Chaos, Privilege, and a Childhood on the Upper East Side

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Photo: Marion Ettlinger

Ariel Leve, an award-winning U.K. journalist, grew up with her larger-than-life feminist poet mother and a series of nannies in a penthouse apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Her father, a lawyer, lived in South East Asia; Leve saw him about once a year for summer vacations. While her house was decorated with original signed art (think Lichtenstein) and often populated with the city’s writers and intellectuals (she describes Andy Warhol as a “spooky figure with white hair and a black turtleneck”), her mother’s less-than-conventional approach to parenting fueled a childhood that was dramatic and often unstable. Leve has written about that period in her new memoir, An Abbreviated Life, which came out earlier this month.

People could hear snippets of your childhood and be very jealous: annual trips abroad; a mom who stars in feminist art films, appears in poetry collections alongside Sylvia Plath, and who throws parties with guests like Andy Warhol or Saul Bellow; college-admissions letters from famous authors; lots of toys and new clothes. But given the unpredictable nature of your mother’s moods, you really dismantle the idea that having money means that you’re loved, or that someone will recognize you are being abused, or that you have the resources to quickly overcome your childhood trauma. Was that assumption something you wanted to correct?

Yes. Many people have the trappings of a privileged life, but the absence of consistency and the absence of stability are not something that can be compensated for with material objects. Abuse can happen in any household. I would have traded a lot of the privilege I had just to feel safe. If you’re a child in constant self-preservation mode, it really doesn’t matter if you’re living in a penthouse on the Upper East Side.

The book opens with a scene from when you were six and your nanny died while sitting next to you — on a plane — as you were returning from visiting your father in Bangkok. You are suspended in air and the only stable force in your life vanishes. That must have had a huge impact.

I stopped talking for six months, so it obviously had a very dramatic effect. I think the loss of my nanny was especially powerful because she was the only stabilizing force in my life. She was that calm in the storm, and then she was gone. Once she was gone, a series of other caretakers took her place. I’m sure that made me feel very unsafe on a level I didn’t understand.

You did have stable figures in your life — including your father who wrote you a letter everyday, and his once-girlfriend, Rita Waterman, a pioneer at Ms. Magazine, who you had a loving bond with. For years she sent your father dispatches about the way your mother was treating you, and then she gave these to you as an adult. That’s quite a gift.

What she did was extraordinary. She had these dispatches about what was going on in my life and she kept carbon copies of them. It was as if she handed me my childhood. And to read about what I went through from the point of view of this adult was a relief in some ways because I finally had a source that validated my feelings. But then, at the same time, it was also painful and sad to think about me as this vulnerable little girl. So I was detached, but then there would be these moments when I would get struck by their power. Rita’s letters confirmed quite a lot of my memories. My childhood trauma wasn’t a major explosion: It was a series of things that were very disturbing. I was left alone and exposed to chaos, disorder, and violence. The letters made me believe that my mother’s behavior was inappropriate. It was abnormal; I wasn’t imagining it.

Is there a sense in which you are critiquing feminism in the book at all, given that your mom was a feminist poet raising a daughter alone?

Not at all! I really wasn’t thinking of my mother as a feminist figure. I was writing about her as a mother — my mother. I never had anything but admiration for my mother’s outrageousness and eccentricities as a poet and as a writer. I’ve always felt proud of her and her accomplishments. But her need for affirmation and admiration were paramount. There is a scene in the book where I write about standing in the Strand and reading a poem she wrote about me. It was powerful because she could express her love so fully on the page, and I knew that she felt it, but she couldn’t show it in a way that allowed me to feel safe. So there was a disconnect. However, I never accepted that being an artist was an excuse for her behavior. There’s a line I use in the book “in the absence of consistency, admiration unravels.” As a child I didn’t care that my mother was a great feminist; what I cared about and what I wanted was someone who would take care of me in the ways I needed.

And your mother had suffered, too. She’d been abandoned when she was younger (her parents sent her to boarding school when she was seven), and it seems like she had a pathological fear of being alone.

That’s correct — she was plagued by her own troubled childhood, and it impacted her psyche. She never held back. But I can’t diagnose her. The figure I wrote about in the book is what I experienced. She always spoke about her mental health in dramatic ways, like claiming she was constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown or suicidal — which was very, very scary for me as a child, because I was made to feel responsible for her well-being.

Perhaps the most vivid example of your mom’s eccentricities as a parent was a game she designed for you called “giving birth,” where she lay naked in the bed, you crawled up between her legs, and she pretended to deliver you, saying she was “recreating the best day of her life.” In retrospect, what was going on?

I didn’t even recognize until I was an adult that that was inappropriate behavior. My mother needed me to spend time with her, and there was no awareness of improper behavior. Once I had a classmate over who my mother let join in because she didn’t see anything shameful or secretive about what was going on. Of course, after that, the classmate was never allowed to come over again. I was very young, six or seven, and I didn’t understand why. For me, it was a gift to have my mother’s attention. It was all a game. So when you grow up without boundaries, you don’t really understand what they are until you experience them as an adult. Now as an adult, I’m very vigilant about boundaries. It’s taken a long time. And I’m still learning.

Did you talk to your mother about the book to get her take on your memories?

No.

Were you fearful of her while you were writing?

I started the book a long time ago as a work of fiction. At that point, I wasn’t ready to address, let alone speak out loud, about my childhood. I was scared. But this book has been in me my whole life: I needed to make sense of the chaos. The main thing was a feeling that I didn’t want to keep any more secrets, so it was very freeing. This was a book that I felt I had to write. I wrote once I wasn’t scared of her anymore.

You avoid disclosing much about your life between childhood and the healing you did in your 40s. But you had a very successful career as a journalist in the U.K. What else was going on in those middle years?

It took me a very long time to recover from my childhood. I was able to function, but the vibrations and aftershocks were always beneath the surface. To cope as a child, I had to be on guard at all times. And that was something that really did carry over into my adult life, specifically in my twenties. In my thirties, intimacy was not to be trusted; hope would be met with disappointment. I wore a suit of armor to survive my childhood, and my adulthood was all about learning to take it off. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I really started to feel that I could have a full balanced life with love and a family.

Your mom, in one of the films she appeared in, quotes Flo Kennedy saying, “It isn’t children that imprison you; it’s motherhood.”

It was just something she felt at the time. I didn’t take it in because I was very young, and I didn’t really understand it at all. I included it in the book because it’s a contradiction. You can’t have one without the other.

In the book you say, “I never wanted to be a mother,” that your adult life was about recuperating, and you never “thought of loving a baby.” Then you became sort of a stepmother to your boyfriend Mario’s twin daughters.  You were able to reset your instinctual behavior and provide them with love and stability, while checking your own anxieties. Your mother made you aware of all her fears — it must have been hard to change your mindset.

It was something I really had to pay attention to. I wasn’t even aware that I was transmitting my anxiety to the girls until Mario pointed it out. I do think it’s very difficult for anxious people to avoid transmitting their anxiety to their kids. I work very hard to not let that corrode the girls. I think it’s very important not to let children feel your feelings. They don’t need to feel what you’re feeling. And children should never feel responsible for the well-being of their parents.

Has your mom read the book?

I’m not in contact with her at the moment, and her response to the book has been … varied. When I was a child, I kept hoping that she would hear me, and I think that one of the reasons that I did write this book was because I wanted to express myself. Now whether she hears it or not is less important.