Where You End and I Begin by Leah McLaren review – a white-knuckle study of imperfect love | Autobiography and memoirs

AAuthor and journalist Leah McLaren was a precocious 13-year-old when she collapsed at her mother’s kitchen table one night in Toronto, describing a harrowing sexual experience at a pool party. Her mother, Cessie, made her a cup of herbal tea, added a sip of whiskey and countered it with a story of her own. At just 12, Cessie was raped by her riding instructor. The Rider, she called him. After setting her up for an attack, he convinced her that she was in love with him and continued his abuse until she was 15 years old.

As McLaren listened, his first reaction was relief – perhaps her own story wasn’t so significant after all. Her mother, on the other hand, would haunt her. It seemed key to Cessie’s doomed marriage to McLaren’s small-town father at age 21 and her escape a dozen years later to pursue urban sophistication and a career in newspapers. It explained a tormented romance in which Cessie lurched from one emotional crisis to the next during McLaren’s adolescence. It’s even been responsible for a parenting style that, while superficially resembling the kind of mother-daughter bonding pop culture extolls of the likes of Gilmore GirlsShe was so free of boundaries that McLaren was unable to separate her mother’s feelings and problems from her own.

“The Rider was both the clue and the final revelation. He was the keystone in the arch, the signature at the bottom of every page. As Homer Simpson once remarked about beer, the rider was the cause and solution to all of life’s problems,” explains McLaren. It could only be a matter of time before someone from this family of writers (the author’s mother and uncle are both journalists and writers) publishes a book about it.

Where you end and I beginn is indeed not this book. Instead, it’s something more amorphous, more revealing. It began as a collaboration between the author and her mother, but after Cessie retired, it was not a journalistic investigation into the Horseman and his crimes (there were other child victims) and became an intimate journey into the deepest, darkest hearts of both mother and daughter who also reflects on consent, victim narratives, and story ownership. The result is a work of inquiring insight and unabashed compassion; one that is fearlessly captivating, often funny, and at times downright outlandish.

An account of McLaren’s efforts to enlist her mother’s blessing on the book during a girls’ weekend in New York frames a narrative composed of chronologically arranged vignettes that capture illuminating moments from McLaren’s childhood and early adulthood. More roommate than parent, Cessie gave her the freedom to cruise through school, munch on magic mushrooms, stay out all night without calling home, and endure a voyeur’s gaze in the alley outside her apartment—until she woke up to find he was trying to climb through her bedroom window.

Leah McLaren, January 2022: “A work of scrutinizing insight and unabashed compassion.” Photo: Demelza Lightfoot

Crude humor meets Jungian psychology as the book moves between a variety of vibrant settings including Vogrie, a run-down farmhouse that her mother looks after for a while. Crammed with treasures such as beaded flapper dresses and original Chagall sketches, it is “a glittering self-contained universe, a cobwebbed palace of infinite inner escapes”.

When it comes to her mother, McLaren’s gaze is acutely sharpened. Today she is “a medium-sized sedan of a woman,” but in her younger years she was “a slim, freckled, tanned, high-achiever blonde with gorgeous blue eyes” who captivated her daughter with her wit and temper. We’re “poor in spirit,” she insisted, pasting words she chose for a family motto on the fridge door: DEDICATION SUCKS THE LIFE OUT OF YOU.

Yet Cessie craved male devotion, and as McLaren grew up she found herself in an unsought role, adding a rival to a list that already included confidante, best friend and sister of honor. “The only thing I’ve ever really wanted is to be recognized by her for who I am and always will be: her daughter,” she admits.

Becoming a parent herself changed things, and while it strengthened McLaren’s resolve to act differently, it also allowed her to empathize with some of Cessie’s maternal ambivalence. By the end of this sweaty book, the author is finally able to separate her own teenage misadventures from her mother’s trauma.

However, this memoir requires a coda. How will this affect McLaren’s relationship with the woman who gave birth to her? Still, it’s hard not to bond with both sides in this untamed, longing-filled tale of imperfect mother-daughter love.

Where you end and I begin by Leah McLaren is published by John Murray Press (£16.99). In support of Guardian and observer Order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply

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