Gay Block, Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed, 268 pp., University of New Mexico Press, 2003, $39.95
The poet Philip Larkin wisely wrote, "They fuck you up your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do/ They fill you with the faults they had/And add some new ones just for you." Larkin's truism is at the heart of Gay Block's Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed, her visual autobiography and critical autopsy of her troubled relationship with her mother.
The core of the book and accompanying DVD is approximately 150 photographs Block took of her mother, Bertha Alyce, from 1973 until her death in 1991. To accompany the images, Block assembled interviews with people who knew her mother, she reproduced family archives and wrote accounts of her bitter life as a daughter. The result is an engaging narrative and a very handsome, courageous book, which is also disturbingly self-indulgent, exploitative, ethically questionable and whiny.
Block first began to shoot pictures of her mother as practice for a photography class. In her beginner photos, her 60-year-old mother was "characteristically nude" and playfully posed as a startlingly foxy pin-up girl, senior variety. The book's final series of photos, taken after her mother's stroke, shows Bertha Alyce as felled, vulnerable, self-conscious and yet still strikingly beautiful.
In Block's previous work, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust (a book and traveling exhibition, co-authored with her partner Malka Drucker and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1992), she profiled more than 100 Christians who rescued Jews during WWII. With Rescuers, Block paid homage, with appropriate empathy, decency and self-restraint, to people whose lives exemplified moral integrity in an era that rewarded barbarism.
However, Block is less tolerant of her own prosaic past. The portraits of members of her affluent, assimilated, Jewish childhood community in Houston, Texas (some of which are included in Bertha Alyce) can be read as acid satires. The women appear rigid, pampered and judgmental, as if embalmed with hair spray. It is not surprising that Block writes "no matter who was in front of my camera, I was always photographing Mother." Or rather, her view of her own "Mother," because while Block was determined to recast strangers as surrogate nurturers, she kept her own mother willfully estranged.
After her mother's death, Block writes with undisguised bile and satisfaction, "Mother is gone. . . and then I remember: I can't be cruel to her anymore. I have dominion over her. My camera owns her." To memorialize her victory, she begins by photographing her mother's jewelry displayed in black cases like an ethnographic exhibit at a museum. She then rests her mother's vintage broach on her untrimmed pubic hair and places her mother's diamond ring on some unidentified child's penis.
She continues her fun by lynching her mother's furs, hanging them from bare tree limbs. And then, she uses her mother's diamond-letter bracelet, which spells I Love You, as a garnish for an assortment of opulent cakes and pies. Considering her zeal for regression, it is almost surprising that she leaves the cake undigested, since scatology would seem a natural next step in her Freudian downward trajectory.
Though Block is also a mother, she is only an adult when her mother is not her focus, as in the 17-page chapter titled "Lesbian." While Bertha Alyce accepted her daughter's sexuality, Block insists on being self-righteously intolerant.
In "Lesbian," Block recreates trivial squabbles with her girlfriend Malka in refreshing vignettes, reminiscent of French feminist Claire Bretecher's cartoons, with their banal settings, handwritten captions and punchy insight into intimacy. In the chapter's final image, Malka and Gay pose in front of a wall decorated with Diane Arbus' images of outcasts and outsiders. Malka and Gay sit like two lovely dowagers, in elegant clothes, on furniture Block inherited from her grandmother and with their stately grey dogs sitting attentively by their feet.
Without seeming facile, it can be said that the real trouble between Block and her mother was less culpability than incomparability. Like novelists Simone de Beauvoir, Annie Ernaux, and the poet Adrienne Rich, Block writes about her mother, while really trying to defend herself as a daughter.
Block is neither as intriguing or sympathetic a character as Bertha Alyce, and it feels as though she were manipulatively tugging at our skirts in an attempt to find the validation she never obtained from her complex, charming and self-absorbed mother.