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‘Who brings a laptop with her to the hospital to give birth?’ – Leslie Jamison interrogates motherhood, ambition and divorce

The first words of Leslie Jamison’s memoir, which opens in the throes of new motherhood, are “the baby”. But while Splinters is a homage to the bonds between women, particularly mothers and daughters, men are never far away. Her father looms large – and so, of course, does the father of her child.

When her daughter was 13 months old, American writer Jamison and her husband “C” (the writer Charles Bock) divorced. Splinters is a memoir of finding motherhood, ending a marriage and falling in lust – and it is certainly marketed this way. But it demands to be read on several levels.

Jamison is a mother, and she is a daughter, a writer and a recovering addict. She is also –  and she admits this – something of a handful. Those who have read her 2018 memoir-essay collection The Recovering will be familiar with Jamison’s experiences of anorexia and addiction. Here, she exposes more of her personal life.

Review: Splinters – Leslie Jamison (Granta)

Jamison writes, “as I nursed my daughter, my mother brought me endless glasses of water. Our three bodies composed a single hydraulic system.” Jamison’s mother is a presence throughout the memoir, even when she is not physically present. She has been the singular foundation of Jamison’s life, and the example of adulthood Jamison seeks to model her own adult life on.

Her memoir is also a negotiation of motherhood and work. Later, her mother accompanies her on her book tours, making it

possible for me to approximate some version of the thing I’d always admired her for doing, crafting a self that understood work and motherhood as forces that could feed rather than starve each other.

The bond with her mother cannot be separated from her relationship with her husband. Like all strong memoirists, Jamison exposes her own questionable actions. For example, after receiving long-awaited news about test results for her daughter, Jamison admits she turned to her mother – not her husband, who was in the same room – to share the news. Jamison offers this kind of behaviour as one of the many reasons the marriage failed: for months, C asked, “Why not me?”.

C had lived through “a great tragedy: the protracted, terrible illness and eventual death of his first wife”. As the memoir progresses, his anger becomes more apparent. Beyond this history, Jamison never clarifies where this anger sprang from. She writes, “When I said, Please don’t speak to me like that, he leaned closer to say, I can speak to you however I fucking want. I speak to you like you deserve.” To be clear, she never so much as hints at physical violence, though his anger is another reason offered as to why the marriage ended.

This is a chronological memoir. However, Jamison plays with time and the way she presents experiences to the reader. She returns to some scenes again and again, each time sharing a little more. Often, that little more is revealed as a challenge to the reader. Will they judge what she reveals? Will they empathise with or reject her? We revisit Jamison in hospital after giving birth and she writes,

It’s true what I wrote earlier, that I cried when they rolled my newborn daughter to the hospital nursery […] But it’s also true that once she was gone, I pulled out my laptop […] Who brings a laptop with her to the hospital to give birth?

Jamison confronts the expectations placed on mothers, and indeed all women. These include the danger not only of making art, but of being more successful at it than a man. She writes of her marriage: “when my book came out, two years after his, we both felt the way its publication summoned the specter of how difficult his experience had been”.

His second novel, Alice and Oliver, was based on the illness and death of his wife and had not found the success of his first novel. Meanwhile, Jamison’s career only strengthened. Jamison hints the marriage failed in part because C was jealous of her success, but this is only one of many possible reasons.

Interrogating life after divorce

In the second section, titled “Smoke”, the memoir moves into a new phase, interrogating life after divorce. At first, this new life consists of

Ramen. Cold nights. Gummy cherries. Lawyer bills. Baby. Really it was mainly just: Baby. Baby. Baby. Baby. Baby. Baby.

But as she incorporates her new identify as a mother into her whole self, she realises her wants and needs, and strengths and weaknesses, remain – and may have contributed to the end of the marriage. She lives a life of highs and lows, and sometimes it takes a toll on those around her. This is demonstrated when a female friend “needed to pull away”, as Jamison was “always either poised at the threshold of some major change, or reeling in its aftermath”.

A weakness of the memoir is her repeated failure to interrogate her own privilege, as a highly educated white woman with two professionally successful parents. She is aware of it, and shares evidence of it twice.

The first is when she hires a nanny, a woman named Soraya from Trinidad, and admits “the shame of crying in front of her was as much about privilege as exposure”. The second is a brief exchange in a taxi, when the female driver asks if her ex was physically violent, incarcerated or an addict, and suggests there are women who do not have the ability to leave.

Jamison is a writer employed by an elite university – and a mother whose own mother accompanies her on book tours so she can continue to work. Is privilege something best left to a reader to interrogate? To me, its lack of acknowledgement felt uncomfortable.

Jamison is on safer ground when she tackles motherhood and art. She writes,

The goodness of being a mother felt absolute. The goodness of making art was trickier, more like quicksilver, marbled with vanity.

But her relationships with men dominate the latter half of the work. Behind them stands her complicated relationship with her father, who had affairs throughout her parents’ 22-year marriage. While there is little sense of resolution in terms of her relationship with C, there is a growing understanding of her father.

I came to see that our difficult years were just that. Years. Neither more nor less. They weren’t everything. They were part of a longer story that we got to keep living.

Jamison has relationships with two other men, referred to as the tumbleweed and the ex-philosopher. Both lovely and useless, they are part of Jamison’s post-divorce story and finding her way through love and lust as a single parent. And they are splinters of masculinity, not keepers – nor are we left thinking Jamison wanted to keep them. Neither understands the ferocity of motherhood or the public nature of being a memoirist, or even Jamison’s new, emerging self.

Reflecting on her own work, she writes, “I’d written a book about sobriety and creativity, and maybe parenting was the new sobriety – a condition of regularity, rather than recklessness.”

‘Something of an awakening’

The final and shortest section, “Fever”, is something of a relief. The claustrophobia Jamison creates in the second section by focusing on mothering her daughter and wanting these men is broken by the rude interruption of the world in the most violent way possible: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suddenly, in the shortest section of the book, there is a force beyond Jamison herself. As the pandemic closed down New York, a more mature Jamison started to emerge – more confident as a mother, more adept as a single parent, once again a woman with ambition.

Writing about those dark, troubling days is a risk; so many don’t want to revisit that time. But here, it is something of a structural relief. Bringing the world into the text enables Jamison to emerge from the interiority of the memoir.

The first sections have so few references to the world, they could be set any time since the invention of mobiles. But walking the empty streets of New York during those first months of isolation and plague to hand her daughter over to C feels, despite the constraints on all aspects of daily life at that point, like something of an awakening.

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