Altman Shares ‘Cantankerous,’ ‘Love-Filled’ Maternal Struggles In Her Latest Memoir
Reminiscent of the colorful amusement parks of yesteryear, Newtown resident Elissa Altman’s newest book Motherland: A Memoir Of Love, Loathing, And Longing is a trajectory of extreme highs and lows between a mother and daughter.
“My life with my mother has been sort of like a roller coaster ride…” Ms Altman explained. “I’m in my 50s, and when I was a kid, there were amusement parks all over the East Coast that were named Adventureland or Playland or Waterland, so it seemed appropriate that I call [the book] Motherland.”
While Ms Altman has experience writing candidly about her family’s dynamic — she penned two previous memoirs, Poor Man’s Feast and Treyf — she said her latest stands out as the most difficult she has written to date.
“Memoir involves a lot. If you are going to really write an honest memoir, something that is truly authentic to your experience, I think you do a lot of emotional heavy lifting. One of the things I also learned is that you never know where the story is going to go and take you until you get there,” she said.
Motherland came to be after Ms Altman wrote her year-long column for The Washington Post, from 2015 to 2016, called “Feeding My Mother.”
“The book isn’t based on it, but the column spawned the book…” Ms Altman said. “That column was really about the issues surrounding nurturing an older person who refuses to be nurtured, sustaining an older person that is refusing to be sustained, because they suffer from body dysmorphia and have a difficult relationship with food.”
A former model and television singer, Rita Ellis Hammer, Ms Altman’s mother, is chronicled in Motherland with illuminating stories of how food has had, and continues to have, such an all-encompassing hold on her decision-making. The book reveals how an unhealthy obsession with perfection gets projected onto her only child — despite the distress it has caused both parties for more than half a century to no avail.
It becomes undoubtedly clear when reading Motherland that the two women may be bonded by blood, but as mother and daughter, they may as well be oil and water.
“We have always had a very, very cantankerous, difficult — love-filled — but problematic relationship, as many women and their mothers have and as many men and their fathers have,” Ms Altman said.
In Motherland, Ms Altman shares how she intentionally put physical distance between herself and her mother by moving two and a half hours away with the hopes it would extinguish their codependent relationship.
When her mother suffered a devastating accident and has no one to turn to, Ms Altman finds herself pulled back into the tumultuous orbit of her mother and gets plunged into the position of caretaker. No matter their differences, she assumes responsibility for managing her mother’s physical and emotional health and finances.
“I am an absolute believer in the power of hope and possibility for healing. I also am a believer in the idea of service,” Ms Altman said. “I think that we are bound by moral obligation to serve each other and to serve the people who need our help — be they children or senior citizens, no matter how big of a pain in the rear they have been.”
Motherland tackles issues of maternal love and dependency in an authentic way that causes the reader to flip each page with eager curiosity, like a child peering under an adhesive bandage to see if their cut has healed with time.
Ms Altman reflects that she found the process of writing the book “alternately therapeutic and torturous” in that she had to relive many traumas and unpleasant times from her past.
It was a two-way street when recounting memories, however, and Ms Altman admitted, “I certainly do not come away smelling like a rose. If I’m going to be honest about her, I also have to be honest about myself.”
While their story together is not yet completed, finishing Motherland stands as a new chapter in Ms Altman’s life that shows her ongoing efforts to try to understand and be there for her mother in a healthy manner.
“I did not know where the end of the book was going to take me,” Ms Altman said. “But the amount of love I feel for her and compassion that I feel for her — that was purely a gift that came to me at the end of the book.”
Motherland was released August 6 and is available for purchase online through Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and Indie Bound as well as in eBook format and through audible.com.
Ms Altman’s upcoming readings of Motherland and book signings include RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison on August 14 and the Ridgefield Library on August 21.
For more information about Elissa Altman and to sign up for her newsletter, visit elissaaltman.com.