Richard Russo’s Difficult Mom

Jean and Richard Russo

How could Richard Russo’s memoir Elsewhere not intrigue me? I’m already a fan. His novels Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls, for example, tell heartfelt and funny stories about flawed, even infuriating, but ultimately sympathetic characters. Russo has mastered an assured, sincere tone that doesn’t get sentimental.

A glance at reviews of the new book told me that it’s about his mother. His mother who had a mental illness. My kind of book, in other words. Tricia Springstubb, who reviewed it in the Plain Dealer, lent me her copy, and I just finished it.

Russo’s mom was infuriating. Her emotions were volatile, and her preferences wildly changeable. She was impossible to please. She passionately loved places and people, and then hated them just as passionately. She said things, and then swore she never said them. Richard tried to please her, and though she always relied on him, her “Rock,” he always failed. She never stayed pleased.

At the end of the book, he diagnoses his mom with obsessive compulsive disorder, but I (prone, admittedly, to find borderline personality disorder wherever I look) think there was more to the picture. Her sense of emptiness, her black-and-white thinking, her fear of abandonment and emotional volatility betoken the BPD symptoms with which I am quite familiar.

Also familiar to me is Russo’s desperate, co-dependent desire to make his mother happy. He did what she wanted. He reasoned with her. Nothing worked. In the end, after her death, learning about OCD arrived as a revelation to him. That epiphany is also familiar to me.

Because she had a mental illness, his mom didn’t change and, at least without treatment, couldn’t change. That understanding doesn’t come in a moment, but its gradual dawning certainly helps. You were the kid, and, however much you wanted to, you couldn’t fix what was wrong.

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