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Picking scabs, healing wounds: In a new memoir, former Amherst resident Katie Hafner reveals how she tried to repair a troubled relationship with her mother

  • Author and former Amherst resident Katie Hafner wrote "Mother Daughter Me" after trying to reestablish a relationship with her 77-year-old mom.

    Author and former Amherst resident Katie Hafner wrote "Mother Daughter Me" after trying to reestablish a relationship with her 77-year-old mom.

  • Author and former Amherst resident Katie Hafner wrote "Mother Daughter Me" after trying to reestablish a relationship with her 77-year-old mom.

In retrospect, she says, she was governed a bit by magical thinking: a wish, based more on emotion than reality, that she could heal the wounds of a broken childhood and decades of family tension by having her mother come live with her.

But for former Amherst resident Katie Hafner, her experiment in multi-generational living — moving her 77-year-old mother in with her and her teenage daughter — went seriously awry. Hafner, a longtime journalist who had built her career as a detached, objective observer, found herself neck-deep in unresolved issues from her past, including painful memories of her mother’s drinking and her parents’ divorce.

And as Hafner outlines in her memoir, “Mother Daughter Me,” another hope she had — that her daughter, Zoë, and her mother would become close — went decidedly unrealized, to the point where Zoë would rarely spend time in the same room with her grandmother.

Yet during the year she chronicles in her book, Hafner also learned valuable things about herself and her mother, and the two did reach a certain rapprochement, though they ended their experiment of living together.

“Mother Daughter Me,” a book Hafner had no initial plans to write, has earned strong reviews and attention, including an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey’s book club.

In a phone call from her home in San Francisco, Hafner, who came to Amherst in 1968 when she was 10 and lived there through the mid-1970s, said she tends to be a bit on the stubborn side — or persistent, depending on how you look at it — and so resisted the voices of friends who expressed doubts when she told them of her plan to have her mother move in with her.

“I was determined to have this relationship with a parent that I hadn’t had as a kid, and I built up a fairy-tale view of how it would be,” she said. “I was not about to be talked out of it.”

In fact, things degenerated so quickly that before long Hafner and her mother (named Helen in the book) began seeing a family therapist. After one particularly fruitless session, the two were in a supermarket when Helen had trouble reaching for a bottle of Lactaid on an upper shelf because of nerve damage in her hands.

“I knew she needed help, but I pretended I didn’t see her and walked away,” Hafner said of the episode, which she details in the book. “Later that night, I was so disturbed by what I’d done, I couldn’t sleep. I hadn’t realized I still had all this anger toward my mother, or that I was capable of that kind of cruelty.

“I had to write the whole thing down, and that was really the origin of the book,” she added. “I realized I had a lot of things that I needed to try and resolve.”

Moving in

Her book begins, innocently enough, in summer 2009, after Hafner helps move her mother from her home in San Diego, where Helen has become worn down taking care of her longtime partner, Norm; he’s been battling increasing health problems, including dementia, and will be moving to an assisted living facility.

Mother and daughter arrive back in San Francisco, where Hafner discovers to her delighted surprise that Zoë, who does not know her grandmother well, has cleaned the whole apartment and also welcomed Helen with a huge bouquet of flowers. Helen and Zoë share a quick, warm embrace, and things seem good — until later on, when Hafner hears her mother pour herself a glass of wine.

It’s a moment of foreshadowing that prompts Hafner to tell Helen the next day that one thing she won’t tolerate in this new living arrangement is excessive drinking. And from there, the story unfolds layer by layer, revealing a fractured past — especially Helen’s period of severe alcoholism — that still casts a shadow over mother, daughter and granddaughter.

One of the appeals of “Mother Daughter Me” is the way in which Hafner, who has written or co-authored five previous books, weaves past and present together in the narrative. She also writes in a straightforward style that is both poignant and sometimes even comic, making a story that could easily slide into self-pity both accessible and engaging. She’s not above blaming herself for any number of missteps.

Hafner and her older sister, Sarah, were 5 and 7, respectively, and living in Rochester, N.Y., when their parents separated. The girls moved to Florida and then California with their mother, whose drinking often left her unable to look after them. Meanwhile, a string of Helen’s boyfriends came and went. Her mother eventually lost custody of her daughters, who came to Amherst to live with their father and his second wife.

Hafner comes from a rich academic pedigree. Her maternal grandparents were noted scientists; her grandfather was MIT physicist Jerrold Zacharias, who worked on the first atomic bomb project and later led a national effort to revamp the way physics was taught in American high schools. Her father was scientist Everett Hafner, a founding dean of Hampshire College as well as a composer and multi-instrumentalist.

Yet, Hafner writes, all that intellectual firepower came with a price. Her grandparents, especially her grandmother, were cold and distant, exacting a painful price on her mother. Her father, who could be charming and witty, retreated from marital problems and his children into his work. His second marriage was also unhappy, and when Hafner and her sister came to Amherst to live with him, their stepmother and her three children, the two girls were often left to their own devices.

“Our family [in Amherst] was really pretty dysfunctional in a lot of ways,” Hafner said. “It took the hardest toll on my sister.”

Conflict flares

Hafner lays out the background to help build the portrait of both her and her mother, a complicated figure who as a younger woman was beautiful, vivacious and intelligent but scarred from her upbringing. Hafner had stayed in close touch with her over the years, confiding everything about her life, always hoping she might earn the attention and affection from Helen that she felt she missed growing up.

But in the house Hafner rents for this new version of her family, conflict quickly flares. Helen offends Zoë with a tactless comment about her cello playing; Hafner finds she resents her mother’s presence in the kitchen when she’s trying to cook. And Helen doesn’t care for Bob, a man Hafner is dating.

Small disagreements metastasize, creating a simmering undercurrent of tension, particularly between Helen and Zoë, who fears her grandmother’s presence might harm her relationship with her mother. “What will happen to us?” she asks Hafner at one point.

There are comical moments, too. One night when Hafner is out of the house, friends of Zoë arrive for an impromptu party, some with booze. Helen confiscates the alcohol and takes it into the bathroom to pour it down the toilet, which embarrasses Zoë: “Mom, she’s crazy! I can never show my face in school again!”

In part, “Mother Daughter Me” is also a meditation on loss. Hafner’s second husband and Zoë’s father, Matt Lyon, who she first met in Amherst when both were teenagers, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 45 in 2002. Her father died in a small plane crash in Worthington in 1998, and her sister, who lived most of her adult life in Franklin County, died suddenly of a rare intestinal illness in 2010.

Writing about those deaths and her family and background was a struggle for Hafner. “You have to go into the corners of a pretty dark basement to revisit these things,” she said. “I’m a pretty private person ... this was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”

A former Newsweek editor who is also a longtime New York Times contributor on technology and health issues, Hafner had no previous experience writing about herself, either. “My first drafts were terrible,” she said with a laugh. “It was like a writer named Katie Hafner was reporting on a character named Katie Hafner, and there was no emotional connection between the two.”

What emerges in the end is both the importance of forgiveness and acceptance, as well as a sympathetic portrait of Hafner’s mother, despite her difficult past. And, Hafner said, “I think one of the central themes of the book is, what do we do with our parents as they age? How do we help them, especially if they were less than perfect? What is our responsibility and our debt to them?”

She notes that her mother is “less than thrilled” with the book, though she never opposed Hafner writing it.

“I’m hoping in time she’ll come to see it as I see it, as a honest portrait of someone I love and admire and who did the best she could during a really hard time in her life,” she said. “I really think of it as a love letter to my mother.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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