When I first heard about this book, I had no plans to read it. I was sitting in the waiting room at Meineke while getting an oil change before leaving for Michigan to take our son back to college. I had brought along a library book and I tried to focus on what I was reading instead of listening to the talk show on TV. During the first talk show I mostly succeeded, but the interview on Oprah’s show caught my attention from time to time.
There was a woman talking about how she never wanted to be a mother. She had gone to Japan to do some research, initially encouraged to do so by her husband. During the months she spent there, apart from him and her young sons, she found herself changing, or perhaps she had never been the person she and everyone had assumed she was. She didn’t divorce her husband right away, but she sees that time apart as having been when the marriage began to unravel.
I read somewhere that she came to regret the decision, but I heard no regret in that interview a couple of weeks ago. She had married young, had never been on her own before the trip to Japan, and had never had the opportunity to choose on her own what kind of person she wanted to be. Her husband wanted children, and promised to be their primary caregiver. So she had become a mother despite her own misgivings.
I can relate to that to a certain extent. Like Rizzuto, I was sure when I was a teenager that I did not want to be a mother. Also like her, I definitely did not want to be my mother (though for very different reasons). I did not enjoy taking care of children, and I could not imagine having my own and loving them as a mother should.
Unlike Rizzuto, I married when I was 27 after being on my own for several years. I still worried about whether I would be a good mother, but I was by no means pushed into it. Whatever difficulties marriage and motherhood have entailed, I would not consider any “solution” that involved leaving my husband and children. And I had no interest in reading about how Rizzuto came to make the decision she did.
I wondered, however, what else was behind the story I had not really listened to. I read a few articles and book reviews online, and discovered one other detail about the book that I had missed before. It’s mostly about Rizzuto, her travels in Japan and her musings about memory and identity, as well as of course the interviews with Hiroshima survivors that she went there to get. But in the middle of her time there, something happened back home (her family lived in New York City) that profoundly affected not only the people back home but people in Hiroshima as well. 9/11 happened.
This being the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I decided it would be an appropriate book to read this weekend. I hadn’t been as far away geographically from New York City as Rizzuto was in Japan, but even northern Michigan seemed very remote from the bustling east coast. I remember having to keep reminding myself that what I saw on TV was real, not the same sort of fictional terrorism I had seen on a TV screen many times before. I felt slightly guilty for not feeling as emotionally affected as so many other people were.
The survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima were further away geographically and culturally, but the devastation of 9/11 did affect them emotionally. Prior to then, Rizzuto had trouble getting people to talk about their experiences, and when they did it seemed scripted and sterile, information she could as easily have read in a book. After 9/11, they were increasingly willing to talk to her, and their accounts opened the window on their past that she had been looking for.
9/11 was only a small part of the book, however. Even the survivors’ accounts, a number of which are included (some of which are very graphic), account for far fewer pages than Rizzuto’s descriptions of her own actions, thoughts, and feelings. She spends a fair amount of time on the subject of motherhood, often writing about her relationship with her own mother, as well as with her children. She reflects on the nature of memory, and how it is shaped by our interpretation of events.
She writes about choices, and how the choices we make shape our lives, often in ways we did not expect. Other times she writes about how life just happens to us, sometimes in ways that seem very unfair. She writes about how our identities are not static, but our choices, our experiences, and how we interpret them. She is not analytical about any of this, however. I don’t know if she is more interested in raising questions than answering them, or if she thinks she has said all that needs to be said on the subject.
I found the book interesting in part because of certain similarities between Rizzuto and myself. Besides the one I mentioned about, about motherhood, I also was on my own for the first time when I spent six months in another country. I had less trouble with the language barrier, as I could speak Spanish fairly well by the time I got to Spain, and the cultural differences are not as great. But the experience certainly gave me a big boost in my self-confidence about doing things on my own.
I also can identify with her having to learn not to always give in to what someone else wanted. She tells how, before she went to Japan, it was rare for her to stand up for herself in an argument with her husband. “It wasn’t that I was forced; I accommodated the most peaceful solution.” My mother always complained that my father wanted “peace at any price,” and I tended to be that way also. Over the years, I learned that there are some things I have to insist I will do, or that I won’t do. But even now, it is difficult for me.
I’m not sure what, on the whole, I can say I got out of reading this book. I learned a little about Hiroshima, and about Japan and its people and culture. I saw what it was like to be a particular person in a particular set of circumstances. And I suppose it’s always a good thing to try to see life from another person’s perspective, even if – sometimes especially if – I disagree with the choices that person has made.