Her Last Death is a strange memoir about Susanna Sonnenberg's relationship with her mother. It has been an intense relationship for most of her life, since her mother has been very close with her, but also extremely manipulative and hurtful. For much of her life she has lived a prosperous life on the east coast, but now she lives in Montana with her husband and two children, curiously impoverished. She now wants to keep her mother away from her children and will no longer tolerate the lies and manipulation. But her mother will not change, so they are estranged. When her mother lies in critical condition in hospital in Barbados, Sonnenberg decides not to visit her, because she just can't bring herself to.
Much of the book sets out the details of how this came to be. From an early age, her mother was unusually sexual with her daughter, telling her about the time she lost her virginity, or the pleasure of orgasms. Her father, who left her mother when Susanna was 7, is also inappropriate when she visits. When she is 8, he asks her if she has had an orgasm, and then his wife takes her to the bathroom and runs the water so that she learns how to have one. Susanna is buying herself copies of Penthouse by the time she is 11, and she is reading out sex quizzes from Cosmopolitan with her mother when she is 13. By the time she is in private boarding school, she starts an affair with one of the teachers. Once she is in college, she is sharing all the details of her sex life with her mother. Throughout her life, her mother has problems with addiction and has lots of lovers. It's only later in her life that Susanna really starts to get some separation and perspective on her family.
Although there's no particular reason to doubt that the events Sonnenberg describes actually took place, there is plenty of reason to wonder about what she has left out. It's not at all clear why she goes from a college career and a wealthy lifestyle to working for minimum wage. More central to the reader's sense of puzzlement is why her sister didn't become equally estranged from their mother, if their mother was as manipulative and damaging as she is depicted. Further unease comes from Sonnenberg's own deception of the reader; at the start of the book, she describes her mother as being on her deathbed, but at the end of the book, almost in passing, she mentions that she mother didn't actually die. The whole book rushes through events so quickly that it doesn't hang together well as a whole; everyone's behavior seems underexplained and bizarre. While Sonnenberg's mother clearly had problems with substance abuse, and behaved badly in many other ways, it's very hard to get a handle on whether she had other mental disorders. Some of her behavior has the flavor of a personality disorder, but this sort of issues really isn't investigated in the book.
Her Last Death is a compelling read, and the performance in the unabridged audiobook by Sonnenberg herself is excellent. Maybe a little tellingly, she has a dramatic flare. Yet it is also a frustrating experience, and maybe because one spends so much time in the company of her mother, or because of a quality in Sonnenberg's writing, one starts to feel manipulated oneself.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.