A Matter of Life and Death, by Virgilia Peterson

December 12th, 2007

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'A Matter of Life and Death'')
Cheryl Crawford’s 1978 memoir, Mommie Dearest set the benchmark for mothers from Hell with its portrayal of Joan Crawford’s unique terror-and-saccharine approach to parenthood. Yet Cheryl Crawford on her worst day pales beside Virgilia Peterson when it comes to “having issues” with her (step)mom. Peterson’s 1961 memoir, A Matter of Life and Death, is 334 pages of relentless mom-bashing.

But this is frightfully crass of me. The daughter of one of America’s first practicing psychologists, Peterson was born into the heart of New York City society, raised in a brownstone mansion in the East Seventies and rating a notice in the New York Times’ social column for her coming out party. Graduating from a Seven Sisters college, she travelled the Great Tour and took classes in Grenoble. Her father decorated their home with his priceless collection of Chinese art. And her mother would never have bothered about wire hangers — how the clothes were stored were for the servants to worry about.

No, the contest of wills between Peterson and her mother was far more subtle and refined than that between Joan and Cheryl Crawford. Mrs. Frederick Peterson must have learned her techniques at the same places where her husband bought his art. As her daughter relates it, her approach to abuse was understated, elegant — and unrelenting. Like Chinese water torture, in which no single drop does much but the cumulative effect is unbearable pain, decades of her mother’s corrosive influence would have been enough to drive anyone mad. Indeed, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Virgilia Peterson did, in some ways, go mad. Certainly her need to write out what is, in effect, a 300-plus page monologue to her dead mother — 300 pages unrelieved by a single moment of humor and rarely focused on anything but how her mother reacted or judged some event in her daughter’s life reflects a degree of obsession at least bordering on the pathological. “I always knew you were insane” are the last words her mother spoke to Peterson. And by that point in the book, you’d probably concede her at least half-right.

Not that this obsession blinds Peterson to her own faults in this relationship. This is a searingly honest book.

Unfortunately, while passionate obsession and searing honesty add up to a powerful combination, it’s the kind of power a jackhammer has, especially when it’s been going for hour after hour. This is not a book you pass along to a friend. This is a book you hurl out the window at a yowling cat.

It’s bad enough that the focus of the book is a bitterly negative relationship that never once came close to a reconciliation. But take that story and relate it in Peterson’s hyperbolically intellectual style, and you have a combination that will drive all but the sturdiest readers away. Here, for example, is a representative Petersonian sentence:

At the same time, however, because of my father’s marked reluctance ever to apply the word insane; because of his insistence that his patients — no matter how they might appear to us — were not lunatics but ailing friends; because of his tenderness toward them and his reluctance to laugh at them, which, even as a child, I recognized as a kind of consideration he did not feel called upon to show to me; above all, because he was continually pointing out that between sanity and insanity lay the most delicate, the most shrouded, the most poignant of fulcrums, we knew better than other people that insanity was more tragic than any other tragedy that could befall.

Maybe it’s just me, but I had to reread that sentence several times before I could convince myself that the printers hadn’t dropped out a word or two at the end. Indeed, the tendency to string wandering dependent clauses together until one forgets what the subject was is only one of her stylistic pecadillos.

It’s a true shame, for both Peterson and her readers. For the bare facts of her life are not without interest. Travelling Europe in style with her first husband, she meets with and falls in love with a Polish nobleman. After much hand-wringing and scenery-chewing her family consents and they marry. They return to Poland and the near-medieval life of a rural estate. Hitler invades; Peterson’s husband is trapped along with most of the Polish Army. She and the children become refugees. They eventually make it back to America. Peterson publishes (as Virgilia Sapieha) a best-selling memoir of the experience, Polish Profile. A third marriage, to another member of the upper crust, follows. She starts reviewing books and becomes an established fixture on the East Coast literary scene, hosting a weekly show, “Books in Profile,” on WNYC radio with fellow Neglected Books Page writer Harding Lemay.

Her influence in the publishing business might have helped critics view the book in a positive light when it was first published. Reviews feature such phrases as “… a shining example of the proper use of candor ….,” “… continuously engrossing, often eloquent, and always serious …,” “… an impressive book,” and “… one of the outstanding autobiographies written by American women.” The book was nominated for the 1962 National Book Award. But even the favorable reviews are clouded with shadows of doubt: “… an almost obsessive — sometimes morbid — fascination …”; “… the unkindest comic valentine to the deceased I have run across …”; “… if it was written to exorcise her mother’s influence or achieve a posthumous reconciliation, these ends have not been accomplished.”

If only as case study material of a self-consciously literary form, A Matter of Life and Death has some value. And perhaps more diligent and empathetic readers than I will find the book worth rediscovering. My copy, however, is up for grabs for anyone who wants it. I am happy now to be working on Hermes Nye’s irreverent fictional memoir of life in 1930s Dallas, Fortune is a Woman. As Coleridge wrote of reading Fielding after Richardson, it feels like “emerging from a sick-room heated by stoves into an open lawn on a breezy day in May.”

A Matter of Life and Death, by Virgilia Peterson
New York: Atheneum, 1961

3 Responses to “A Matter of Life and Death, by Virgilia Peterson”

  1. Robt Ned Says:

    The last volume of William Shirer’s autobiography, “A Native’s Return,” has ten or so pages about Virgilia Peterson, describing his affair with her and her suicide on Xmas morning 1967.

  2. marge kasier Says:

    I just read with great fascination your critique of the the book. Since, I haven’t read it, I can’t agree or disagree but it’s interesting. My daughter turned me onto your site. Virgilia Peterson is our cousin, though we’ve never met her. She is my grandmother, Fannie Peterson’s (Frederick’s sister) niece. My dad was very proud of that but it’s kind of fun to get the other side of the story. We don’t travel in the same circles as her family did. I live in Nevada City, California and my daughter is a writer so she pays attention to these things. I loved reading your analysis – it makes perfect sense. It was sometimes difficult to be in my family, from the Peterson’s on down. I thought it was because they were all so Victorian. That’s enough to make anyone crazy.
    Marge Kaiser
    Nevada City, CA

  3. editor Says:

    Thanks for your comments. Even though I didn’t care for the book, I suspect you would find it quite interesting just as insight into your family’s past. But it is probably the bitterest book I’ve ever read, so I understand why someone might be wary of it.

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