Mothers, Tell Your Daughters – Bonnie Jo Campbell

4 out of 5

Several years back, I was watching a police procedural-type of TV show in which the lead female character remarked something to the effect of every woman, at some point, fearing that a man close to them may kill them. Boyfriend; acquaintance; husband. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard that, but I recall the repetition of it struck me moreso, as did confirming the sentiment amongst friends. I reflected on my own behaviors: a stereotypical emotionally-reserved male, priding myself (for whatever reason) on my generally logical approach to things, shamefully recalling those times when emotional reservations and logic hadn’t tamped my anger. Nothing flagrant, as I recall it, but nonetheless: I remember throwing something at a bed one time and registering the instant change in the face of the person I was then arguing with, realizing that – very simply – I was capable of throwing something, and what else that could mean. And these are only the events which stick out for me – only those potentially affected could tell me about things that completely passed me by as harmless, or “normal.”

Mothers, Tell Your Daughts is Bonnie Jo Campbell’s collection of short stories of women, operating in such a world where men can suddenly become the types to throw something, or to abuse, or to rape, and rather where “suddenly” seems to be more the due course of things. However, I don’t read it as an anti-male diatribe of any sorts, nor is it exactly suggesting an #allmen paradigm. It’s… more open-ended then that, and that makes it more devastating.

The women narrators of these stories, by and large, have experienced all sorts of abuse – emotional, physical – and often men are involved, and often men do show their hands as shallow, led-by-sex creatures, but these women aren’t victims of that: they are humans, all equally flawed in their own ways. Sometimes they don’t “realize” it, and the effectiveness of the story – as in the title story – comes from how deeply immersed a narrator is in their life, and in accepting that things are just “how they are,” juxtaposed against their daughter’s (or sister’s, or friend’s) point of view that things can change; that things can be different. Sometimes the narrators chide themselves for not making those changes; sometimes they rage against those subjecting them to such things.

As a man, it’s as sobering as the sentiment with which I started: realizing how easy it is for a “nice guy” to not be that, and how poorly our society provides the tools or agency for that to be addressed. But it’s also a larger lesson about the need for learning and listening and growing at all levels, not just on the penised side of things. The dual meaning of the title: to impart lessons to your children, but also to talk to them. To talk about these confusing feelings – the need for companionship that can be bundled with fear of those comforting; the universe of unknowns.

Because Campbell’s stories in ‘Mothers’ were written at various points and then collected, there’s definitely some structural repetition: narrators relate some slice of their life, and a source of their anxieties – often male, directly or indirectly – comes to the fore. The utter miseries that are related can become emotionally exhausting. But there are so many different approaches to the material – so many different ways of exploring these relationships, between women, women and men, mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, and with ourselves – that that’s not to say that these stories don’t all offer immensely impactful and important elements, and should give any reader something to chew on, and hopefully talk about.