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An Abbreviated Life

Ariel Leve came to understand that her mother was  – and is – truly disturbed relatively late in life. She knew no different as a child and slowly learned – through therapy it seems – how profoundly her trust in the world was corrupted by the narcissism and staggering inconsistency her mother relentlessly played out. An accomplished journalist, Leve’s recent memoir asks us to witness what she went through, and in so doing, seems to help her make sense of her life so far. Now in love with a father of twins, as silent as her mother was noisy, I suspect this successful relationship enabled her to examine, reflect and write about all that went wrong. We hold her hand as she takes stock, and squeeze it tight.

An Abbreviated Life is a painful read, lapping from the past to the present in a sometimes lyrical way, almost like the sea Leve moved to be by after years of New York and London living. Raised in ostensible wealth and privilege in Upper East side Manhatten, Leve’s mother was a Bohemian poet, surrounded by the literati (famous names included), yet suffering as a result of her unquenchable thirst for attention, admiration and rapture. She would attract and repel people in equal measure and her polarised behaviour played out with her daughter too: Leve would be told that she was loved and hated in equal, successive measures.

Too fearful to let go of the ‘phone as it would mean ending a conversation and therefore attention, Leve’s mother would pee herself. If she was at home, she would be entertaining until the early hours or lying around on her bed, oblivious of her daughter unless she needed attention. She would rarely stick to her word, promising to eat a meal with Leve, or tuck her into bed before doing neither and leaving to party, sometimes until the next day. Leve took solace, and emotional nourishment from long-suffering nannies and long summer breaks with her introverted father in the Far East. She wanted to live with her father, and we wish that for her too, but one attempt to do so incurred the wrath of her mother so much, it wasn’t risked again.

Leve doesn’t share ideas with us as to why her mother is so disordered – her grandmother is mentioned but only as a fellow sufferer of her daughter’s unbridled histrionics. I suspect something went wrong with her own childhood, and here we understand Leve’s great efforts to interrupt the transmission of trauma: nurturing comes naturally to her in the end.

Julia Bueno