Praise for Stephanie Hart's Mirror Mirror
A Collection of Memoirs and Short Stories
And Then Press
Hart’s memoir charts her psychological process of overcoming a painful childhood.
This bittersweet collage of memories is categorized into five sections. In Part I, “Childhood by the Sea,”Hart establishes the unsettling relationship she had with her parents, both of whom belittled and terrorized her in a household mired in conditional love. The chapter “Good Mother Bad Mother” shows her father’s frightening volatility when he discovers that she’s drawn on her bedroom wall. Her mother lovingly comforts her while condemning the father’s behavior. Soon after, the mother calls her stupid and ugly, illustrating the disjointed, inconsistent parenting her mother and father practiced. In Part II, Hart recalls her boarding-school years, when she made friends and her parents divorced. Part III covers high school and beyond: Kennedy’s assassination, literary enlightenment, the importance her mother placed on appearances, her father’s continued emotional cruelty.
The author explores her Jewish roots in Part IV, revealing the origins of her parents’ psychological hang-ups. In Part V, she reconciles with her parents, their faults and the person she is today. Hart’s lyrical, well-paced prose saves her story from falling into the “poor me” category of memoirs. Her smooth writing style, sharp insights and eye for detail make her family problems compelling. But while interesting separately, the somewhat fragmented vignettes are more significant because Hart has rendered them into a complete picture. Indeed, this collection illustrates Socrates’ philosophy that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” As the author begins her story at childhood, moves forward in her history, jumps back two generations and returns to her present, she shows how she internalized the external factors that were beyond her control. Each section reads as though she intuitively regressed to capture the emotional mindset of whatever age she was recalling. She also reveals how she rose above the negativity and eventually realized her authentic self. The stories culled from her memory, as well as the way in which they’re analyzed and organized, map a process of overcoming childhood adversity. A hopeful, finely rendered portrait of a dysfunctional family and its effects on the author.
Kirkus Indie, Kirkus Media LLC, 6411 Burleson Rd., Austin, TX 78744
Mirror Mirror: A Collection of Memoirs and Stories
And Then Press
Softcover $12.00 (224pp)
Adulthood brings the universal need to reconcile our personal history with the present. It’s a dicey proposition to attempt to take the pains of childhood and craft them into a fulfilling adult life. Hart faces this challenge with a gentle touch in this retrospective coming-of-age book. She shares with readers how she learned to see herself through the mirror of her ancestors—and how she sees her ancestors through the alternatively judging and forgiving mirror of her memory.
Hart is a writing teacher at The Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons the New School for Design. Perhaps as a result, her writing bears an artful—almost impressionistic—quality, relying on lyricism rather than plot and tension to engage readers.
The book is divided into five sections, focusing on childhood in the 1950s and 60s, boarding school, high school, adulthood, imagined accounts of family history, and coming to terms with the aftermath of it all. The chapters within the sections are short (many just two
pages), but the consistent, nostalgic tone gives the book a savoring, contemplative speed.
Each chapter is laden with vivid yet sometimes enigmatic images, alluring readers with crisp evocations of mood and poignant descriptions of characters. The book’s vignettes are tinted with hurt and sadness. Hart paints these universal feelings through her experiences with her parents’ divorce, boarding school, loneliness, lost love, and early menopause. She also explores elements of Jewish, feminine, and family identity.
Hart’s timeline ebbs and flows forward during childhood, then surges ahead after adolescence. After the loose but comforting cohesion of the first half—the childhood years—the section about adulthood feels more sparse and unfocused. The family history
section travels the globe with ease, but at moments is too tinged with Hart's first-person perspective.
Hart is also the author of Clouds Like Horses and Other Stories (which contains some of the stories of Mirror Mirror) and the young adult novel Is There Any Way Out of Sixth Grade? Some readers may miss the rising tension and release of story form in these image-filled slices of life; but reflective readers, who seek artistic healing of the common hurts of growing up and growing older, will find that Mirror Mirror speaks powerfully.
-Reviewed by MELISSA ANNE WUSKE
Don’t be confused by the title of the book. In theaters everywhere a movie of the same name is playing. Rest assured, author Stephanie Hart’s moving book is far from a fairy tale. //Mirror Mirror: A Collection of Memoirs and Stories// follows one woman’s life journey. The collection is a series of short vignettes split into chapters that explore childhood, boarding school and high school years.
Hart focuses on her family history and comes to terms with what she has learned throughout her life. Some of the stories are humorous (like shopping trips with her mom) but overall, the tone is very somber. Hart lived through verbal abuse, a strained mother/daughter relationship, divorce and the eventual loss of both her parents. Yet she successfully shares her very persona experiences in a way that makes them universal. Readers will relate to Hart and recognize parts of themselves in her words. By the end of the book, Hart shares her revelations about love, loss, heartache, death, tolerance and aging. She should be proud of her work and the potential it has to encourage readers to hold up a mirror to their own past and start living their future.
-reviewed by Elizabeth Franklin
GENTLY READ LITERATURE
ESSAYS AND CRITICISM OF CONTEMPORARY
POETRY AND LITERARY FICTION
On the cover of Stephanie Hart’s mesmerizing memoir, “Mirror Mirror: A Collection of Memoirs and Stories,” there is a picture of the author as a young girl in a fur coat-a coat that looks like the coat of her ancestors. The young girl looks sad and more than that fearful and distrustful. Her eyes look askance, off the page, furtively into an uncertain future.
This is a book about survival-surviving the ghosts of a past top heavy with tragedy and tragic figures-the dead and the living who haunt her.
In the opening chapter, “Dinner at Our House,” Hart describes her memories of dinners at home as “a screen of moving images, some indistinct and some familiar.” This memory- as are so many of her childhood memories- dark and shadowy, laden with loneliness and fear-of familiar strain distrust and distance.
“The distance between the table and my room,” she says, “feels like a continent of linoleum.” Her father “chews noisily and wipes his face with the back of his hand.” He tells her “you can’t trust anyone.” Her mother, though “more genteel, embroiders smoke rings in the air with her cigarettes.” She seems at times like that wicked queen in Snow White who constantly looks in the mirror on the wall for the confirmation of a beauty she feels she has wasted and which now seems to be fading. And it is this mirror that haunts Stephanie as well. “I see what my mother sees,” she says. “I want to hide that fat, stupid, ugly little girl away from everyone.”
This all seems the grimmest of fairy tales, a castle by the sea full of frustration and guilt-the parents bring the burden of their past into the new world like heavy luggage. When little Stephanie asks her father to tell her something he did in his childhood, he says, “I remember walking along a river on a cold night. I had a lantern in my hand, so I could see my way in the dark.” How poignant, how sad- this inherited past of darkness through which a little girl must struggle to overcome, whose only escape from this reality will be through her imagination.
And it is from the ashes of reality that the poet, the author, is born.
In the chapter “Mimi Freeman,” the author relates the moment her “muse,” Mimi, shows her paintings of fruit “that looked real enough to bite into.” Again, it is the imagination, it is art that appears real to Stephanie. It is truly the sensual poet that begins to emerge. Sensation, wonder, spiritual immersion becomes all- as it becomes her means of survival.
‘Let the colors speak,’ Mimi later tells her, and she will hear them: “Red sounded like a drum. Yellow like kites flying; green like the rush of water.” Mimi helps her lighten her otherwise dark world with light and color, to find “colors and shapes everywhere-later on she will notice how “even in the darkness . . . I hear her voice, which has become my voice, too, ‘What do you see? What do you hear?’
Later on, while spending an afternoon with her mother’s magician friend and future husband Richard, Stephanie will notice how the “sunshine comes through the windows and paints us all in afternoon colors.” At the same time, always merging reality with fantasy-“a patch of cold comes from Richard’s direction . . .Richard smiles and winks at me, kind of pretend evil like Captain Hook just before he sends the pirates after Peter.”
For the author, every dream, every fairy tale has its dark side as well as its bright side. In the very same chapter- once more fusing real life and fairy tale- she speaks of her mother in whose eyes she warily waits for “storm clouds to appear,” the mother-object of both love and fear- who “blows smoke rings like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland.”
Reality, pain intrudes everywhere—not only in the family but in the world around her as well-the girl next door who along with her family dies in a fire, the classmate from boarding school found murdered in her Bronx apartment.
We see in the chapters that follow the steady growth of the child into adult-the imaginer into poet. Beautiful language and poetic imagery lace the narrative—At Boarding School she and her friend Barb “watch the moon like a giant coin in the sky move toward us.”
In “Seasons” paragraphs could easily be poems as when she speaks of her friend Samuel and herself:
Arms wrapped around each other, we traversed the city
Buildings looked brazen in sunlight
Trees newly green seemed to stretch in their skins.
I watched his shadow emerge on the pavement
As my smaller shadow walked beside his.
Ultimately, the author’s language, her very life becomes transcendent as she reconciles past and present. In the chapter “On Friday Nights,”-- my personal favorite since for me it is so identifiable with my own family-- the author describes her “mother’s mother’s kitchen” which becomes a living prose photograph—her family, her past, integrated into her poetic imagination-no longer the frightened little girl, the victim of a family from which she must escape into fairy tales but more the objective, self-contained adult/artist who seems to have transcended her past and can now look back with sympathy, compassion, understanding, and the poet’s wary eye for those ghosts that will always haunt her as our own ghosts haunt us. She says of her great grandmother:
“She fills the folds of her white cotton dress like a monument to patience.” While praying her voice is “so low could enter another sphere.” How wonderfully she describes her family with such intimate and detailed clarity-this “profligate group” her grandmother is “determined to give legitimacy to”-- her Aunt Rose “warned against passion, the underwater dance from which one may never emerge . . .” Her daughter Anna who sits in front of her mirror to “watch herself become Ava Gardner . . .” who will “let her tongue linger over her bottom lip.” There’s Uncle Nathan who “folds into a parody of himself” and whose wife Betty has to beat off all his female admirers “with her fists when they knock at her door.” There’s the profligate patriarch Grandpa Joseph whose “face resembles the painted face of the man on the herring jars he sells in his grocery store” hoping “to escape” to his mistress Lena later that night, whose “silhouette” he sees “in the eye of the candle his wife is lighting.”
Is there any wonder that despite her determination to keep this family together, the grandmother “has only a small ration of love left?”
“Disagreeable words,” Hart states in the chapter “Decisions,” came off their tongues and settled under them; they took pride in being enraged and disgruntled.”
It seems, ultimately, that the more answers she may come up with in relation to her spiritual and emotional attachment to her past-to her family and its effect on her own ability to survive in the world- the more questions she will have—As she says in “The Philosopher’s Path,”
“I wondered if my mother’s creative spirit now belonged to me along with my father’s dreams of achievement. I wondered how I could find my own path to enlightenment, allowing me to embrace life and face death with courage and equanimity. . . I wondered how the intuitive sense of what I thought and felt could become louder than any other voice.”
And as she continues to wonder, to question, Stephanie Hart continues to flourish as a writer and poet. This wonderful memoir, richly lyrical, skillfully detailed, is a testament to that.
-Reviewed by Mitch Levenberg, May 2012