Cover of book: Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence

Lynne Tillman
Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence

Early in Mothercare, a hospital room offers a good analogy for the incompetence of the American healthcare system. Lynne Tillman’s mother has had a seizure and is rushed to hospital in an ambulance. Once she gets there, she’s barely lucid, abandoned on a gurney in the lobby. After Tillman pleads for a bed, her mother is moved into a new luxury ward. Nurses come and go but they are useless and neglectful. Meanwhile, Tillman and her sisters are provided with perfectly brewed tea served in matching fine China with expensive linen napkins. “Lipstick on a pig,” writes Tillman.

In Tillman’s new book – a rare dip into memoir – the American novelist and cultural critic refuses to dress up the agonies and tedium of caregiving. For 11 years Tillman and her sisters oversee and organise their mother’s care after she succumbs to an illness that is never fully determined, but which involves a build-up of fluid in the brain and symptoms that mirror dementia.

This is an ordeal told grimly and truthfully, with rare moments of grace. For the most part the doctors who attend to Tillman’s mother are thoughtless egotists, unable to admit their wrong calls. Meanwhile, the family circle is stretched and live-in carers are installed, some of whom are mentally ill, overbearing or regularly steal. Tillman painfully attempts to reconcile her own desperation with the poor treatment of the undocumented underclass that make up the majority of America’s caregivers.

Frequently, suffering – or bearing witness to suffering – is seen as a spur to revelation, bringing those in its orbit closer together. But Tillman’s book refuses this narrative. She remains ambivalent towards her mother, who is jealous and mean-spirited to the very end. She does not feel closer to her, even after spending her weekends caring for her. She even wonders after her death if she should have bothered. Despite their bleakness, there is something refreshing about these rarely uttered disclosures.

The prose of Mothercare is in line with Tillman’s criticism and novels: chatty, quick and devoid of pretentiousness. Her sentences are simple and stuffed with blunt declarations. The pace is fast – Tillman is constantly moving, letting her mind wander and join dots haphazardly. As she explores the intricacies of care, the failures of doctors, the rituals of death and the web of resentments, one wishes Tillman would slow down and zero in on a topic for longer. Yet this unrestrained quality of Tillman’s work is also her greatest strength. She lets it all out, no matter how uncomfortable or miserable, in order to leave ugliness and indignity behind. 

Soft Skull Press, 176pp, $54.99 (hardback)

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence, Lynne Tillman".

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