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Review of

Kathryn Harrison’s The Mother Knot

Random House, 2004

By Debbie Hagan

At my parents’ house in the Ozarks, my mother creeps into my bedroom carrying a bag of baby clothes—my baby clothes. They are fifty-one years old, but still look fresh, folded with neat creases, and smell faintly of bleach. On the bed, my mother unfolds a crocheted hat, a lacy dress, and a flannel nightshirt with the word “honey” embroidered over the heart. Then she stands back and admires her handiwork. She tells me in the high-pitched voice she uses for her favorite dreams how she planned for me, how she loved me, how her life peaked the moment she held me.

I watch her caress the little booties, no bigger than her thumb, and stroke the yarn, soft as kitten fur, and I feel guilty. I am not deserving of such adoration. Yet I smile to please her.

As I reread The Mother Knot, I think my life could not be more different than Kathryn Harrison’s, born to an unwed seventeen-year-old girl whose boyfriend talked her out of an abortion. The boy disappeared, but the baby did not, and it grew into a symbol of lost hopes and dreams.

Being unwanted scars Harrison long after her mother’s death. Anorexia and depression plague her even after the birth of her three children. However, when her son suffers an asthma attack and is hospitalized, Harrison realizes her mother is a black dybbuk, stealing the very air that she and her family breathes. To be rid of her, Harrison arranges to dig up her mother, cremate her, and scatter her at sea.

Ironically, it’s after my own son’s hospitalization that I realize I too am trapped in a mother knot. At a meeting with my son’s therapist, to discuss his recovery, she tells me, “You’re a people-pleaser.” Her face expresses pity, no doubt responding to the pain on my face. Then she says what’s really on her mind, “Now your son is just like you.”



Debbie Hagan is a freelance journalist and writer with articles appearing in Boston Globe Magazine and others. She teaches memoir writing at Grub Street in Boston and is the author of Against the Tide (University Press, 2004).