Bequest & Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent's Death

Bequest & Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent's Death

Bequest & Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent's Death

Bequest & Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent's Death

Synopsis

"My mother's death was a shock--an athletic non-smoker, she was diagnosed as having lung cancer days after her sixty-eighth birthday and died a few months later. It was only in the years following her death, when my father became physically and mentally crippled by Parkinson's disease, that I began to think and to write about the end of life." So notes Nancy K. Miller in the opening pages of Bequest and Betrayal, an innovative form of memoir that blends astute literary criticism and gripping autobiographical passages as it illuminates an experience that is both universal and intensely private: the death of a parent. Bequest and Betrayal is composed like a tapestry, weaving together insightful readings of books like Philip Roth's Patrimony with harrowing autobiographical material about the last years of Miller's own parents. By incorporating her own deeply felt memories into the text, the author gives weight to her examination of the central themes that emerge: the relations between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and fathers and daughters; the crisis of aging and of bodies in decline; what it means to write about someone else's suffering; how questions of class and religion shape the relationship between parent and child. With great sensitivity, she shows how the adult child--confronted with the loss of parents--comes to terms through autobiographical narrative. To do this, Miller examines a series of autobiographical works in which a parent's death is central to the family plot, including Simone de Beauvoir's A Very Easy Death, Susan Cheever's Home Before Dark, and Art Spiegelman's Maus. Telling the story of a parent's death, Miller demonstrates, is a way of rewriting one's own sense of history, one's present self in relation to childhood. Whether she is shedding light on the memoirs of other contemporary writers or relating a detail of her father's struggle with Parkinson's disease, Miller captivates us with her fearless, original intelligence. Combining Miller's broad knowledge of literature, her wry sensibility, and engaging prose style, Bequest and Betrayal is a book of outstanding grace and complexity, highly readable and often very moving.

Excerpt

Children begin by loving their parents. As they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.

OSCAR WILDE, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The origins of this book are inseparable from the loss of my parents. My mother's death was a shock. An athletic nonsmoker, she was diagnosed as having lung cancer days after her sixty-eighth birthday and died a few months later. But it was only in the years following her death, when my father became physically and mentally crippled by Parkinson's disease, that I began to think and to write about the end of life.

Death, literary critics have not failed to point out, is good for narrative. It gives shape to the messiest of plots and retrospectively conveys meaning to whatever has come before. In autobiography, the death of others always provides unexpected narrative benefits. It tells us something important about who we are, especially when the death is that of a parent. The loss of a parent and the work of self- examination--how we watch our parents die; how we live with ourselves, and them, after they are gone--lie at the heart of an astonishing number of contemporary memoirs. I'm writing here about how I've tried to make sense of my life as a daughter in the wake of my parents' death, and how reading the memoirs of writers coming to terms with their loss has helped but also complicated my task. As a reader of autobiography, I perform an awkward dance of embrace . . .

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