Refrigerator Mothers


I met our cover artist, Israeli photographer Elinor Carucci, about fifteen years ago. I’d been assigned to interview her about her debut series, Closer, by the then new arty high-concept online sex magazine, Elinor’s pictures weren’t sexy—exactly. There was a lot of nudity in them—Elinor, her husband, her father, mother, and brother in various states of undress. (And she does have a very beautiful family.) But her pictures were about intimacy, not sex, and they were really almost hard to look at. Her work practically decimated the “acceptable,” even artistic, boundaries of voyeurism. Hard to look at, hard to look away from, and unlike so much art photography, almost impossible to project meaning onto. There was no room for subjective interpretation, for empathy, for imagining oneself into the scene. Elinor’s landscape was honest and completely hermetic.

Our conversation that day was more about secular Judaism and Israeli politics than about sex—much to my editor’s disappointment (I was sternly instructed to repeat the interview and focus more on full-frontal male nudity than yeshiva). But we did end up speaking at great length about the terms of her project. She was trying, she explained, to get past the mask that everyone puts on when the camera is pointing at them, the involuntary pose, the hardened smile, the self-conscious eyebrow. Her project focused on her family mostly because she had extensive access to them, and her creative strategy was to spend months and months photographing them constantly, to arrive at the point where they didn’t notice her or her camera anymore. In its explication, her technique sounds like a very clever art project. In practice, however, there was no doubt that she’d taken photography past portraiture to some ultra-essential naturalness directly into the intimacy of a family’s life.

So, what does Elinor’s lovely portrait have to do with Refrigerator Mothers, the outmoded psychological theory from the 1950s that emotionally frigid mothers caused autism, schizophrenia, and related spectrum disorders in children? The answer to that question lies in the extraordinary complexity of mothers, mothering, being mothered, not being mothered—the trails mothers leave on the psyche. It is intimate material, yet subject to so much protective gray matter, to involuntary muscles, and defensive postures that we don’t even dare dismantle.

The picture on our cover, “Mother Is Worried,” from a later series entitled Comfort, is more open, more suggestive than Carucci’s earlier work. It is as if the intimacy has become generous; we are allowed to come very close, but also to bring in our own stories. Likewise, our theme came out of my own fascination with my mother—what about me can I blame on her; what about her memory can I worship. And I think that the very seriously considered mid-century theory that mothers can damage neural pathways (or protect them) is simple, irrefutable cultural evidence that from Sophocles to Bruno Bettelheim, we’re all fascinated. We’re all able in some way to intimately recognize and viscerally respond to the phrase “mother is worried.”

Obviously our issue has broad and bizarre paths; the subject of the mother is sometimes explicit and often oblique. The conversation between Jenny Offill and Ceridwen Morris (both mothers and writers) is at once a craft discussion and an exploration of the notion of Mother as a literary subject. Mother is perhaps too complex to be a narrative device, too ambiguous even for literature. She is immaculate, primordial. She is Mildred Pierce and Mommy Dearest. She is Medea and Sara too, who, pregnant at a hundred and one, could only laugh.

Happy reading!