“There had to be more than one way to be a woman and if there was more than one way, chances were there were many.”
– Patricia Volk, Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli and Me
Patricia Volk’s new memoir, Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli and Me is a light-hearted examination of her life, lived according to the shaping influence of two almost mythic female individuals: her mother, Audrey, and fashion designer Elsa Schiaperalli, “Schiap.” As a prepubescent child just on the cusp of making the leap into adolescence, Volk discovered a copy of Schiap’s memoir, Shocking Life, at her childhood home. She secreted the book away and devoured it, unaware at the time what an impact that single book would have within the context of her life.
What Volk discovered in Schiap’s telling of her own life was a woman whose values and life stood in stark contrast to those of her own mother. Upon discovering this alternative life, Volk’s eyes were opened to possibilities beyond the constraints of convention, decorum, appearance. Schiap’s was a strange and unorthodox life, always pushing the limits of what society would deem acceptable. Volk’s mother, on the other hand, thrived within societal rules and ruled according to them. Volk’s adolescent discovery provided the foundation for her adolescent rebellion and the break away from her mother’s values.
The memoir is structured as a chronological comparison of the various points in both Volk’s mother’s and Schiap’s lives with reflection as to the effects of their lives upon her own. Retracing her own process of discovery as a child, Volk establishes the women’s lives as mostly opposite, seeming alternatives from which she might choose as she navigates the waters of her own life.
What I appreciate about the memoir is that although the two lives seem to be held up as alternative paths, neither is emphasized as a sort of right choice. In fact, in the end, Volk acknowledges that she has learned from both women, and incorporated particular characteristics of each into her own individual femininity. Furthermore, the individuals are presented as individuals first and foremost who are also women, not women who happen to be individuals. Although the treatment of Schiap’s life in the memoir reminds us that Volk’s understanding of her is more representative than real (how could it be otherwise, the two living decades apart?), neither Audrey Volk nor Schiap are reduced to oversimplified examples who play their parts in a moralizing tale about women’s choices. Both are presented throughout the narrative as flawed and imperfect human beings, brilliant in their own ways, dangerous in others.
It is not until the end of the memoir that I was disappointed when the discussion of motherhood took the forefront. As an adult, Volk returns to Schiap’s memoir and discovers in her story elements she had missed as an adolescent, namely Schiap’s negligence towards her own child. This discussion of Schiap as an unfit mother seems to serve as a qualifier that subtly minimizes her legitimacy and undermines her credibility. While I am as a big a prononent for quality parenting as any, it seems that the great men of history never seem to face the damage of this qualifier, “He was a brilliant statesman, you know, but just a really horrible father.” At one point, Volk does wonder, “given the socioeconomic climate at that time, could she have achieved what she did and been a decent mother, too?” Likely, no.
(For an interesting and quasi-related discussion of the presentation of obituaries and its treatment of great women, really interesting Times article, “Gender Questions Arise in Obituary of Rocket Scientist and Her Beef Stroganoff.“)
The memoir, of course, is not presented as a feminist work, simply as a reflection on the impact of two very influential women in the course of another’s life. However, for me, the memoir adds something to the feminist discussion that the incessant statistical tennis matches cannot. Women are presented as individuals and Volk wrestles with the (real or representative) realities of their whole lives. Gender is superseded by personhood; individuals are portrayed as beings whose gender/sex are simply important aspects of a greater whole.