Imagining Mother, an American Exorcism by A. Sandosharaj
A. Sandosharaj, in her segmented essay “Imagining Mother, an American Exorcism,” employs what Phillip Lopate calls a “double perspective” to examine her mother’s life. “In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the child’s confusions and misapprehensions, say), while benefiting from the sophisticated wisdom of the author’s adult self,” Lopate writes in To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Exploring her childhood and adult memories simultaneously, Sandosharaj questions how media representations of white girlhood, womanhood, and motherhood influenced non-white immigrants’ understanding of their experiences in the United States.
This craft choice allows Sandosharaj to identify and investigate the parallels between her mother and herself: “Young women on frontiers watching scared white women on-screen, the question churning: where is home now?” It is a question both mother and daughter attempt to answer through explorations of their respective frontiers. These frontiers—her mother’s bus rides and low-paying jobs, the author’s relocation and professorship—create the congruence of their shared narrative, their shared “American-yet-not-American womanhoods” as revealed in their love of reading and books and fascination with one particular horror movie, The Exorcist. —CRAFT
When my mother first came to the United States in the 1970s, she was disappointed by the treeless tenements my father brought her to. She had grown up on a bustling island beach in what was then called Ceylon, nothing like the suburban ghetto outside of Washington, DC, where she often found herself absent a husband since my father worked sixteen hours a day. One night early on, she watched The Exorcist. It frightened her so much she couldn’t sleep. At twenty-four she had never slept anywhere alone, let alone America; she had always slept amongst snoring relatives in a single room, within earshot of the surf. That night, she kept seeing the girl with a demon trapped inside her. Unsettled, she called my father at the 7-Eleven where he was a cashier.
“I cannot talk,” he said, hanging up. He was not permitted calls.
She called her brother next, a charming self-sufficient man with a temper. He had come to the United States first.
“Are you crazy?” he exclaimed. My uncle, like my father, worked multiple jobs. “You are a grown woman and wife. Say a prayer and go to sleep.”
That first year passed slowly. Bored, she read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a book she said made her feel dirty. The mobster classic was nothing like the soapy Bollywoodesque drama of The Mill on the Floss—which she loved even more after learning the author was a woman—nor was it like the labyrinthine romance Doctor Zhivago, another favorite. Her appetite for books had not precluded her from dropping out of high school, however, like most of the girls in Trincomalee. She would have preferred to remain in school, where she had learned English as a result of the British colonialism that lingered on the island, but it was customary for girls to drop out. The wonder that makes books an addiction for some remained, however. She gave that thrill to me.
My mother did not read to my brother and me, but she was usually reading when shooing us away. In the 1980s shooing children was not uncommon; parents expected some independence. My mother read all day. What was so engrossing it warranted such regular, total absorption, I wondered, watching her stare into Reader’s Digests and flimsy Tamil-language magazines the way I stared at Sesame Street. I began reading, too.
Meanwhile my father did the cooking, cleaning, mending, and fixing. This industriousness was less about her shortcomings than his superhuman work ethic. I only realized this later; as an adult I withered at the thought of being compared to my father. He slept less than three hours a day for forty years, working two jobs, sometimes three, until he died from a heart attack. With the time he freed for her, my mother read.
My mother read more than she parented, made friends, or attempted chores. More than she cooked or cleaned or cooed. Who could blame her? I think of myself at twenty-four, happy-houring my way through a creative dissertation, then of my mother at the same age, reading her way out of a tiny apartment that looked nothing like the anodyne visions beamed from Hollywood to her in Trincomalee: manicured lawns and skyscrapers, I Dream of Jeannie and Ed Sullivan. Whiteness in person instead of in books.
But there were no happy white people in her America except on TV. Instead of Elvis and I Love Lucy, she got a tireless husband, strong-willed children fueled by foreign impulses, and a bland suburban ghetto, equal parts dull and dangerous. At first, she was trapped indoors, her only company children she babysat. Before she began venturing out on the bus, my mother was restless. Antsy. Like she was caught by her tail. Unlike in Trincomalee where she would have had women to shop and cook and “move with,” here her sister-in-law and other fellow trapped wives lived unwalkable miles away.
The women my mother saw on-screen, on the other hand, like the women in her books, moved about the world almost like men. If I had been in her position, I would have read all day too. In fact, as a writing professor, I ended up reading all day for a living.
My mother was never so lucky. She worked grueling retail jobs, something I never gave her much credit for, degrees shielding me from minimum wage. I wanted an immaculate house run by an imaginary American mother, a smartly dressed professional like Clair Huxtable or one of the interchangeable mothers on Family Ties, Growing Pains, and Who’s the Boss. I could not see how American my mother actually was. How acutely she embodied the Marxist theories I would read in grad school. She was a working-class hustler with no formal education, a scrappy immigrant pilgrim pioneer, equal parts adventurer and opportunist, just like my father, though I failed to see her that way. Modest though they were, her adventures were entirely her orchestrations. She was always trying to get out.
Once, when I was in kindergarten, she did not show up to pick me up. As I peered into the empty schoolyard, my teachers judging me mature enough to walk home alone, I remember feeling abandoned, angry. How could my mother forget me? What a bad mother, I thought, as I would often unfairly think growing up. I couldn’t wait to tell on her.
I had barely exited the school property, however, when I saw her running toward me. She was pushing a stroller with a baby in it.
“I am so sorry,” she gasped.
The baby girl belonged to a pretty Guatemalan housepainter. The woman’s regular babysitter had quit that morning so, desperate, she began knocking on random doors.
“She begged me, what could I say?” my mother explained, but I could tell she was excited. She could make some of her own money, she rationalized as we walked, and help a fellow mother, bent by uncontrollable forces, take care of her daughter.
A year or two later, when my mother got a job as a cashier at a discount store, she had to tell Rani’s mother she could no longer babysit. Rani’s mother was furious.
“A week’s notice?” She paced, incredulous.
My mother knew the position she was putting Rani’s mother in. But she could not resist getting out of the apartment into the world. The apartment had long become a cage by then.
Rani’s mother could not afford to pay my mother more than Zayre’s, so she didn’t argue. Instead she flung the baby doll my mother had given Rani before saying the last thing she would ever say to my mother: “Go to hell.”
When I first discovered there was a feminist reading of The Exorcist, I rolled my eyes. I was new to feminism. Then I read Frances Gateward’s 2007 essay, “Movies and the Legacies of War and Corruption.” It ended with such a compelling take on The Exorcist, I went to one of her sources, Barbara Creed’s “Alien and the Monstrous Feminine.” Both writers deconstructed The Exorcist as a misogynist assertion of family values; in their telling the story of mother-saving-daughter became: glamorous single mother’s daughter goes wild with an oversexed demon, not a single traditional American male in sight. Only a priest, the titular exorcist, can save the virginal girl, not her mother.
When the film was first released, the nation was reeling from losses in Vietnam, the violent decrescendo to the Civil Rights Movement whose “wins” both disappointed progressives and infuriated bigots, and a second-wave feminism that sexually emboldened women with birth control pills and no-fault divorces. In this context, interpreting The Exorcist as a critique of what the “wayward” modern American woman portended, especially for her daughters, proved persuasive. This mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, who beat out both Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft for the role, could only have been a Western woman really; happy divorcées with chic pixie haircuts and androgynous names like Chris were not common elsewhere in the world.
My mother never looked Western, never mind like the mothers on-screen. She never cut her hair in a salon or at all, nor did she ever wear makeup. On her most opulent days, she applied translucent powder and pinned in her hair the fragrant jasmine she grew in a plastic bucket and kept in the butter compartment of the fridge. Her hair was always parted in the middle, then fastened in one long braid. The braid shrank over the years, inching up her back as her once too-thick hair thinned, but her look remained the same: nondescript Indian auntie in JCPenney blouse and no-name flats.
But she was unlike the other Indian aunties. She was the first to get a driver’s license despite several unsuccessful attempts. She preferred pants over sarees. She took no interest in keeping house. She would continue to ride the bus, even into her seventies, happily taking a line to its end to see where it went; no amount of pleading from her grown children could make her stop. And I never recalled any other aunties with books.
Soon after I picked up her habit of reading, I discovered Judy Blume. I hardly understood what I was reading since I was only six, but I loved the pastel renderings of white girls on the book covers of Deenie and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The girls lounged on calico bedspreads in their very own bedrooms or stared into full-length cheval mirrors. I judged all of Blume’s books by their covers, white girls gazing dreamily from window seats or into sunsets. On the cover of Tiger Eyes, a pretty white teenager with hazel eyes and windblown hair peers over the dramatic spires of a New Mexican canyon. It was the first book I did not finish.
I know the exact sentence where I stopped reading: “the first person she ever had sex with,” page 72. I was reading to my mother when I expertly replaced the above phrase with “the first person she ever had bex with.” My mother, whom I had always assumed wasn’t listening since she would be simultaneously reading something else, immediately took the book from me.
What did she then think of me, seven years old, consuming white American girlhood, just as she was American womanhood? What did she think about the title character in Tiger Eyes, whose father was shot during a holdup at a 7-Eleven? Did she think of my father working nights at a 7-Eleven while she was on the other side of town, alone on a new continent? What was scarier to her, I wonder, the world in her daughter’s books and on-screen, or the new world around her, one white, the other, Other like her? Or were they the same? Once my father took her to see The Exorcist steps in Georgetown. The stairs were narrow and vertiginous and the gray Potomac River glided by below. They were as frightening in real life as on-screen.
I walk by those stairs now on the way to the writing classes I teach, where for weeks at a time I read all day.
When The Exorcist was rereleased in 2001, I was in grad school in Ohio. I, like my mother, was twenty-four the first time I lived away far from home. The first few months on my own were jarring, the sudden absence of well-known streets and lifelong friends, unmooring. Although I had come to Columbus as a self-financed adult excited to be on my own, I also felt inexplicably abandoned and childishly afraid. When my family drove off, I cried like a freshman.
I had already seen The Exorcist by then, but the director’s cut had newly added scenes, a total of twelve additional minutes, including the nightmarish “spider walk” where the possessed Regan races down the stairs in an inverted crab crawl. The new material wasn’t earth-shattering but the original was worth a revisit. The Exorcist had been a critical and commercial success in 1973. It was nominated for best picture and the source of numerous controversies. Fans lined blocks to wait for the film, some threw rosary beads at the screen, others got violent when tickets ran out. Linda Blair, the fourteen-year-old who played the possessed Regan, was injured when she was violently tossed during a scene. In the film, she spews vile monologues of sexual epithets and graphically abuses the cross. The movie so deeply disturbed so many that paramedics were called to theaters. Some viewers later reported false memories of previous possessions.
The film frightened me the second time around too. I slept on the couch with all the lights on in my dingy graduate housing apartment. I’m sure I called an old boyfriend. The parallels between my mother and me are too spot-on, too easy. Young women on frontiers watching scared white women on-screen, the question churning: where is home now?
It is worth noting that my mother’s frontier may be quite literal. A 23andMe genetic testing kit claims we are one hundred percent genetically South Indian, specifically the island Sri Lanka, which could mean that no one in our genetic ancestral history left the tiny crumb off the tip of the subcontinent before my parents. Perhaps the first to settle, if not travel, so far from home.
My frontier was considerably less epic, a new adult life in an only slightly alien land, my own private Columbus, Ohio, where a perky white undergrad on the first day of the first class I ever taught said to me, with sincere relief, “I am so glad you speak English!”
As she bounced happily away I was not undermined or upset as much as embarrassed, for her. She was just a kid after all, a product of her rural upbringing as much as I was a product of the opposite. From her skimpy experience, if she had any, people who looked like me were foreigners who didn’t speak English. I wanted to tell her my mother spoke the King’s English, that I in fact only spoke English, that I had learned to love English by reading about white girls who looked just like her. I thought she should know that my standing before her, in a room full of white students, was as much a surprise to me as it was to her.
I would go on to write about that student, about race in the classroom, at length about my father, and always about myself, but I would not write about my mother until now. I would ignore our mutuality, our American-yet-not-American womanhoods. Ignore how we had both been entranced by American womanhood as it was often presented then: almost always white and upper-middle class, though the American women we knew were neither.
What did my mother make of American mothers? Of Chris in The Exorcist? What did she see in this white woman hosting parties and cuddling her daughter in ways she never would? Was this blonde woman for my mother what the girls in my books were for me, Ramona Quimbys, Sweet Valley twins, Are You There God? It’s Me Margarets? Beings whose problems were at once familiar and foreign, being consumed but not experienced, problems often unlike our own.
My mother’s American adventure was routed through a working-poor neighborhood where the reverberations of the crack epidemic in the “murder capital” were seen and felt; my classmate was gunned down across the street from my tough high school; my friends got pregnant before graduation; my brother carried a handgun for years. It was not an easy place to mother brown-skinned children or be any kind of young woman at all, never mind a young immigrant with dreams of a different kind of Western world, shaped by stories alien to what was now suddenly home.
There is a scene early in The Exorcist when Chris commands her staff to “get the rat traps!” as she marches through a Georgetown mansion. She has just heard malevolent scrambling in the attic she sensibly attributes to rodents. The moment reminds me of my earliest memory of my mother, a story collapsed over time into a single dreamy image and a sensation. In the memory my mother, who lost her own mother when she was just eighteen, is triumphant, buoyant. She has just successfully deployed a mousetrap on her own, and thus, I remember feeling, saved us from a great and disgusting danger. In my hazy recollection, she stands backlit in the hallway of that first dim apartment; her squeamish, girlish, still childishly chubby face is pinched as she bravely dangles over the toilet, a mouse caught in a trap by its tail.
A. SANDOSHARAJ’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Millions, Literary Hub, The Massachusetts Review, American Literary Review, Southeast Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and others. She has an MFA from The Ohio State University and a PhD from the University of Maryland, and currently teaches writing at Georgetown University. She also has two dogs and an unused motorcycle license. Find her on Instagram at @alissandosharaj.
Featured image by Y. K., courtesy of Unsplash.