wound, Amani Haydar".
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