YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


From Riot Grrrl to alt-mom

Mamarama A Memoir of Sex, Kids, & Rock 'n' Roll Evelyn McDonnell Da Capo/Lifelong: 254 pp., $22

February 12, 2007|Erika Schickel | Special to The Times

SHE was there for the postfeminist revolution, marching down Fifth Avenue topless with "slut" painted on her belly. She was hanging out in clubs, interviewing Kristin Hersh and Patti Smith, rocking with the Riot Grrrls, staring down yuppies in the East Village, publishing a 'zine, getting hitched in a gorilla mask. Her alt credentials are flawless. "Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids, & Rock 'n' Roll" is Evelyn McDonnell's account of a life lived on the cultural and then maternal cutting edge.

McDonnell started out a Midwestern pop-music addict (crushing on the cartoon version of Michael Jackson in the 1970s, while her older brother swooned over Speed Racer's limpid eyes.) She knew who she was from the get-go -- "Some people are born musicians. I was born a listener" -- and began her rock 'n' roll apprenticeship at an early age, following bands and deejaying in clubs.

"Punk rock saved my bored, zit-faced teenage life.... Funk taught me to dance, hip-hop showed me the news, and electronica transported me. Along the way, I decided to write about it all." Her youth was far from misspent -- it ultimately landed her in New York City in the early '90s, writing rock criticism for the Village Voice.

McDonnell spent her 20s and 30s in the mosh pit of alt-pop culture, meeting her icons and helping to forge a new kind of feminism for her generation.

"It was the early '90s, when direct activism, identity politics, hip-hop, and grunge were driving forces of the dawn of the Clinton era. We were a new breed of woman whom pundits, including some in our own ranks, struggled to name: postfeminists, womanists, Riot Grrrls, pro-sex feminists, do-me feminists (a name obviously thought up by a men's magazine), third-wave feminists, lipstick lesbians, bitches with attitudes."

For someone who grew up in New York and is McDonnell's virtual contemporary, "Mamarama" is frequently a fun trip down memory lane. She captures the excitement of the East Village and the post-punk music scene in loving detail. But her rebellion, as reported here, grows to be somewhat formulaic. We know what's coming next, and her story gets bogged down in its chronology as she tells it beat by beat, from beginning to end.

"Mamarama" sometimes reads like an incredibly long Village Voice profile. McDonnell is not without agenda and presents the facts of her life with hefty editorializing. While that often leads to insight, her prose can sometimes be as rhythmic and predictable as a fist pump -- one wishes she would unclench that fist and massage the material a little more. Inject some humor and poetry, mix up the chronology, make her life story more of a mix tape than an LP.

After 179 pages of "rama," we finally get to the "mama," with the birth of her son, Cole. By this time, McDonnell is living in Miami (where she is currently an award-winning culture critic for the Miami Herald) with her husband and his two teenage daughters. Her son's birth shifts her out of reminiscence and into the more immediate (and interesting) present-tense concerns of the book -- reconciling a liberal, liberated lifestyle with the more conventional and traditional responsibilities and routines of parenthood.

"It's a conundrum: How does a mom who was a bit of a bad girl discipline her kids? What does the woman with three tattoos say when her teenage girls come home with fresh ink and piercings?"

This is one of the tensions running through modern-day motherhood. How do we teach our children not to do drugs when we have so many warm memories of doing them ourselves? How do we teach our daughters the difference between owning their sexuality and giving in to raunch culture? In other words, how do we set limits when all our training is in how to break them down?

Raising children responsibly while hanging onto your alternative lifestyle can make for a tricky two-step. The job of parenting requires a certain amount of settling down, which can be awkward and painful for a generation of women used to fighting for and defining our own identities. We have to put away a part of ourselves in order to focus on our children. We find that before we can do that, we have to first promise ourselves that this time, it will be different. We will navigate the dichotomy between caregiver and cage-rattler with the tools of self-expression, self-determination and lessons learned from our own mothers.

McDonnell strives toward that balance when she says, "Volumes have been written about how to 'balance' career and family. I don't like that term. I am not a fulcrum. I prefer to see kids and jobs not as oppositional weights but as complementary pleasures. I want my life to be integrated, not pulled in different directions. Nor are work and family the only two interests -- even the dominant interests -- of us twenty-first-century foxes. Friendships, culture, politics, travel: We want the world, and we want it now, baby."

Our mothers did the difficult and dirty work of getting women out of the kitchen, and now, as McDonnell asserts, we owe it to them and ourselves to enjoy "all those opportunities nixed by piles of dishes to clean." Somewhat predictably, McDonnell calls for revolution: "I'd like to reclaim momism as a growing branch of activism. The 'motherhood movement' ... could be to the aughties what civil rights were to the '60s." It is a call we should heed. Our generation of women has come through 20 years of foment and backlash to stand strong with our babies on our hips, using our free hands to write books, run companies, sign bills into law -- and yes, occasionally pump a fist in the air.


Erika Schickel is the author of the memoir "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."

Los Angeles Times Articles