The trouble with Mother

On Helwig Street A memoir

The trouble with Mother

Russo was born in 1949 and came from a poor family who lived on Helwig Street, Gloversville in upstate New York. Richard is bright and gains a place at university, becomes a scholar, a lecturer, a writer and even a screen writer with stars such as Susan Sarandon, Reese Witherspoon and Rowan Atkinson (whose film Keeping Mum is based on one of his novels), appearing in his films.

He marries Barbara and has two daughters and all would seem to be a classic story of baby boomer progress; having a dream; living it and then making a living out of it.

The trouble is that Russo has an underlying problem: his mother.

On the face of it, Jean is fun, likes to read detective novels — preferring the English genres of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie to the American variety, “Raymond Chandler famously never followed his plots ...”

If she is asked to babysit, the girls were allowed to wreak havoc as soon as the door was closed and raided the wardrobe to dress up and perform plays in front of their grandmother until the early hours.

She could be fun, Jean. But anyone who has had to live with — and often for the Russo family, it meant in the same house — someone who is manipulative, toxic, depressive, irrational, moody and knows how to engage in the art of brinkmanship, will understand that this is the kind of love that has to be written down and explained.

The Russo family suffered years of intransigence and only conditional acquiescence often played out over where Jean would, or would not live.

Her habit of running her finger over the top of furniture when looking around prospective properties sent a calculated dual message to both the owners “Look how grubby this apartment is ... and to her family, “How can you cast me out?”

There are two pivotal medical diagnoses. One where Jean is revealed to have OCD “Over the years I’d noticed that I was susceptible to my mother’s moods... It was something I had to be careful of... depression had a tendency to infect both my writing and family life.”

The other was Jean’s emphysema. Read this all ye who are of 50-plus years and who are looking for a self-help book on reverse parenting or how to resist and cope with mental abuse.

The best advice this book gives is to marry a tolerant wife. Richard Russo is married to a saint.

More in this section


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up