Three years ago, magazine writer Katie Hafner's family was in turmoil. Her mother was 77 and at loose ends, cast adrift by her husband's incipient dementia (he had moved back in with his family of origin).
Her daughter, Zoe, was an impressionable 16 and still reeling from the 2009 death of her father (Hafner's husband, Matt).
And as a 51-year-old widow, Hafner herself was eager to resolve some long-standing conflicts with her mother: abandonment and estrangement, for starters. Wouldn't housing everyone under the same roof let her tie up these issues?
"I had this dreamy, gauzy view of how things could be," says Hafner. "My mother and I could live together in this wonderful place," a "painted-lady" Victorian rowhouse they combined their funds to purchase in San Francisco.
This noble experiment in intergenerational living, Hafner makes clear in her stunningly honest new memoir, Mother Daughter Me, turned out to be a mission impossible.
Hafner does an enlightening postmortem on her own wishful thinking: "I'd never written anything this personal before," she recalls, "so the book pushed me far beyond my comfort zone. Still, I wanted to be true to the reporting - so much so that I recorded some of our therapy sessions! (I stopped the instant our therapist remarked, 'It feels like there are four of us in the room.')"
If their reconstituted house felt crowded, it may have had to do with Hafner's bulging emotional baggage. That included the memory of her mother's alcoholic binges, the worst of which prompted Hafner's grandfather to remove 10-year-old Katie and her 12-year-old sister, Sarah, from the household: He sent them east to live with their father, alerting him only with a curt telephone message: "The girls are on the bus."
"Most of us never make the emotional and psychological preparations needed for an experiment like this to succeed," notes Hafner. So if you're thinking of taking a similar leap, look first: "Go to a counselor," the author advises. "Sit down with a third party before you do anything! This takes energy and goodwill, but it can keep viruses from erupting."
After six months or so of abortive détente, Hafner and her mother agreed it would be better if they parted ways again. How's that working out? The author sighs. "I think it has been very hard for my mother to grapple with some of the things I've written. When she first found out I planned to write about the experience, she was reassuring: 'Write whatever you want. I won't even read it.' But the truth is that she prefers the unexamined life. This could be generational."
Hafner may not have worked out the issues she wanted to in her own private Biosphere 2, but she has produced an ultimately very loving account of the episode - one in which, ironically, she works out a great deal indeed.