After is a profound and moving portrait of a difficult mother-daughter relationship by novelist and columnist Nikki Gemmell. It’s also a searing, heartfelt examination of how we treat the elderly in our society and the urgent issue of euthanasia.
As Gemmell said in a recent podcast interview with Better Reading, this memoir is also a detective story. And as with many a good mystery, the book begins with a mysterious death and in a harrowing scene: Gemmell and her brother identifying their mother’s body.
What follows is Gemmell’s own brutal investigation into her difficult relationship with her mother. Glamorous and beautiful Elayn, a former model, who in true 70s style changed her name from the traditional spelling, could be terribly cruel to her daughter, even telling the teenage Nikki how ugly she was and dismissing the older Nikki’s writing. Throughout their relationship, Gemmell often feels she is not the pretty, slim and sophisticated daughter her mother would have liked; instead she feels awkward and bookish. Yet, in a poignant scene after her mother’s death, she finds a bundle of articles on her writing that Elayn had lovingly saved.
What is just as compelling as the mother-daughter relationship, is the story of Gemmell’s discovery that her mother’s death had been euthanasia and her anguished journey from shock and anger: How could her mother have left without saying goodbye? Why didn’t she stay to be part of her grandchildren’s lives? How could Gemmell have missed the warning signs?
Gemmell was even briefly a suspect in her mother’s death, and that’s why so many who choose euthanasia don’t involve their families – to protect them from suspicion. This often means their deaths are lonely and isolated, as was Elayn’s, with no note and no explanation. However in countries where assisted dying is legal, the dying can be surrounded by their families and have the chance to say goodbye. In the newspaper columns she wrote for The Australian after her mother’s death, Gemmell received thousands of impassioned letters on the subject, many supportive, others not. She recounts her evolving friendship with an Australian woman who has the resources to plan her own assisted death and who will travel to Switzerland when the time comes.
In her distinctive, powerful, rhythmic prose, Gemmell probes the ways we perceive the elderly in our society. We often forget that in every old person there exists the young person they were, still are. The old are so often invisible and for those who once traded on their beauty, like Elayn, this feels even more like a cruel indignity. It’s only after her mother’s death that Gemmell learns more about the person her mother was, outside of being her mother.
The indignity of age reached a low point for Elayn after she underwent minor foot surgery – the surgeon left her hobbled, with severe and ongoing chronic pain. ‘The surgeon had broken her,’ Gemmell says. The mother becomes the child and Elayn enters the murky world of pain management, opiate addiction and doctor shopping. But Gemmell, returned from living overseas, with four young children and a hectic life as a novelist and journalist, is not fully aware of the problem until after her mother’s death and for this she feels racked by guilt.
Prior to her shock, Gemmell had thought her mother’s death would be a release. Not so. ‘I told my girlfriends I’d be freed, finally, like a diver bulleting from the depths of pressured darkness into light,’ she says. ‘How wrong I was, how wrong. I did not expect my life to be hell without my mother in it.’
Throughout the memoir Gemmell refers to her beautiful ceramic pots that shatter one night and these become a metaphor for imperfection; the imperfection of her beautiful mother, and her own imperfection – and ultimately her wise acceptance. After gets to the heart of the harsh reality that, while we seek perfection in fairy tale parents, they’re human after all. We can only learn from their mistakes, especially in our relationships with our children.
Beautiful, shocking and wise, After is a must-read memoir.
Nikki Gemmell is the best-selling author of thirteen novels, including the international bestseller, The Bride Stripped Bare, and four works of non-fiction. Her books have been translated into 22 languages. She writes books for children under the name of N.J.Gemmell.
Check out the Better Reading Podcast with Nikki Gemmell, purchase a copy of After here, or if you feel in need of help and guidance follow this link to Lifeline.