At age 39, Ariel Gore, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Hip Mama Magazine, and author of The Hip Mama Survival Guide, found her life uprooted when she took on the role of caregiver of her Joan Crawford-esque mother, who was dying from stage four cancer.
The resulting memoir, The End of Eve, is a darkly comedic exploration of the tenuous nature of family ties. It has been described as “Terms of Endearment meets Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” Liz Baudler chatted with Gore about how the experience upturned her daily existence and stretched her in ways both terrifying and ridiculous.
Liz Baudler: How had your previous life experience prepared you to take on the role of caretaker? And as a writer, why did the end of your mother’s life particularly fascinate you?
Ariel Gore: Well, I’ve been a caregiver all my adult life, but as a parent—not as a daughter. So while I don’t mind the physically messy parts of being human and caregiving, I wasn’t prepared for the completely other power dynamic. My mother had her own control issues, but I think with any parent who is dying there is the horrible role-reversal and power-reversal.
You want to allow your parent—and everyone—control over their life, but as people decline there are limits. How long do you allow the dying parent to believe she is still in control of her life when she really isn’t?
LB: Clearly the decision to help your mother was complicated by memories of physical abuse, emotional manipulation, and by the fact that she actively pushed you away as she was dying. Was there ever a point where you seriously considered not helping her?
AG: Certainly! I was estranged from my mother for almost a year as she was dying (and this with the kind of diagnosis where she wasn’t expected to live that long at all), so there were months when I fully expected to receive a call with the news that she had died.
LB: Describe how you handled your mother’s contradictory wishes—and would you recommend others in this situation do the same?
AG: My mother’s “wishes” were all over the map. She knew she was dying for several years and in the end we didn’t even know if she wanted her body donated to science or cremated or what. One day she wanted her family around her and the next she was planning to go to some remote island and blow her brains out.
One minute she was applying for assisted living and the next she was insisting that she was going to marry an (already married) Anais Nin scholar. She was going to leave her house to her former maid in Mexico or she was going to leave it to my new girlfriend, who she had just met. My mother had always been mercurial, and the terminal diagnosis turned her maniacally mercurial.
I did make a miscalculation in that I believed the initial prognosis that she wouldn’t live that long, but other than that I tried to take care of myself and my kids the best I could. I agreed to try and help my mother because I thought that for me, spiritually, it was the right thing to do.
And sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t but that was the decision-making compass I used on a daily basis. And most days that meant seeking a balance between approaching my mother and her needs and her madness with basic sanity and protecting myself and my kids from her acting out.
LB: How much impact did your mom’s situation have on your disintegrating relationship with your partner, Sol?
AG: Ha! Well, that relationship had been circling the drain for a number of years, but the stress of dealing with my dying mom was certainly the last nail. If you don’t mind me mixing metaphors. The last nail in the drain!
LB: How did you feel about your kids being tangentially involved in the caretaking process?
AG: There were a few moments when we should have better protected Maxito, but everybody did all right in the end. Everyone lived except the person with the terminal diagnosis. If I had it to do over I wouldn’t have underestimated the madness of nearing death.
I think to some degree I was enculturated to our Hallmark views of death. I knew my mother was violent and crazy but she was also under 100 pounds and dying so I imagined a little more peace. Even hospice workers promised me a lot of peace and love as my mother declined.
And, you know, some people don’t die with peace and love and light. Some people die the way they lived—mean and angry with just flashes of attempted acceptance and transcendence. Having cancer isn’t the equivalent of a Zen retreat.
LB: As you’re making preparation to move in with the slowly expiring Eve, the art student you’re subletting your apartment to says, “It’s always the gay kid who has to take care of the parents.” Do you agree?
AG: Yes. Caregiving falls disproportionately to the female in the family and, after that, disproportionately to the queer in the family. If you’re a queer female, well, good luck getting out of it!
LB: Talk about your work/home/personal life balance, (if any) during this period. What rituals or goals helped you keep your sanity?
AG: I just tried to keep it together. I was the breadwinner for my family as well as the primary caregiver, so I had to keep working, but creative work was very difficult. I did some celebrity ghost writing—that was a way to make money and use my skill set without having to use 100% of my intellect.
I also worked out a lot. I had a gym membership which I don’t usually have in life. I would kind of manically run over there and do a 20-hard workout most days when we were in the most intense part of the caregiving and death watch.
LB: The End of Eve seems to come to some sort of emotional resolution. Would you say that’s held up in the intervening time?
AG: Yes. I think the book, ultimately, is about love. Waiting for love is not love, even if that’s what the culture teaches us. Abuse is not love, even if that’s what we’ve always been trained to call it. And death is not always the worst thing. Sometimes letting go is a kind of love. Sometimes that peace and freedom from anxiety that the culture tells us we will find in the dying process only comes with death itself.
LB: How much of a stretch was it for you to address this whole situation with humor?
AG: You know, my mom was always very violent, even when I was a kid, but our household also had a lot of humor. I was certainly the clown of the house, but everyone in my family appreciated humor and appreciated humor in the hard places. I was the smallest—my nickname was “tiniest”—so humor was kind of my only weapon.
If I could make my mom and my sister laugh, they wouldn’t hit me. That clowning was a survival mechanism, but it was real. I still find humor in very dark places. Even if no one is going to hit me, the humor of life is what gets me through.