Missing Alice: In Search of a Mother's Voice
by Susan Letzler Cole

Syracuse University Press, 2007. ISBN 0815608640.
Reviewed by Karen Ryan
Posted on 01/16/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Relationships

In Missing Alice, we witness a daughter's private search to know and reconnect with her mother, Alice Parsons Letzler, after her death. Cole describes her book as "a series of texts, a collaboration between a dead mother and a living daughter" (p.xvi) Rather than piecing together these texts in a traditional narrative form, she provides each source as a separate section. The book begins with letters written by Susan to her mother Alice several years after her death. Part II is a transcription of a taped interview of mother by daughter. This is followed by entries from Alice's diary written in 1926, at the age of 14. Susan then addresses letters to this adolescent Alice Parsons, the voice she never knew. The final section is Susan's own diary from 1997.

Described as an experimental memoir, Missing Alice seems somehow unfinished, more a compilation of sources than a completed work. In this deliberately raw form, some of the entries may seem repetitive and even melodramatic. For the private to be made public, there is an expectation of a more polished, fluid reading experience. Nevertheless, the memoir provides us with many treasures: photos of Alice as a child, Alice's parents and grandparents, and a wonderful newspaper clipping from Alice's senior year in college, 1932. Cole's oral history recorded with her mother is priceless, both for the dialogue between them as well as Cole's italicized comments made while transcribing years later. So many memories unearthed, so many unanswered questions remain:

With a shock I realize I have never heard you scream, not in anger or in pain. You didn't scream when they told you your beloved brother Rudy had died or when the visiting nurse assured you that Dad's warm body had no "life" left. What sound did you make when your father died?" ( p.98)

Cole is careful to point out that Missing Alice is not intended to be a definitive account of her mother's life. "The subtitle is important and intentional," she says. "I wanted to write against the trend of authors who write biographies about their parents that claim to be the final word. We all want to know who our parents are, but full knowledge is impossible. I do recommend that people who are interested should find out as much about their parents as possible while they are still alive. But the ironic truth is that we will never fully know those whom we love most, and whom we want to know most fully." (Duke magazine, November-December 2007).

Susan Letzler Cole is an English professor and director of the concentration in creative writing at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut. Cole has also written The Absent One: Mourning Ritual, Tragedy, and the Performance of Ambivalence, and Playwrights in Rehearsal: The Seduction of Company.

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