Danc­ing at the Pity Party

  • Review
By – February 3, 2021

Tyler Feder’s Danc­ing at the Pity Par­ty, sub­ti­tled A Dead Mom Graph­ic Mem­oir, is not meant to offer con­so­la­tion or a philo­soph­i­cal accep­tance of grief’s inevitabil­i­ty. Rage, irony, depres­sion, pan­ic, and undy­ing love of a child for a par­ent alter­nate in this unfor­get­table record of account of a young woman’s loss of her moth­er to can­cer. Fed­er warns her read­ers that, while trite expres­sions of com­fort or eva­sive euphemisms may seem ade­quate, the truth is that oscil­lat­ing between euphemisms and tor­ture porn does not a healthy rela­tion­ship with mor­tal­i­ty make.”

Visu­al images are per­fect­ly paired with text in this almost unbear­ably hon­est work. Draw­ing on a range of allu­sions, the author depicts her iso­la­tion as a bereaved nine­teen-year-old, an ice­berg out to sea,” as she tries to nav­i­gate the over­whelm­ing expe­ri­ence of her mother’s recent death. Whether pre­sent­ing a list of use­less self-help books (“Late Stage Can­cer 4 Dum­mies”), or cap­tur­ing her late mother’s phys­i­cal self in poignant details, (“She usu­al­ly smelled like one of the mil­lions of hand creams she applied reli­gious­ly, almond or apri­cot or cocoa but­ter”), Fed­er rejects sym­bol­ism in favor of con­crete details. She remem­bers the for­ma­tive years when her mother’s uncon­di­tion­al love and no-non­sense dis­missal of crap” fos­tered the author’s con­fi­dence. But she also acknowl­edges the pit­falls of nos­tal­gia: even mem­o­ries of mater­nal traits that seemed prob­lem­at­ic at the time have become, in ret­ro­spect, a one-way train to METAPHOR CITY.” Fed­er both faith­ful­ly evokes her moth­er as a real per­son, and con­structs a sto­ry of sor­row and recov­ery that will res­onate with all read­ers. Feder’s mom is both the real and irre­place­able Rhon­da Hoff­man Fed­er, and every ver­sion of female strength from Mary Pop­pins to Princess Diana.

When Rhon­da is diag­nosed with advanced-stage can­cer, every norm of fam­i­ly life is shat­tered; Fed­er explores each inad­e­quate response to unmit­i­gat­ed dis­as­ter. She repeats the engulf­ing name of the dis­ease over and over, weeps to the point of exhaus­tion, and tries to com­part­men­tal­ize her feel­ings. A fil­ing cab­i­net with draw­ers metic­u­lous­ly labeled ter­ror,” fake smiles,” and cyn­i­cism” indi­cates the use­less­ness of this last attempt at con­trol­ling an over­whelm­ing real­i­ty. Descrip­tions of her mother’s phys­i­cal decline force read­ers to con­front this part of death with­out look­ing away. Fed­er is clear­ly not try­ing to shock read­ers, but to immerse them in her own jour­ney of loss as well as her grad­ual return to life as a changed per­son. She even offers an alter­na­tive to Elis­a­beth Kubler-Ross’s tidy orga­ni­za­tion of grief’s stages, sub­sti­tut­ing her own image of wind­ing arrows on a back­ground of pas­tel clouds: emo­tion­al eat­ing, insom­nia, inap­pro­pri­ate jokes, want­i­ng to be alone.”

Fed­er also address­es the Jew­ish approach to mourn­ing, includ­ing both the sin­cere com­fort and the ulti­mate inad­e­qua­cy of each cus­tom. The sym­bol­i­cal­ly torn kri­ah rib­bon that mourn­ers wear, the first recita­tion of the kad­dish prayer, and the over­whelm­ing amounts of both food and peo­ple dur­ing the shi­va peri­od (“the death cir­cus”) make this aspect of her expe­ri­ence far from gener­ic, although she pro­vides expla­na­tions that add con­text for both Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish read­ers. Her life grad­u­al­ly returns, not to what it had been before, but to a new nor­mal,” one where pain is con­stant, but empa­thy, per­spec­tive, and the pres­ence of mem­o­ries enable her to con­front the present and future. When she tries to pic­ture what her moth­er may have looked like had she not died so young, Fed­er is both hold­ing on to Rhon­da and cre­at­ing some­one new, some­one much like her strong and faith­ful daugh­ter: same thick dark hair…same obses­sive need to con­stant­ly rearrange the furniture…same per­fec­tion­ism.” Read­ing her mem­oir is exhaust­ing and deeply ful­fill­ing at the same time, because Ten years lat­er, I’m still here, try­ing to turn the crap into some­thing sweet, just like she would.”

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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