A.M. Homes

"The Mistress's Daughter"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUN 20, 2008)

"What kind of father makes his child travel to another city to prove that she is his child and then criticizes her for not wearing the right clothes to the blood test, for not wearing jewelry she doesn’t own to the lunch she didn’t know she was having?"

Imagine you’re a young successful writer, loved and cherished by your adoptive, caring parents. Then imagine that at age thirty-one, out of the blue, a phone calls reveals that your birth mother is “willing to hear from you.”

This phone call opens up Pandora’s box for author A.M. Homes in the poignant, moving memoir The Mistress’s Daughter. It’s Christmas 1992 when the author hears, via a lawyer, the news that her birth mother is ready to open up the channels of communication. Naturally there’s a degree of curiosity mixed with fantasy, but Homes learns that she is the product of a sordid affair between a teenage girl and her decades older, married employer.

Homes very tentatively accepts contact from her mother, middle-aged, troubled and needy Ellen Ballman. Initially held at bay with letters and phone calls, Ellen refuses to be corralled by her daughter’s barriers and soon alienates Homes with her emotional demands. Homes retreats. Probably the best one could hope for in a difficult situation such as this is for a caring relationship built slowly on mutual respect, but in this case, Ellen seems incapable or unwilling to accept the fact that her fragile relationship with her daughter does not bring instantaneous "rights." Ellen is determined to bend the new relationship to meet her own vast needs, and one wonders who on earth filled this void before the "reunion." While the author reels from the abrasive emotional demands of a woman who’s ostensibly a stranger, Ellen misinterprets her daughter’s natural reticence as punishing anger.

At this point in the memoir, I couldn’t help but think that discovering one’s birth parents must truly be a nightmare, and then just when you think the situation is bad enough, the author meets her father, Norman Hecht. Some of the most bizarre moments occur when both birth parents infantilize the author and indicate a complete lack of interest in her as an individual who exists beyond their scripts. Luckily Homes is grounded firmly in emotional security; someone with a weak psyche could so easily have been destroyed by these encounters. Ellen longs desperately for the emotional intimacy with her daughter that will never take place, while on the other hand, the author’s father sports a veneer of genial behaviour. He seems really uneasy and worried that the author may have another agenda. Ultimately he lightly skips away from his responsibilities--his responsibility at the author’s conception, but, and perhaps this is even more shameful--his responsibility when faced with his adult daughter.

It’s important to point out here that the author doesn’t exactly have a shabby career behind her--who wouldn’t feel proud to claim this beautiful, talented and intelligent woman for a daughter? Well, apparently Norman Hecht didn’t exactly run to claim fatherhood. Just as the author kept her mother at arm’s length, Norman keeps Homes dangling. Insisting on a DNA test, continually promising to tell his other children about Homes’s existence and making snide comments about her clothing, the wounding remarks made this reader literally wince. Hecht hits an all-time low by insisting that the 15-year-old Ellen was a “nymphomaniac,” and he probably even believes it.

At this point, if I had been Homes, I would have told both of my birth parents to take a hike. But the author perseveres. Keeping her mother and her emotional vampirism at arm’s length with only the occasional acknowledgement, she amazingly gives Hecht multiple chances.

Homes’s bittersweet memoir examines the raw notions of parenthood, identity and loss. I found the chapters regarding Ellen’s past particularly moving, and sparing herself no punches, the author finally arrives at an appreciation of sorts of her birth mother. When faced with boxes of the pathetic belongings that finally represent Ellen’s life, one cannot help but feel a great sadness at the disappointments and loneliness she faced. The many unanswered questions in the author’s life led to a subsequent obsession with genealogy, and while some answers appear, far more questions remain unanswered. Homes will probably never know the whole story of Ellen’s past, but in many ways The Mistress’s Daughter is a story we all share--we only know as much of our parents as they are willing to reveal, and while some men made adequate sperm donors, they make lousy, pathetic excuses for fathers.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 66 reviews

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About the Author:

A.M. HomesAmy Michael Homes was born in 1961 in Washington, D.C. and grew up in its suburbs.

She has been the recipient of numerous awards including Fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, NYFA, and The Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library, along with the Benjamin Franklin Award, and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis.

She teaches in the writing programs at Columbia University and the New School and lives in New York City, New York.

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