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Fierce Attachments: feminist memoir and female relationships

The re-issue of Vivian Gornick’s memoir ‘Fierce Attachments’ highlights the rich tradition in feminist writing of taking the complexities of female relationships seriously.

Sian Norris
21 October 2015

Feminist activist and writer Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, has recently been re-issued in the UK by Daunt Books, bringing this furious and vital book to a British audience for the first time since 1988.

Fierce Attachments is a memoir that enacts its title. It explores Gornick’s attachments to friends, lovers and neighbours; to places; and to her childhood.

But most of all, this is her memoir of the difficult, intense and suffocating attachment to her mother.

The memoir is split into two narratives that interweave smoothly with one another – the jumps in time and place beautifully executed so at no point does the reader feel lost or unpleasantly jarred. The first narrative tells the story of Gornick’s childhood and young adulthood in the immigrant communities of 1940s New York. The second tracks the walks she and her mother make through Manhattan in the present day (1980s).

Claustrophobia is the key theme throughout the book. Gornick grew up in a tenement in New York, crowded into a building overflowing with immigrant families, squashed again into undersized flats where bedrooms double as living rooms and parents struggle to find privacy. Gornick reflects that the background noise of childhood is the women of her neighbourhood: swapping complaints about husbands, about children, about housework, about the new woman on the block.

The neighbourhood women offer Gornick models for how to be a woman – models she both craves and rejects. There are a number of these images of womanhood weaving in and out of the book – the mad Mrs Kerner, the desperate Mrs Levinson, the prostitute outside. But the two most important models that both attract and frighten Gornick are Netty, the gentile neighbour in a Jewish neighbourhood whose husband is shot in a bar brawl, and her own mother.

We learn early on that Gornick’s mother was an ambitious woman – a woman with bags of energy who was a committed and active member of the Communist party. She had big dreams for herself – visions of a larger life. However, like many women of her generation, class, and community, she stayed in the tenements, got married and had children. Her life, her ambitions and her passions – all of it became subsumed into her marriage. Faced with few choices, she chose instead to channel her energy into loving her husband. She put love at the centre of her life; love gave her life meaning. Widowed when her daughter was just 12, love remained her focus. Only now, mourning and memorialising that love became her priority.

The impact her mother’s obsessive grief has on Gornick is illustrated through the aesthetics of claustrophobia and smothering. She describes how after her father’s death, her mother forced her to sleep in the same bed – grabbing her in the night. It’s an uncomfortable image: the mother clinging on to the flesh of the daughter to try and combat both her performed and genuine loneliness. Gornick explores how her mother’s grief left no room for her and her brother to mourn the loss of their father. Through her stark prose and clear-sighted anger, the reader is drawn into the tiny room where howls, rage and tears reign supreme – filling up every nook and cranny as child-Vivian sits with her feet out on the fire escape, her back to her mother, seeking escape whilst still tied into the room.

If her mother provides Gornick with a model of womanhood that represents subsuming one’s life into an ideal of love, then Netty offers a version that’s all sex, sensuality and hate.

Netty’s warm, chaotic, and easy sexuality attracts Gornick – an alternative to the obsessive and sexless version of love presented by her mother. But as Netty starts to need more and more from the child-Vivian, her presence becomes equally smothering. In a striking passage, Gornick describes being held by Netty on the day of her father’s funeral. She writes:

“I leaned myself into her. Her touch began to seem insistent. I felt myself being pulled. Toward what I didn’t know. It was as though Nettie stood at the mouth of something dark and soft, drawing me on, her body saying to me: Come. Don’t be afraid. I’ll pull you through. A dreamy, spreading blur dissolved in my head, my chest […] Suddenly terror prickled on my skin.”

These themes of entrapment, smothering, crushing, and escape are repeated throughout the memoir. The claustrophobia of these two formative relationships follow Gornick throughout her life – from the lovers and husband who try to swallow her up, to her vision of the ‘rectangle of space’ within herself that opens up when work and love is succeeding… and crushes back down in times of stress, trouble and anxiety.

Which is perhaps why the passages describing walks with her mother as an adult woman gives the reader a sense of coming up for air. Outside of the claustrophobic home setting, the women are freer. In the open, the rows and tensions are brought to the surface. White-hot rage flashes and sparks. But as they possess the city by walking its streets, they also experience moments of understanding, empathy and recognition.

Gornick started her writing career at the Village Voice where she became a chronicler of, and participant in, the feminist movement. She has written extensively about women and their relationships with politics and society – including her biography of Emma Goldman. As readers, we can perhaps look for parallels and differences between Goldman and Gornick’s mother – both communists, both living in Jewish and immigrant communities. Her most recent memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, expands on some of the themes she touches upon in Fierce Attachments­ – particularly on being a single woman living alone in New York.

There’s so much more to write about Fierce Attachments – about the immigrant and working class experience, the confines of marriage, the nature of sexual love, the fears of patriarchal control. With the reissue from Daunt Books, now is the time to discover this passionate, angry, and clear-sighted feminist writer who explores in such beautiful depth the often-neglected mother/ daughter relationship.  

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