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Book Review : Pathetic Story of a Powerless Woman

April 14, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

The Good Mother by Sue Miller (Harper & Row: $17.95)

This is the story of Anna Dunlap, and she's the narrator here. (Let's make that clear; the whole point of this harrowing, pitiable tale is that it is told by the person who suffers the most from it; "The Good Mother" is like hearing the story of the Ethiopian famine from a starving Ethiopian.)

Anna's tone is somber, and with good reason. When we first see her, she's killing time--alone with her 3-year-old daughter, Molly--waiting for a divorce from her husband, Brian. Before we go on, a word about Brian. He's an attorney, he's into buying stereos, and other upscale possessions; he dresses in suits and he's a total nerd. For the length of their marriage, Anna's been totally frigid with him, and on Page 12, in a flashback, we know that she's said to him, during an "amicable discussion" about their "amicable divorce," this immortal line, " . . . the sex between us was always so . . . nothing. So terrible." Brian, a nerdly white male with money and power, has been mortally insulted by his powerless, wimpy, frigid wife, and you know Anna's in for it.

Vaguely 'Independent'

Now, Anna has refused, in this divorce, to take any money from Brian. (Oh, some child support for her beloved Molly, but nothing for herself.) Why would Anna want to do this, when she has no skills--except that (believe me, this isn't parody) she once had hopes of being a concert pianist? The answer is hard to put down in rational words, and Anna doesn't try to explain it, but I will, just to see if I can. Anna doesn't take money from her nerd-husband Brian because she, as she vaguely says, wants to be "independent." But actually for two much more powerful reasons.

In Anna's belief system--which is so indelibly imprinted on the American female mind-set that one hates to even think about it--the husbands have the money, the power and the bad dispositions. That's the reason the world is in such a mess today. Conversely, women, particularly wives, living with some nerd who chants, "My house, my rules," have no power except their highly developed sensibilities and high moral tone. This suits the husband perfectly well, of course, because who wouldn't mind being an object of contempt, as long as he can keep all the power and all the money and all the rules, especially if he's a nerd to begin with?

Once free of Brian, happily ensconced in a shabby apartment with her beloved Molly, Anna makes the mistake of falling sexually in love with a handsome, kind, talented, loving artist named Leo. There's a world out there, full of pleasure and fun, not inhabited by nerds! Anna's happy, Leo's happy, Molly's happy--and they don't need money, power or Brian at all.

Revenge of the Nerd

Well, you can bet Brian's not going to put up with that for an instant. He sues for custody, charging that Anna's lover has sexually molested Molly. Why? Because Brian is a swine in tap shoes.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the custody trial is a set-up: Brian's a nerd in a three-piece-suit, so are both psychiatrists and both lawyers. Anna's attorney soaks her for her services, loses the case for her, then tells her the outcome was inevitable from the beginning. Does Anna complain? No. She takes typing classes to better her economic position and decides on a life-time policy of pulling up stakes to live in shabby apartments near her beloved Molly. So . . . thanks to Brian and the system, Anna's life is destroyed, and Molly's too: "Sometimes she'd cry. Sometimes she wrecked her room . . . sometimes she hit me. Often she wet her bed, woke screaming in the night, needed help going into a friend's house to play. . . ."

Does Anna reopen the case? Go back to school? Kidnap the kid? Even get married again, so she can have another crack at custody? No, she chooses to suffer, and there's a feeling that it's all for the best.

"The Good Mother" may sell like hotcakes to women who have contempt for their husbands and all the white males in Congress, but who don't want to have to think about changing their own lives. But this book, with its insistence on powerful men as monsters and "good" women as powerless victims is unutterably cruel to both sexes. If you must read this thing, check it out of the library. Don't let it fall into the hands of children.

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