Real Men Read Nonfiction: Siri Hustvedt’s ‘Mothers, Fathers, & Others’

This genre of literature dissects the heterosexual project of children as identity-formation and the narrative that follows. Hustvedt’s essay collection does not quite take on that ideology, instead offering a scattered series of reflections on disparate art and family history. 

‘Mothers, Fathers, and Others’ by Siri Hustvedt Simon & Schuster

There are few mothers and even fewer fathers in Siri Hustvedt’s new collection of essays Mothers, Fathers, & Others. “We did not tell time by mothers, only by fathers,” Hustvedt writes, though the role of psychoanalysis in society is the more prominent thread in this collection. Freud and Klein are always stopping by to say hello, whether to examine patriarchy or the work of Louise Bourgeois

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When Hustvedt does address motherhood, she is sharpest when reflecting on the personal to theorize about larger structures. “Mother ideas invade mothering with a stark morality of good and evil that rarely touches fathering.” The essay “A Walk With My Mother” is a sweet, sweeping look at Husvedt’s changing relationship with her mother as they co-create an adult relationship. 

Mothering literature has shifted, turning from simple how-to books to more nuanced accounts of ambiguity. Rachel Cusk has written plenty about the response she received from other mothers and male detractors for her blistering accounts of motherhood. Patricia Lockwood begins her essay on Cusk by stating: “The observation​ that some people do not like Rachel Cusk is so omnipresent in criticism of her work that it’s surprising no one’s ever led off a review with ‘I, too, dislike her.’” Sheila Heti’s Motherhood takes on mom-lit with similar wariness. This genre of literature dissects the heterosexual project of children as identity-formation and the narrative that follows. Hustvedt’s essay collection does not quite take on that ideology, instead offering a scattered series of reflections on disparate art and family history. 

Once a friend of mine told me an essay collection felt like a grab-bag of internet articles with no coherent theme. Hustvedt’s collection is similar. Some pieces are hardly a few pages, reading like fragments without heft. There are plenty of wonderful fragmentary books–but often these pieces fail to resonate. 

Hustvedt will point out something to be a “banality” and then say it anyway. A few pieces about life in New York during the pandemic feel quite banal. The reader has to laugh at lines like “Real men read nonfiction.” These essays that touch on gender occasionally spark with insight but often retread well-worn paths. 

In “The Enigma of Reading,” Hustvedt reappraises Wuthering Heights. For her the book has a mysterious phenomenological spell. Her daughter both wants to keep reading and finds Heathcliff an immoral devil. “No critic has ever domesticated Wuthering Heights… It is useless to try to beat the novel into submission. It will not comply.” Hustvedt sees the novel as destroying the “boundaries of character, setting, and plot.” They all melt together, the dialectic is mush. In her essay “The Brontës,” Elizabeth Hardwick provides a biography of the three sisters, their brother, and father. Hardwick’s prose is stark, “Wuthering Heights is a virgin’s story.” Hardwick illustrates the life of the Brontës in a way that lends itself to understanding the wild, boundaryless Wuthering Heights. The prose of the Brontës explores the “nettled complication of moods and traits, resolutions and lacks, ambitions and insecurities.” Obviously, Hardwick’s essay is more biographical in nature, while Hustvedt is trying to explain the phenomenology of reading Brontë that she feels has been obscured by theorists. And yet, even with the scaffolding of history, Hardwick is better able to excavate the Brontë’s mystery: “How to live without love, without security?”   

In “Tillie,” Hustvedt reflects “Rage is a privilege of the powerful, of white men in America.” She positions her grandmother Tillie as a white woman with inappropriate rage. It feels as if Hustvedt wants to rehabilitate her grandmother’s rage as feminist praxis; she places it alongside Audre Lorde’s continually misused “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” It feels like a strange use of Lorde’s work. It does not cast an illuminating gaze on her grandmother’s anger nor does it spark any new readings of Audre Lorde. Lorde is addressing the catharsis of anger in the context of Black feminism. Lorde’s speech does discuss the differences between anger against racism and the anger of racism, but this is not quite what Hustvedt draws on. Husvedt does not always adequately address the way white anger is built on repression and projection, striking out at inappropriate targets. Even within white family systems, operations lie on unspoken propriety, resentment, secrets, and anger that can only be displaced. 

Hustvedt’s ambivalent relationship to race, gender, and power culminate in the final essay of her collection, “Scapegoat.” She takes on the murder of Sylvia Likens, who she notes, “deprived as she was, she was still a white Protestant in the United States.” 

Melanie Klein’s theory of “splitting” is summoned to create a grand theory of evil. We split the things we can’t understand into “good” and “bad.” We understand them or we don’t. According to Hustvedt’s reading of Klein, this is the source of evil. She cites the fact that former U.S. Republican senator Larry Craig supported a gay marriage ban in his public life while solicitating gay sex in his private life. Freud is recalled to the stand, to tell us “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.” In both cases, these result from the original exclusion–that of the child from the parental unit. Mother, father, other. 

Misogyny, homophobia, and racism are theorized alongside one another without much discussion of their differences. In his essay earlier this year, “On Being Left Out,” Adam Philips discusses the way exclusion creates identity formation. “Exclusion, as both Hamlet and Paradise Lost show us, is the medium for self-recognition. An identity is what you are left with, what you come up with, after being left out: it is a self-cure for alienation.” For Philips, this can be a positive thing, identity formation is a trauma but also a reality, “For Kafka, for whom freedom from was a way of repressing freedom for, being left out was neither an opportunity nor a defeat. It was an acknowledgment of something real. To be a person – at least a modern person – is to be excluded from oneself and others.” For Hamlet and Satan in Paradise Lost, this creates a thirst for vengeance. Perhaps this is what Hustvedt is trying to get at, though the desire to create such a unifying theory based on the Sylvia Likens case remains unclear. 

“We organise ourselves around these experiences of exclusion, and we narrow our minds to deal with them. And identity, like exclusion, makes us violent,” Philips continues. Ultimately, the question becomes what you do when you’re excluded. To Hustvedt, an exclusion from beauty caused a feeding frenzy that led to the murder of Sylvia Likens. This seems possible but the ability to stretch it into the case that unlocks how violence functions seems less plausible. It reminds one more of the Milgram experiment. Hustvedt’s essay and Philips’ to a lesser extent both fail to account for people who use exclusion as an opportunity for repair. 

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theory of paranoid and reparative readings has been recirculating the internet the past few years as people consider how they want to move in the world yet again. We’re continually reckoning with a world burdened under its own weight. We can listen to conspiracy theories and doomscroll as long as we want. There is plenty to be paranoid about. Or we can cook meals for our friends, go on walks with one another, answer the phone call of the friend in the hospital, and help crowdfund our sibling’s gender-affirming surgeries. These acts alone do not create a new world, but they begin the long work of walking forward toward somewhere beyond pessimism and optimism. 

Real Men Read Nonfiction: Siri Hustvedt’s ‘Mothers, Fathers, & Others’