My Mother, My Rival: The Revolutionary Honesty of Resenting Your Kids

Linda Grace Hoyer had little luck as a writer, so she encouraged her son, John Updike, to follow the path. His success might have sparked a grudge in her, but let’s not pretend that means she wasn’t a good mother.

Michelle Dean is a journalist and critic who lives in New York. Her writing has appeared online...

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Some people, well—it’s hard to imagine them with mothers, so little do they seem aware of the inner lives of the women around them. I’ve certainly often felt that way about John Updike. That remark that David Foster Wallace recorded a female friend calling Updike “just a penis with a thesaurus”? It often sounds just about right to me. Still, a long time ago, I noticed that in every profile journalists wrote about him, every interview, every essay he wrote for the New Yorker, one woman always came up as not a sexual object but rather a formative influence: his mother. When she died, in 1989, Updike told the Times, “She was, by and large, as good a writer’s mother as one could ask for.’’ I decided to investigate. As it turns out, it’s terribly complicated, in the way every story of a mother and her child is terribly complicated.

Linda Grace Hoyer (she didn’t like to use her married name in print) doesn’t seem to have given any real interviews, or written any memoirs, of her own. It is from Updike’s reports that we must get the known facts of her life. She was born and died in the same brown, sandstone house in Plowville, Pennsylvania. She had a master’s in English from Cornell, and she herself wanted to be a writer when she was young. But she married a poor schoolteacher she’d met in college, and aside from a brief stint at a department store, became just another wife and mother in the 1930s. She wrote short stories on the side, but had little luck getting them published. And so, in what seems to have been a palliative strategy, she encouraged her son to be first an artist, then a writer.

Updike says, over and over, that he would not have aspired to the profession without her example—that he needed, and was grateful for, the support she gave him. And yet, there were parts of her that were closed to him. In his collection of memoir-essays, Self-Consciousness, he recalls her brief stint as a working mother with pleasure:

In Pomeroy’s [department store] my mother appeared as I very much wanted her to appear—at one with the thriving world. Tapping away in the front bedroom at her unpublished stories, tending our hedged-in yard and garden, she seemed to me to be hiding from the global bustle led by Uncle Sam and Santa Claus.

A kid’s impressions, of course, and children rarely think about what parents want beyond the happiness and safety of children. But he returns again to this theme, of his mom using writing to hide from the world:

In my mother’s head existed, evidently, an entire rival world that could not co-exist with the real world of which I was, I had felt, such a loved component. Perhaps I had not hitherto realized that I had, within my mother’s sphere of attention, any competitors whatsoever.

Rival, competitor: these are interesting words to choose in describing an activity that is not just an interesting hobby to a mother, but what she feels to be her true vocation.

Which is not to say, of course, they are the wrong words to use. Updike liked to tell interviewers that once, when he asked her what she thought of his success, Hoyer replied, “Frankly, Johnny, I’d rather it had been me.” That story keeps getting repeated secondhand by Updike’s interviewers, but I hope it’s true. It is hard not to admire the honesty of the admission. Even now it’s still rather taboo for women to suggest that they lost out on anything at all by having children, let alone that they resent a child getting to live out a dream the mother had had herself. There’s a bit of revolution in that honesty, I think.

In a way, you could say Updike did pay her back. Once her son’s star was firmly hung in the sky, the New Yorker itself finally took one of Hoyer’s stories, in 1961. Whether or not they did so just because she was someone’s mother, well, it can’t have hurt. In any event, the publication emboldened her, and in the 28 years before she died, she’d publish two novels. All of it is quasi-autobiographical, just like her son’s work. Her characters have famous, accomplished sons, and husbands with whom they have slightly ambivalent relationships. Of course, because it is fiction, the experience is still mediated, and not everything in it.

One story in particular, 1969’s “Hindsight and Foresight,” keeps haunting me. In it, Hoyer’s alter ego, Belle Minuit, recounts her courtship to George Adams. Belle is a sheltered and materially spoiled young woman, the kind who declares to her college dorm-mates that she’s arrived at college purely to “secure a husband.” She falls for George in part because he looks like her father. A classmate, Emmeline, warns Belle against marrying him. But she doesn’t listen, because, the narrating Belle tells us, one day she simply heard a call. First, it comes in the form of her mother’s voice saying, “You will never be right.” Then:

I said to myself, “Yes, I know. No matter what I do, the ankle-length raccoon coat, the topless car, and the right to sing in them will never be mine. It is very sad.”

Then, oddly, another voice said, “You aren’t going to the football game today because you aren’t right. But your son will go. Everywhere. Your son will be truly representative of the clan. Go back to your dreary little room with your books and forget the football game. You can’t go with the boys. Never.”

Charged with the mission of having this son, Belle marries George. And she reports that when he was born, “instead of looking at me with the quickly averted glance that both George and my father habitually gave me, Eric looked at me steadily and calmly, as if I was right.

Reading this, I kept wanting to believe it was all fantasy—wanting the son, finding affirmation in him, the really fictional part. And then reading Updike’s interviews, I came across him saying his mother had told him just this, that she’d only felt “right” once he looked at her as a baby. Which leaves you to wonder just how much she really, literally, felt called to the role.

In 2002, a journalist from the Guardian asked Updike to evaluate his mother’s work, as a literary critic. “I thought she was quite good,” he replied. “And she wrote wonderful letters. She would probably have been a better writer if she’d worked less hard at it.” Reading the stories one comes largely to agree with him. She is not the lyricist her son is. She is stingy with adjectives. But she has a knack for choosing detail. In “Hindsight and Foresight,” for example, Emmeline has “a set of whimsical bangs that I would have given my premature wisdom tooth to possess.”

Yet Updike seemed to kind of miss something. “[S]he was kind of inhibited,” he continued to that journalist, “and never really grabbed her own anger—didn’t get at what was agitating her—in the way that a younger woman, a woman now probably would easily.” If what he meant was that her work was not written in the manner of pure screed, then one supposes he is correct. But everywhere you look in Hoyer’s writing you see men disappointing her. They are not sentimental portraits. George Adams, after all, sums up his love for Belle thusly: “I married you because of your amusement value.” The scorn drips off the page. It comes with a certain degree of despair, yes, as in, “You will never be right.” But doesn’t that sentence actually cut right to the agitating, agonizing chase?

People often asked Updike what the people in his life thought of his writing about them. The Paris Review asked about his mother, specifically. Updike said she didn’t mind it, neither of his parents did. “They both have a rather un-middle-class appetite for the jubilant horrible truth,” he said. “I have written free from any fear of forfeiting their love.”

They were indeed very generous in this respect. It often seems to me that the worst kind of child to have is a writer. “Writers,” as Joan Didion so famously put it, “are always selling somebody out.” Parents, particularly parents one still speaks to in adulthood, are perilously close at hand, and grudges make the selling almost a reflex. I usually don’t write about my own parents for this reason, though not so much because I fear their appetite for the “jubilant horrible truth” as I do my own.

After all, Updike was not quite as fond of the way his mother wrote about him. “I found her representation of me very unappealing; a kind of goody-goody, sickly, unreal guy,” he told yet another interviewer. He does not seem to have considered the possibility that he was, in actuality, kind of unappealing.

All of this notwithstanding, Updike was quite clear about knowing his Freud. He wrote about it, in fact, for Vogue, in 1984, in a piece about “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met.” Yet after making a few cursory remarks about the way Freudian mores ended up putting too much of a burden on mothers, he immediately changed gears. “Few things are harder, in this era so preoccupied with the monitoring of human relations” he wrote, “than to get to know one’s mother as a person—to forgive her, in effect, for being one’s mother.” And yet the rest of the piece is sentimental, all soft-focus walks in woods and soothing home remedies for toothache. There is no hint of any agitation between mother and son, no idea of what was necessary to forgive.

You have to keep looking for that. In Off the Farm, an early novel, the protagonist describes his mother’s “atmosphere” as “a volatile pressure system to which I am more sensitive than to weather itself.” In Self-Consciousness, her worrying about the car striking a deer is “hysterical and sentimental.” She doesn’t like Updike’s second wife. He tells an interviewer that she repeatedly threatened to leave his father, to take him away to Arizona. “Wild, wasn’t it?” is his response to the interviewer’s concern. A very ungenerous person might observe that the common thread here is that his mother has feelings. A more reasonable one would point out that, in spite of the inhibitions he spoke of, he’s really afraid of her volatility.

When Hoyer finally died, in 1989, she was alone. She’d been alone in that sandstone house a long time, save what Updike estimated were the twenty or so cats she’d been feeding. Neighbors broke in and found her collapsed over the garbage can. Updike, to commemorate, composed a poem, which, after cataloguing a few sad, old-people’s belongings, ends:

She seemed so very small in these her remnants.
‘Oh Mama,’ I said aloud, though I never called
her ‘Mama,’ ‘I didn’t take very good care of you.’

It isn’t a very good poem, of course, too much like prose with unnecessary line breaks. But I think it is important that he called her by a name she never used. She chose to call herself something, and it wasn’t Mama, and it wasn’t Updike. And it wasn’t “John Updike’s mother,” either.

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