Mothers Day: Life, Death & If You Knew Suzy


In If You Knew Suzy, writer Katherine Rosman brought the skills she learned as a reporter to bear on her own mother’s life and death. After the jump, an excerpt — and a chance to chat with Rosman herself.

Rosman’s mother (the Suzy of the title) died of cancer at sixty, and Rosman decided to examine her life journalistically, by talking to people who knew her. When we spoke on the phone yesterday, she explained that the project forced her to be objective, even about people with whom she’d had difficult relationships. She describes this objectivity as “a relief.” Of a friend of her mother’s whom she came to see in a new light, she observes, “it feels good to let people off the hook.” Her mother’s death has inspired her, she says, to make “more fair evaluations of myself and others,” and this fairness is clearly at work in the excerpt below. Though Rosman is frank about the way her mom affected her body image, she also realizes that Suzy’s own insecurities influenced the way she saw her daughters’ bodies — and she’s able to let her mom off the hook. For more on Rosman, her mom, beauty, and bodies, read the excerpt, then talk to Rosman in the comments:

I loved having a gorgeous, stylish, slender mom. I never resented her beauty, even as I felt mine didn’t equal it. And I never felt jealous of her figure. But I still did blame her for the way I struggled as a teenager and young adult with a negative body image and an emotional relationship with food. I had my heart broken after a breakup with a high school boyfriend, and for the first time in my life I turned to food for comfort, gaining fifteen pounds the summer when I was sixteen. I had been away for six weeks at a summer-school program at UCLA. The day I got home, Mom looked at me and said, “I just feel so bad for you.” That devastated me.
It made me mad too. What a mean thing for a mom to say! That she expressed such disappointment in me based on something so superficial stung. Wounded and defensive, I decided I could get back at her by getting fatter and dressing in a slovenly way. On Sunday nights, when it was time to go to the country club for dinner, I delighted in coming downstairs dressed in ragged jeans and an untucked, sloppy, oversize shirt. “Ready!” I’d say cheerfully (angrily), enjoying the look on Mom’s face as she fought to keep her mouth shut.
She didn’t keep her mouth shut when I was putting food in mine. The kitchen was right next to Mom’s bedroom, and anytime she heard the pitter-patter of my feet walking into the kitchen, or when she heard the pucker of the refrigerator door opening, she would dash in after me, breathless. “What are you getting into?” she would ask.
We had no junk food in the house (except for crushed Heath Bars that Mom baked with and the ice cream she herself ate each night after dinner), so I was never pigging out on chips and cookies. But if I were making a grilled cheese sandwich, Mom would insist I use fat-free cheese (the sort of thing I referred to in my journal as “phood”). If I wanted a bowl of cereal, she’d suggest a smaller portion. I felt I could never eat without being eyed critically by my mom. I started sneaking food. I would tiptoe into the kitchen and try surreptitiously to take a pint of ice cream upstairs to my room.
In my early college days, I became increasingly nuts about eating in front of people.
I felt like everyone was surveying what was on my plate, counting calories, looking at my double chin. I’d starve myself all day, consuming massive quantities of cigarettes and diet Coke. Then I would be so hungry at night that I would stuff myself, always on the stealth, with crap food that I consumed furtively, quickly, and with self-hatred. It was a dark time in my life, and I blamed my mom.
But when I turned twenty-one, I had something of an epiphany in which I realized I could reasonably blame my parents for a whole lot . . . but then I would be spending all my time being angry about my past rather than looking to my future. It took several years, but I pulled myself out of the grip of body-obsession.
Throughout most of my twenties, Mom and I took an annual trip together, just the two of us. For a number of years, we went to Park City, Utah, and hiked amid the wildflowers.
On July 15, 1997 (I remember it was the day Gianni Versace was murdered), Mom and I had a truly honest conversation while hoofing it up a trail. I wasn’t angry. She wasn’t defensive.
I said, “You made me feel ugly and like I had to sneak food so you wouldn’t be disappointed in me.”
She said, “I could see you punishing yourself with food, and I wanted you to stop.”
She said, “I am so, so sorry.”
She said, “You and your sister are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
She said, again, “I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”
It felt liberating to forgive her. And after I did, the excess pounds started a slow melt. I struggled again for a few years when I first moved to New York City. But it’s been a long time since then.
Spending time with Hattie, and, afterward, thinking a lot about Mom’s beauty and the role it played in her emotional life, I was finally able to see more than merely a superficial explanation for what I saw as her absolute need for me to be thin. It had a lot to do with her own vanity. But it wasn’t merely about that. Mom wanted her daughters to enjoy the special place that attractive people have in our culture. She undoubtedly never considered the cost of her misguided approach. It was about wanting the best for her girls.
I find it revealing that during her Detroit years, Mom believed that beauty and happiness were inextricably linked. As she got older, she overcame a lot of that insecurity, and that was a beautiful thing.

Katherine Rosman will be answering commenters’ questions on the excerpt and her book as a whole from 3 to 4 PM Eastern Time. Post your questions below!

If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Reporter’s Notebook

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