“Have a good life,” my mother wrote in March 1989, at the bottom of page four of her nineteen-page suicide letter.
This is a really good beginning, in that it certainly grabs my attention.
The Last of Her is Kim Dana Kupperman’s investigation into her mother: who she was, who she wasn’t, why she went. Full disclosure: Kim is a visiting faculty member in my MFA program, and one I’m looking forward to working with.
This mother, Dolores, was a serial liar. She told many, many stories of her own personal history, leaving a real challenge for her only daughter in tracking that history. Kim was 29 when her mother killed herself, apparently to escape being busted for insurance fraud. It took some decades before she was ready to do the work that this book communicates: the research, the travel and the reconsidering of past crimes. Those are literal/legal crimes (Dolores was a junkie, a con artist, an identity thief, and apparently guilty though never convicted of assaulting a [pregnant] romantic rival with a hammer) as well as psychic ones, including mistreating and manipulating her daughter. The adult Kim eventually finds sympathy for this flawed and damaged woman, but it is quite an (understandable) journey to get there.
As a piece of creative nonfiction, The Last of Her is intriguing. The Preface deals heavily in birds, as Kim sketches the trauma of her mother’s suicide and then describes visiting the gravesites of family members she never knew. A few more birds season the rest of the story, although they do not end up playing as large a role as I expected. This lent a feeling, for me, of something larger and less knowable than human nature; not supernatural, of course, but something of the mystery of the natural world, which is often absent (or mere scenery) in human stories.
This is also very much a memoir, not of Kim’s life or Dolores’s, or Kim’s memories of Dolores (although there is some of each), but of Kim’s study of her mother years after her death. In others, this is the story of her research, including her reading of her father’s giant “Secret File” about Dolores and the custody battle she lost. I am drawn to this kind of story: the story of finding the story, that transparency. Kim’s tone keeps some distance, almost austerely observing the 20-something daughter to which this thing happened. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, on the sentence level (of course). I will also say that the chapter headings (quotations from a wide range of literature) quite baffle me; I need a guide to those.
This is a memoir about a sensational event that never approaches sensationalism, expertly crafted like a long poem, with precise emotional tone. A good study. Keep your eyes open as well for Kim’s (earlier) essay collection, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, and the work of Welcome Table Press, where she is founding editor.