This Particular Happiness
Jackie Shannon Hollis
2019, Forest Avenue Press, 294 pages.
Reviewing a memoir is a difficult task.
I feared that any comments I made, positive or negative, would read as a judgement on the author’s lived experience, the choices she made, the elements in her life that were outside of her control and her response to those events that shaped her inner world. As a therapist I had to set aside my impulse to interpret causality and links and to pull back from reading this as a case history of a client who eventually defined herself by what she had, rather than what she didn’t have. This is her journey.
The book reads easily, flowing between her back-story as a member of an American farming family and her later lived life, particularly her relationships with lovers. These two strands move side by side as she works through the expectations of motherhood that are taken for granted, and what a thoughtful decision around it means in a society where the question is rarely asked. When those assumptions eventually do get challenged through the choices that she makes, sadly neither side of the cultural argument has the language to express their experience of it openly and truthfully.
The fall-out continues even after her father’s death, when her mother uses the author’s voluntary childlessness to twist the knife before the funeral has even taken place. She has disappointed her mother, but her mother has clearly disappointed her. It is a mark of her maturity and the comfort she has ultimately come to within herself that she can let the slight go. At that point in her narrative, she acknowledges that the pain is not about her.
Threaded through the very public marker of childlessness there is also her internal, personal meaning-finding debate, the question of ‘who will I be without children?’ The author touches on the multiple layers around what motherhood is to her - a child as a salve to her own pain, seeking and finding the approval of other women, especially her mother, not wanting to be left out from the belonging which comes with being part of the special club with its baby showers and avoiding her own existential dread of being pitied or judged.
She finds reasons and worries though to balance her wanting, and although she attends many personal growth classes through which she develops her thinking and understanding, the real shift comes following the death of a family member. At this stage in her life comes the point of accepting the limits of adults and forms a marker of growing up. As much as she aches for her mother’s approval, she is relieved when the ache is gone. In its absence is a hollow, a spaciousness in spiritual terms where her true self can find the freedom to simply be, in a couple.
There are hints that her mother has her private and personal angry moments and moments of distraction, resting her head on the window and staring beyond. She is clearly a woman with her own inadequacies and inner life, which maybe she hides behind her given and accepted matriarchal role and which she believes in herself, to all intents and purposes. She keeps the show on the road through action; baking the cake and arranging the flowers for her daughter’s wedding reception just months after that same daughter was raped.
Now, there are multiple ways to understand an autobiography, depending on your theoretical orientation. For me as a therapist with a transpersonal background, it is the author’s mother who intrigues me most and since the book is about motherhood, she is the natural underlay to everything else in the book. She is the archetypal mother, with qualities that are solid, unchanging and nurturing, and the hub of the family emotionally and materially. Archetypes have distortions too, though, and at the same time she is tied by those very same expectations of Mother, which sadly seem to limit her capacity to meet Daughter where she is.
A psychodynamic therapist would read this book one way, a person-centered therapist another way, a systemic therapist would have their own take and someone who is not involved in the profession as all would have a different perspective entirely. No interpretation is fixed when it comes to witnessing personal experience. This honest account, lightly written without any self-pity, is exciting and joyous, being full of interesting potential and possibilities for every therapist to consider.