Praise of Motherhood

Phil’s memoir, Praise of Motherhood, was released by Zero Books on the 25th of May, 2012. You can buy it on Amazon here.

It is a brutally self-critical account of his relationship with his mother, whose death in 2009 inspired him to rethink the role she played in his life. Drawing on psychoanalysis and the tropes of the memoir and the confession, it presents a portrait of a woman graced with nearly infinite patience and a good dose of mystery.

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An effective epigraph should prepare a reader for the rest of the work, and the one for Phil Jourdan’s Praise of Motherhood does exactly that. The quotation from Paul Valéry’s Tel quel, ‘Un lapin ne nous effraie point; mais le brusque départ d’un lapin inattendu peut nous mettre en fuite,’ translates more or less as ‘One rabbit does not scare us in the slightest, but the sudden departure of an unexpected rabbit can make us flee’. It functions as a comment on the suddenness of Jourdan’s mother’s death from an aneurysm: ‘But nobody had warned me. Nobody had warned anyone’. Interestingly, the section of Tel quel from which this epigraph comes goes on to observe how a person who lacks foresight is less overwhelmed and flustered by a catastrophe than someone who plans ahead. Jourdan explicitly places himself in this latter category when he writes, ‘And though I didn’t cry I kept a series of notes, tiny memories it was important not to forget, ever-ever, things to stick into the book I had already decided to write about my mother’.

This quality of deliberation appears again midway through the book, when Jourdan writes, ‘I don’t care how things actually happened. I want to rearrange it all, to make it into a streamlined, coherent narrative’. In a way, this desire underpins the project of Praise of Motherhood: memoir as an attempt to make sense of his mother Sofia’s death and her legacy. At the same time, there are novelistic techniques at work, evident in tiny details such as the way Jourdan chooses to spell his mother’s name as ‘Sophia’, but also more broadly in what Caleb J. Ross calls in his foreword a refusal to ‘allow the constraints of perspective or chronology to guide the text’.

Take, for example, Chapter Four, in which Jourdan imagines how his mother might have turned to her friend, a priest, for help in dealing with her son’s teenage struggles with psychosis. The whole chapter is utterly convincing and, were it not for the occasional reminder, a reader could well forget that a good deal of it is being imagined by Jourdan after the fact, ‘guilt-ridden and wearing [his] writer’s hat’. A similar effect occurs in Chapter Ten, where Jourdan imagines the life story of Piotr ‘Brown Bear’ Popov, based on his mother’s claim that she was once a spy, ‘the part of her [he] knew the least, the most surprising aspect of an endless woman now dead but guttering in the back of [his] mind’.

The book continues to eschew the conventional memoir narrative form, yet still persists in elaborating on the book’s portrayal of Jourdan’s mother. Chapter Eleven does this through a mixture of speeches by Jourdan’s parents, each one lopped off at both ends by ellipses, so that they form an accretion of impressions rather than a straightforward narrative thread. Chapter Twelve operates as a series of open letters by Jourdan to different groups of people who crossed his mother’s path, by turns angry (‘Go back to your stupid house with your stupid family and leave me the hell alone, leave my sister alone, and stop attending funerals to which you weren’t invited. Just go away.’) and tender (‘So dear old homeless lady, you will not die while I am around, not because I care about you, but because it’s what my mother would have wanted.’).

In its penultimate chapter, Praise of Motherhood pushes the limits of memoir even further by positing, ‘Let this all have been a lie. Let my mother be sitting here next to me; let her have been here the whole time.’ However, this alternate version of events ultimately devolves into a nightmarish vision of matricide, as his mother falls apart and has to be reassembled using duct tape, only for the rebuilt figure to repeat, ‘You killed me. You killed me. You killed me.’ Yet this grim ending is actually laying the ground for the final chapter’s redemptive opening:

No, I didn’t kill you.

If I had killed you, I would have nothing to write about. I’d already have committed every mistake, burned down every bridge, dismissed every memory I have of you as a facsimile.

[…]

You saw the good in me, as I still see the good in you.

In Ross’ forward, he writes that perhaps the book’s ‘great accomplishment is passing on the legacy of what the reader will come to know as a woman simply meant to exist beyond her own years… Jourdan invites the reader to be a member of his family, literally extending his mother’s impact to new generations and new lineages entirely’. Early on in the book, Jourdan writes, ‘Everyone, even in his profoundest hatred, loves his mother’. So whatever his stated reasons for writing Praise of Motherhood, the end result still feels like an incredible act of generosity on his part, affording the reader the privilege of briefly encountering Sofia, this woman who ‘was Love manifest’.

~ Ian Chung, The Cadaverine

Phil Jourdan’s memoir, Praise of Motherhood, is a small book that makes an enormous impact. Jourdan writes about his mother and their relationship, covering the territory from his teen years to his early twenties and her sudden, unexpected death. He writes as though he is desperate to capture the essence of the woman who raised him, and his profound love for her reverberates throughout his story.

Jourdan’s book is both self-revelatory and immensely sad, circumspectly illustrating not only the complicated love of a child for a parent, but also the incomparable, horrible sense of loss that follows the death of a loved one. Jourdan is painfully honest and open, and his willingness to be so vulnerable gives Praise of Motherhood the very soul that makes his tale so emotional yet relatable.

Jourdan describes himself as a difficult teen. His mother, Sophia, was always there for him, without fail. Never judgmental, and reliably and patiently supportive, she saw him through not only the typical angst and anger of the teenage years, but also “depression that would later bloom into psychosis,” including severe psychotic episodes that required hospitalization.

Sophia remained calm while forever on call, acting not only with tolerance, but also understanding. “Being miserable when you’re thirteen, fourteen, is perfectly legitimate,” Sophia tells her son. “Something’s happening inside you that is unpleasant and horrifying,” and “there’s no such thing as being perfectly balanced.” Neither condescending nor coddling, she helps keep Jourdan afloat, giving him a perceived sense of independence wherever possible, but also calling his school weekly, unbeknownst to him, to check his progress. In short, she gives him the compassionate encouragement he needs in order to become a fully functional adult.

Praise of Motherhood contains very few outside characters, and those who do appear are merely superficial players in Jourdan’s story. His is a dedicated focus, and he refuses to be detoured in his account of what his mother meant to him. That Sophia comes across as a wonderful mother and a wise, generous, and extremely intelligent person, while the author himself sounds like a self-absorbed, highly self-critical brat is no accident. This is exactly how the son saw both his mother and himself, and his message comes from a place of deep grief over her loss. The tribute he gives her here is beyond what most parents expect, but it is an homage that most would be honored to receive.

People so seldomly know what to say to the relatives of one who has died, especially in the case of an untimely death. Their awkward attempts to convey sympathy, however well meaning, so often fall flat. Most recipients of such condolences merely nod or say thank you, but many would love to be able to say exactly what Jourdan says here: “Dear everybody who went to my mother’s funeral: it was kind of you to come, but you shouldn’t have…Thank you for telling us how sorry you were…but we didn’t need to hear that…Let (us) deal with our loss.”

Praise of Motherhood is a well-written tale of true love and devotion, and Jourdan’s soul-baring is an emotional inspiration. The author’s feelings come across beautifully, and his story is both surprisingly candid and sad. Very relatable and raw, intellectual and heartfelt, but certainly not an easy read for anyone who has suffered a recent loss.

~ Clarion Review 5/5

This is a beautiful meditation, simultaneously subtle and powerfully direct, on the depth of emotion between a mother and son. Jourdan’s words come back to me long after I’ve finished the book. Moments of this memoir leave me haunted, and in that way renew my devotion to fragile lives, which is to say all of us, all so human, and to life as wild and fleeting.

~ Monica Drake, author of Clown Girl

A loving and heartbreaking tribute, Praise of Motherhood is a candid look at life and all the things we feel, but can never find the words to say.

~ Booked Podcast

Praise for Motherhood is a brutally honest, touching, and gut-wrenching story about love, loss, family and, possibly, forgiveness.

~ Richard Thomas, author of Transubstantiate

Jourdan crafts a story that is both heartbreaking and cathartic.

~ Brandon Tietz, author of Out of Touch

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