“Sometimes, a child is born to a parent who can’t be a parent, and, like a seedling in the shade, has to grow toward a distant sun. Ariel Leve’s spare and powerful memoir will remind us that family isn’t everything—kindness and nurturing are.”
Ariel Leve grew up in Manhattan with an eccentric mother she describes as “a poet, an artist, a selfappointed troublemaker and attention seeker.” Leve learned to become her own parent, taking care of herself and her mother’s needs. There would be uncontrolled, impulsive rages followed with denial, disavowed responsibility, and then extreme outpourings of affection. How does a child learn to feel safe in this topsyturvy world of conditional love?
Leve captures the chaos and lasting impact of a child’s life under siege and explores how the coping mechanisms she developed to survive later incapacitated her as an adult. There were material comforts, but no emotional safety, except for summer visits to her father’s home in South East Asia-an escape that was terminated after he attempted to gain custody. Following the death of a loving caretaker, a succession of replacements raised Leve-relationships which resulted in intense attachment and loss. It was not until decades later, when Leve moved to other side of the world, that she could begin to emancipate herself from the past. In a relationship with a man who has children, caring for them yields a clarity of what was missing.
In telling her haunting story, Leve seeks to understand the effects of chronic psychological maltreatment on a child’s developing brain, and to discover how to build a life for herself that she never dreamed possible: An unabbreviated life.
Leve, a journalist, author, and daughter of a poet whom she leaves unnamed, suffered an abusive mother-daughter relationship that reached well into adulthood. In this searing portrait, Leve vividly renders the trauma she endured and her struggle to free herself from her mother. To her friends, who included Andy Warhol and Saul Bellow, Leve's mother is vivacious and alluring, regularly throwing dinner parties at her Manhattan penthouse. But as a single mother (Leve's father left the family and moved to Bali), when she commands her child's time and attention, her demands are absolute, her needs bottomless, and her rages unpredictable and seismic. "Throughout my childhood I was threatened with her lava consuming me," Leve writes. When her mother is busy writing, she wants Leve silent (disruptive kid games aren't allowed), and hands her off to a nanny, family friends, or near-strangers. Leve never directly addresses what's behind her mother's behavior beyond mentioning medication. Her mother is, Leve notes, the person who supported her talents and helped shape her into a writer. It's not until Leve, after much therapy, decides in her 40s to move to Bali and limits her mother to contact over email that she experiences a release. Aided by a new relationship, she learns to trust. Leve's powerful story of surviving her brutal childhood demonstrates that contentment can be found.