Wretched Mother, Retching Daughter, Mesmerizing Memoir

By Susanna Sonnenberg
Scribner, 273 pages, $24

Some families bond over photographs or touch football; the writer Susanna Sonnenberg’s precious memories are of puking.

Now in her late 30’s, Ms. Sonnenberg longs for her estranged mother most when “sick with flu or after too much wine with a rich dinner.” During childhood, “when I needed to throw up,” Ms. Sonnenberg recalls in Her Last Death, a mesmerizing new memoir, “Mummy came and sat at the edge of the tub.” This is one of the few times the familial term is used rather than the flamboyant and somehow faintly contemptuous pseudonym “Daphne.”

“I was afraid, but she made it safe,” the author continues. “She kept my nightgown out of the way. … She soothed me and said ‘Almost done.’ … That’s when I had her.”

It literally took a violent upheaval of guts to focus Daphne’s attention on her children (Susanna has a younger sister, “Penelope”)—that’s the measure of her essential failure, and fascination, as a parent. Married at 19 to “Nat,” a.k.a. Ben Sonnenberg (son of the great Gramercy Park PR potentate, founder of the now-defunct literary magazine Grand Street), Daphne’s own pedigree was part old Hollywood, part swinging London, and pure glamour. After an unsuccessful move to Dutchess County and the inevitable divorce, she started popping pills, snorting cocaine, dressing up, sleeping around and … Well, was it pathologically lying, or Lesage-like haute couture embroidery of the truth?

A sampler: Mummy fakes leukemia, plucks her little girls from school and takes them to the Grand Canyon swathed in coats and sleeping bags shoplifted from Bloomie’s. “No candy!” she barks in a brief and incongruous burst of discipline, when Penelope whines for a piece of peanut brittle. Daphne is a fabulist, yes—but let’s admit it, also kind of fabulous.


LUCKILY SUSY WAS taking copious notes, like a private investigator with a poetic streak, some written in diaries, most reprocessed and polished by adult memory. The details are resonant, practically fragrant: orange sweet spooned up in a high chair, velvet party dresses from Bonwit Teller, bottles of Chanel No. 5 and Arpège on her late grandmother’s vanity table: “carnival amounts that smelled like dust and nothing.” (Even Daphne’s nervous breakdowns seem to glisten, perhaps because one never hears of people having them anymore, thanks to SSRI’s. )

All five senses are exquisitely catalogued, along with some that science has thus far failed to define. “No matter how we started, we ended somewhere else,” Ms. Sonnenberg writes of the frequent rows with her mother, which sometimes climaxed with the child getting punched in the stomach. “Her viciously slammed door, the toxic fumes, my wilted finish.” After one particularly embarrassing maternal college visit, Susanna flips out in front of her boyfriend, one of the few the gorgeous and wildly inappropriate Daphne doesn’t co-opt if not outright seduce. “I started sobbing, couldn’t help myself as it turned to retching, the power to purge her.” Has witnessing someone vomit become the definitive intimate act of our cynical age?

Of course, there have been so many confessional memoirs over the past decade or so, one could argue that the publishing industry is enabling a sort of mass bulimia. But despite Ms. Sonnenberg’s explicit, repeated motif of disgorgement, Her Last Death is actually most notable for its sense of containment, of absorption. With detached, almost clinical lyricism, the abused daughter describes being ordered to plunge a syringe filled with Demerol into Mummy’s quivering thigh (age 8); nonsensically sent to Weight Watchers (age 12); and given, with maudlin sniffles, a gram of coke as a birthday gift (happy sweet 16, toots!).

Let it be noted, too, that Ben Sonnenberg, afflicted by multiple sclerosis, wasn’t exactly Bill Cosby: rudely inquiring if a prepubescent Susy masturbated and greeting one of her prep-school fictional efforts with this frosty feedback: “I don’t know why you thought I should read this. It doesn’t seem to me much good or particularly original.”

Well, you can stuff it, Daddykins—because Her Last Death is both. It’s an amalgam of three memoir subgenres: “I Remember Mama”; “Brushes With Famous People” (Bob Dylan, John Cheever, Claudette Colbert and Norman Mailer make cameos); and “I Saved Myself by Ditching New York City for Rural Existence—Bonus Points for a Red State.” In this case, that state is Montana, where Ms. Sonnenberg gives up writing celebrity profiles and works at a local abortion clinic.

Later, she struggles with motherhood herself; exhorted by a neighbor to whisper “sweet nothings” into her firstborn’s ear, she admits, “I couldn’t think of a single nothing.” Nowadays (a cursory Google search reveals), she writes a lovely, Erma Bombeck-ish column for the local newspaper about nice normal subjects like needing to get one of her two sons’ teeth filled.

She moved West with her steady-Freddy husband, “Christopher,” after years of promiscuity that arguably began with the copies of Penthouse squirreled under her mattress, a practice endorsed by Daphne. She acquired a diaphragm at age 13. Then came affairs with a much-older English teacher, a compulsive gambler, a rabbi and countless married men. Curiously, the description of this highly sexed period is the one part of the book that flags: In the cloistered, heady world of femininity and sisterhood created by Daphne and her two offspring, men seem like incidental playthings, intrusions.

In Ms. Sonnenberg’s description of her gradual adjustment to a thrifty life in the sticks (malls! beers! fly-fishing!), the reader senses an incompletely conquered nostalgia for the eccentric, Bellini-fizzed luxury of her childhood. “I had to learn how to wait in a line, to let go of urban impatience,” she writes. Talking on the pay phone to a friend back in the city: “When I said Elizabeth Street, I thought I would”—yes—“throw up from longing.”

Little Susy may never come back for good, but you’ll be very glad she paid this visit.

Wretched Mother, Retching Daughter, Mesmerizing Memoir