When Phil Jourdan’s mother died suddenly in 2009, she left behind a legacy of kindness and charity — but she also left unanswered some troubling questions. Was she, as she once claimed, a spy? Had she suffered more profoundly as a woman and parent than she’d let on? Jourdan’s recollections of his struggles with psychosis, and his reconstructions of conversations with his enigmatic mother, form the core of this memoir. Psychoanalysis, poetry and confession all merge to tell the story of an ordinary woman whose death turned her into a symbol for extraordinary motherhood.
If the cover of Phil Jourdan’s attention-captivating book, Praise of Motherhood, seems overly utilitarian, perhaps it can he seen as camouflage to protect the vulnerability contained inside.
The title is enigmatic, as the use of unmodified “Motherhood” suggests an ode to an institution rather than an individual. In fact, the book is uninterested in the life of any mother except for the one who raised the author, nor is there anything left to be desired after Jourdan’s singular focus on his own beloved, suddenly departed mother, Sophia.
The overly broad title and flat-colored cover are suitable if the intention is to camouflage the intensity of emotion waiting to grab hold of the reader between its epigraph and end pages, because a bit of subtlety and mystery are in order in an endeavor to bring a person back from behind enemy lines. Make no mistake: this book is a rescue mission, but the enemy is not so simple to name.
Here are some things you should know about the author’s family life before I continue: Jourdan’s parents divorced when he was very young. He and his sister, Mathilde, were raised by their mother in Lisbon along with a large number of pets and a succession of semi-competent (at best) household staff. Their mother purportedly did not need to work for a living, as her father provided financially for her young family, but she taught computer programming at a university. Jourdan was a difficult child and suffered crippling bouts of depression in his teen years which gave way to psychosis. In his late adolescence, his mother disclosed to him that she had spied on Russian diplomats for British intelligence while her son was having the worst of his mental illness, but she did not accept payment for her espionage. At the same time, she continued to take excellent care of her son in his crippling depression and psychosis. Jourdan was educated primarily at English-speaking schools and was highly ambivalent about speaking Portuguese.
When Sophia dies unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage, Jourdan is called back to Portugal to join his family for her funeral, when it’s too late to save her life. As his non-linear, fluid-perspective account of his relationship with his mother goes on, it becomes increasingly the case that we are to know how lucky he was to be Sophia’s son. While he cannot reverse her death, the book rescues Sophia in another way: it revives her identity. It takes the person that Sophia was–that endlessly generous, understanding, intelligent, patient, caring, talented, curious woman–and brings her back from the depths of selflessness to which she had sacrificed herself. It brings her life to our attention and demands that we understand, acknowledge and remember the remarkable person she was. This book is her immortality, but it does more than maintain what she had in life. It gives her more respect and attention than she ever requested or enjoyed during the short time that she lived.
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About the book: Praise of Motherhood is a son’s tribute to the woman who not only gave him life, but helped him live: through various psychotic breakdowns, tumultuous teenage years, and years of feeling out of place in the world. Get it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
About the author: Phil Jourdan fronts the lit-rock band Paris and the Hiltons, runs the fiction press Perfect Edge Books, and occasionally works on a PhD. Visit Phil on his blog, music site, Twitter, Facebook, or GoodReads.