a mother’s right to safety | 2019.10.12

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff | Review

Wolff, Tobias_This Boy's Life

Original Publication: New York : Grove Press, [1989]

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 288

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook

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Searching online for what others have to say about this book, I found the National Endowment for the Arts’ proclamation that “Wolff may have invented the contemporary memoir.” The intersection of family and societal expectations which permeates Wolff’s retelling of his early childhood experiences has certainly become a very popular topic in the recent rush of the memoir craze.

Wolff spends a tremendous amount of time in this book recounting his memories of the very adult responsibilities that were repeatedly laid at his preteen feet. These responsibilities centered around his being tasked as the only male of his family to make decisions that had crushing ramifications for those he loved, primarily his mother, while he was not yet old enough to truly comprehend the existence of such consequences.

This might sound harsh, but from my reading of this book, most of the weight of these responsibilities seemed to come from Wolff’s mother and her inability to recognize her own need for safety in the shadow of her maternal longing to live up to society’s definition of what a proper life for herself and her young son should look like.

Specifically, Wolff uses his memoir to describe scene after scene where his mother asked him to choose what life situations might best save their twosome family from starvation and homelessness. More often than not, however, the decisions Wolff thought he was supposed to be making put his mother, not to mention himself, in harms way. These decisions sent them both crashing straight into the paths of manipulative, single-minded men whom Wolff’s mother felt forced to associated with. Later, she would join herself in marriage to an abusive and alcoholic husband after abdicating the decision of her matrimony to the young Wolff. At such a tender age, Wolff could only guess that a man with a job and a house would give himself and his mother the security of happiness and prosperity.

But, was the tendency of Wolff’s mother to give this type of decision-making responsibility to a small child truly a failing of her character? I hesitate to make such an accusatory conclusion. The social pressures put on women in the 1950s made for extremely constrictive options. Women often had to make decisions that ultimately silenced and endangered their personal wellbeing for the sake of meeting society’s then ridiculously narrow view of propriety.

Modern feminists might shudder at how Wolff’s mother constantly denied her own safety, and at times that of her son, so that she could secure father figures and male incomes to care for her tiny family. Highlighting the incongruities of the past, however, is one of the ultimate powers of memoir. Even though the truth of the past is more complex than our current attitudes might want to concede, Wolff makes a valuable point in his book about the importance of a woman’s right and need to speak up. He does this by showcasing the paradox of how the options available to women at the time of his youth were slim at best.

Here is a memoir all about the dangers of trying to fulfill culturally-mandated duties within a society that refuses room for independence or true safety. Here lies a story filled with the heartache and sacrifices that maternal longing can push to the forefront, often at the risk of a mother’s safety. The relatability of Wolff’s story and the story of his mother broke my heart in the end, as it reminded me that many aspects of our present-day society still have such a long way to go in remedying this type of systemic disease.