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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, June 20th, 2004


You Don't Really Know Me: Why Mothers and Daughters Fight, and How Both Can Win

by Terri Apter

Forever embedded

A review by Katherine Duncan-Jones

Female adolescence, as a discrete phase of development, first received detailed attention in the era of blue jeans and jiving. We can measure some of the distance between the generally biddable, always firmly suppressed girls of the Early Modern period and the fully-fledged teenagers of the 1950s by looking at the radical adaptations made to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents in the musical West Side Story (1956). While the chief aim of Robbins and his collaborators was to transplant Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers from medieval Verona to urban America, exposing the horrors of racial prejudice and gang warfare, they incidentally documented the vigorous emergence of the teenager. Maria, like Juliet, is a good Catholic girl. But unlike Juliet, she doesn't need her mother's permission to "go to shrift". Instead, she and her girlfriends can enjoy the dangerous freedom of New York's streets, shops and dance halls. Her parents are reduced to powerless offstage voices.

In Shakespeare's play the older generation is fully delineated. But the only questions they ask about Juliet relate to her marriage. Is she, at not quite fourteen, far enough advanced into puberty to be ready for sex and child bearing? Lady Capulet thinks so, having herself given birth to Juliet "much upon these years". The Nurse, who had suckled and then weaned the little girl while her parents were away at Mantua, has a firmer grasp of Juliet's exact date of birth than has her cold-seeming mother. It is she who enjoys a quasi-maternal, often tempestuous, relationship with the thirteen-year-old. Yet the Nurse is just as eager as Lady Capulet is to see her married as soon as possible, and despite her collusion with Juliet in her clandestine marriage to Romeo, doesn't much care to whom, provided he is a lusty young gentleman. After Romeo's banishment, the Nurse urges Juliet to acquiesce in speedy marriage to the "lovely gentleman" Paris. Juliet suddenly finds herself with no friend in the world except the Friar, whose motives she suspects. With his encouragement, she learns for the first time in her life to tell lies, and to assume a posture of social compliance that is false. Nerving herself to drink the Friar's potion, she briefly considers summoning back her mother and Nurse to "comfort" her. Like many of the girls described in Terri Apter's book You Don't Really Know Me, Juliet, for all her apparent independence, still needs adult reassurance. But she quickly remembers that this is impossible: "My dismal scene I needs must act alone". In the space of less than two weeks Juliet has been propelled from first love to marriage and sexual experience; then to the skilful practice of verbal and social feigning so often required in the adult world; and finally to suicide, deploying the "bloody knife" with which she has equipped herself.

Some of the fifty-nine teenage daughters studied by Apter have also become efficient liars, and at least one has also practised self-harm, "cutting and burning herself" well out of sight of her mother. Many of the older girls — the age range considered is fourteen to eighteen — are sexually active, though none has yet married. But the culture documented in this freshly written and accessible book differs hugely not just from that of Early Modern Europe but also from that of urban America in the 1950s. A major difference — indeed, the assumption that underpins the whole study — is that both mothers and daughters can look forward confidently to further time together within which therapeutic "repair work" can be undertaken. Neither mothers nor daughters expect to die any time soon, nor do they inhabit seriously violent worlds. Traffic accidents, not street battles, are what many of the mothers worry about. Steph's mother, for instance, does not want her daughter to be driven to a New Year's Eve party on a snowy night by a sixteen-year-old boy. Even when assured that the boy is now seventeen, she protests: "'Steph, I wouldn't want to drive in this weather. I wouldn't trust anyone who was willing to drive in this weather'". Another difference, this being a contemporary self-help manual rather than a literary artefact, is that teenage culture is problematized, not celebrated. While both Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story showcase the dazzling energy and heart-piercing emotional intensity of their young characters, Apter, despite protestations to the contrary, looks from the more intimate but much less enthusiastic viewpoint of the mother. Vera's mother doesn't like her daughter's best friend, who keeps her up late on a school night. She even gets nervous when Vera starts to eat a peach, in case she damages her crowned front teeth.

All of the mother-daughter relationships studied by Apter are beset by such bitter conflicts. Yet it is suggested that through the mother's wise agency many of these can be tempered or redirected, and that eventually, as the book's subtitle promises, "fights" can be turned to mutual gain. The mother needs not only to listen to her daughter, but to come clean about her own weaknesses and past failures. Both must learn, says Apter, "how to love and disagree; how to speak out without fear of damaging a relationship; how to insist that someone who loves you should really know you". But teenagers may not learn these things while they are teenagers. Only as mature women will they learn not to feel threatened by their lifelong connection with their mothers, and perhaps come to feel that, as an older woman is quoted as saying, "some part of her is forever imbedded", and that "we are not the worse for it". Daughters' insights are arrived at chiefly through the passage of time.

Most of the book's twelve chapters are rounded off with a clutch of bullet pointed suggestions for ways forward. It is here that Apter's focus on mothers becomes most noticeable, for it is the mother, not the daughter, who is advised to undertake "repair work". A daughter is quoted on the dust jacket — "I think all teenage daughters should read this book!". But her last quoted comment, "I wish I'd read it then!", is a giveaway. Like so many of us, she is an ex-teenager. The suggestions at the end of Chapter Six, "Power Struggle: The choreography of status", are clearly addressed to mothers: "For the mother, the question is, who runs this home anyway?". Given the chapter's explicit focus on "status", this is troubling, for no scope seems to be allowed for the daughter either to undertake her own "repair work" or to renegotiate status: "reward your daughter when she gives way to your claim for status. She may do this by offering to help, or following an instruction, or being nice to her little brother, or writing a thank-you letter you've been bugging her about".

Conflicts over status are not to be resolved by acknowledging, still less enhancing, the status of the daughter, but by persuading her to perform symbolic acts of submission to her mother. I find the quoted suggestions, like others in the book, uncompelling, for a fully inflamed adolescent daughter could well view a mother who attempts to act on them as at best patronizing and at worst intolerably controlling. Even though Apter transcribes many tense mother daughter dialogues with compelling candour, I feel that she underestimates the intensity of much adolescent resentment and mistrust. For daughters such as those described in Chapter Four, to whom the very presence of their mother has become "hateful", most of all when she is attempting to show kindly interest, the calmly reasonable strategies Apter recommends will be impracticable.

Terri Apter's sample appears to be wide-ranging. However, the question of the sample's socioeconomic status is not raised, the "class tag" being sidelined as too difficult to identify consistently. The impression given by the dialogues is that the majority of the subjects studied were prosperous and well-educated. A college education, not a teenage marriage, is the goal towards which most of these girls are being urged. And despite a wide array of "ethnicities", there are no suggestions that ethnic or religious difficulties could play a part in any of the conflicts chronicled.

Part of the American Dream of today appears to be that all family relationship problems, regardless of ethnic or economic status and other social complexities, can either be resolved or construed positively. As an old-fashioned English mother and grandmother of girls, I much enjoyed reading You Don't Really Know Me. But I remain sceptical about the efficacy of wall-to-wall self-administered therapy.

Katherine Duncan-Jones is preparing a book on Shakespeare's Life and World for the Folio Society. She is the author of Ungentle Shakespeare, 2001, and Sir Philip Sydney: Courtier Poet, 1991.

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