Returning to My Mother's House: Taking Back the Wisdom of the Feminine
by Gail Straub

High Point, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9630327-5-1.
Reviewed by Kathy Waller
Posted on 02/03/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Gail Straub had a record of success: foreign exchange student to Paraguay; Peace Corp worker in Africa; co-creator with her husband of Empowerment Training Programs, a business with an international clientele.

By the time she was in her thirties, however, she was seeing the "ample underbelly" of success: a life out of balance. Ironically, while she was teaching other people how to achieve their dreams, her own life was in great part motivated by the desire to live her own mother's "unlived life."

Regaining proper balance required Straub to examine her relationship with both of her parents and consider how they influenced the choices she had made. In Returning to My Mother's House: Taking Back the Wisdom of the Feminine, Straub describes her journey, both physical, spiritual, and emotional, to reclaim her feminine wisdom and for the first time begin to live her own life.

Straub remembers a childhood of "abundant happiness" in a home that was a "creative partnership" between her mother, a former artist, and her father, a teacher and woodcrafter. During those years, her mother was imaginative, loving, and "at home with herself." By the time Straub was in her early teens, however, Jacqueline Straub had become obsessed with fitting into the "upscale conservative society" to which her wealthy neighbors belonged. At this time, says Straub, the "subtle interior compass that guided her was replaced by exterior standards and outer status symbols," and her mother "began to leave her own house." Straub responded to the family's tension over money and her mother's fragile health by retreating with her father into the "rational masculine," denigrating the emotional feminine exemplified by her mother and focusing on achievement—and, in the process, abandoning her own authentic self.

Following her mother's premature death, Straub continued to be driven to achieve. She would later see this as an attempt to live out her mother's unfulfilled dreams: both the unconventional (living in a hippie commune) and the conventional (gaining social and economic status). But finally, she crossed the "fine line between passion and workaholism," and became engaged with her partner-husband in "an archetypal power struggle of reason over emotion, sharp insight over diffuse awareness—masculine over feminine."

In therapy after her father's death, she came to recognize that in her youthful desire to please him and "the dominant culture he was inextricably linked to," she "had pledged [her] allegiance to the masculine—reason over emotion, doing over being, the universal over the personal..." Cultivating a "conscious relationship with [her] own masculine," she set out on the "journey back to [her] mother." Healing trips to Bali, Russia, China, and Ireland in the company of feminist friends helped her to "reclaim [her] own wisdom and understand [her] mother more fully." Recognizing the "footprints" of her Catholic mother's mysticism, but rejecting the patriarchal church for the injustice her mother received at its hands, Straub became a "spiritual mother": her Grace Spiritual Growth Training Program now serves people "hungry for the nondogmatic and all-inclusive nourishment of the feminine." Finally, she learned to embrace "Lady Death" as the completion of life.

Although the memoir is an indictment of the "potent societal forces" at work in male-dominated Western society that were "waiting to steal away [her mother's] untamed imagination," Straub also ponders the issue of choice. She wonders, for example, whether the independent Jacqueline Walsh, deciding in the early 1940s to "uproot herself from her family, her faith, and her place" a "generation ahead of herself," had any idea of the results of "such radical choices..." Later she asks, "How much of my mother's abandonment was her own doing, and how much was she at the mercy of a culture that routinely betrays the feminine?"

Jacqueline Straub's "demons," the author concludes, were "insidious and complex." The answers her daughter seeks are "complex and intertwined." One of the most telling of the many questions Straub poses is suffused with compassion: "Was Mom just doing the best she could?"

The "betrayal of the feminine" Straub describes is indeed universal. In fact, I chose to read the book because my mother, like Straub's, lived in a community where she had little creative or intellectual stimulation, and who did the best she could; and I have lived much of my life trying to make up for her disappointments. Only pages into the book, I discovered other similarities: Straub and I are nearly the same age; Jacquelyn Walsh Straub and my mother were born in the same year; they both suffered from heart disease that was at least in part attributable to emotional stress; and Mrs. Straub died of heart disease in the same year my mother suffered a near-fatal heart attack. In Straub's story I see a reflection of my own; I feel as if this book were meant for me.

Returning to My Mother's House is Gail Straub's declaration of love, compassion, and understanding for her mother, for herself, for all women. It is an excellent book for older women who need to look back and heal. It's also an excellent book for young women who would better understand themselves, their mothers, and the world in which they live.

Gail Straub, co-founder with her husband, David Gershon, of Empowerment Training Programs, is a pioneer and leading authority on empowerment, and co-director of the Empowerment Institute Certification Program, a school for transformative leadership. She is the founder of Grace: A Spiritual Growth Training Program. Her books include Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life As You Want It (with David Gershon); The Rhythm of Compassion: Caring for Self, Connection With Society; and Circle of Compassion: Meditations for Caring for the Self and the World. More information about Straub can be found on her website. A reader's guide can be found here.

(See another review of this book, here)

Check out our interview with the author of Returning to My Mother's House.

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