Clare Sestanovich on Passion and Agency

In “You Tell Me,” your story in this week’s issue, Janet is summoned to check in on her adult daughter Sasha, whose husband is worried about her. She’s been crying, feeling hopeless, and not eating. Why does Janet have a hard time deciding whether to go?

As far as parenting tests go, this one is arguably as simple as it gets: daughter cries, mother comforts. It’s so simple a test, in fact, that a good mom isn’t even supposed to prepare for it. She doesn’t think—just acts. But does anyone ever just act? This story is, in many ways, a response to that question.

In Janet’s case, such intuition goes by an especially fearsome name: the maternal instinct, a credential you’re supposed to possess without ever trying to acquire. If it exists, it depends on an idea that is at once obvious and absurd—that your child is, in some fundamental sense, you. Not untrue! This sense of symmetry, biological or emotional or both, can provide an essential foundation for otherwise shaky familial structures. And there are signs that Janet and Sasha’s family, like most, has experienced its share of shakiness. But, now that Sasha is an adult, Janet, to her credit, sees what many parents never manage to: Sasha is not only a daughter but also a wife, a worker, and a woman all her own. Without the myth of family resemblance and family coherence to fall back on, the familiar script of motherhood, whether learned or intuited, no longer seems like such a reliable guide. And the alternative to comforting myths is often uncomfortable truth. If Janet lets go of what she believes about her daughter, she will have to face what she knows—and what she doesn’t.

Passion is a theme in the story—who doesn’t have it. Two women in a park discuss its disappearance; Sasha is almost proud that her law career doesn’t stem from it. Would passion help these characters?

Janet isn’t the only person in this story whose internal compass, a tool designed to get you someplace new, seems instead to trap her in the same old place. In one scene, a teen-age store clerk freezes under the scrutiny of a demanding customer; in another, Sasha is paralyzed by the pressure of a demanding boss. Passion sounds like a convenient solution to this problem: surely your own desires can overpower all those other people’s demands. Passion rarely comes with a plan, but it tends to summon certain wayfinding powers. If you want something badly enough, you’ll go and get it—no compass required!

Janet seems to believe that passion might rescue her daughter, and I don’t blame her. We learn, at one point, that she had hoped “Sasha might be swept up in a cause . . . but something about her had proved not sweepable.” You’ll notice reading this sentence, as I did when writing it, that it’s an awkwardly passive construction. Is it passion that these characters need—or agency? If we gave up the fantasy of being swept up or swept away (professionally or romantically), we’d have to learn to actually sweep. It sounds like dull, domestic work, and it might also be the best way to clear a path forward.

At one point, Janet and her other daughter are talking on the phone about desire and its lack when Janet grabs a bag of food that’s being waved out the takeout window of a restaurant, even though it’s not for her. What is it about impulsive action that animates her here?

In this scene, a phone conversation distills the complexities of the mother-daughter dynamic into something elemental—a call and a response. The anguish that Janet and Sasha experience throughout the story is no more and no less than the breakdown of this circuit: how to ask for help and how to offer it; how to put need into words and love into practice. While Janet, who is in New York, talks to her other daughter, who is in Berlin, communication seems doomed. Their connection can bridge the distance between two continents, but it can’t close the gap between two people. At this moment of hopelessness, Janet hears a waiter calling out someone else’s name. For once, responding isn’t hard: she doesn’t have to prove herself; all she has to do is identify herself. Can we blame her for seizing the simple but profound affirmation that such an ordinary transaction allows?

One thing I really admire about your stories is how they’re made up of detail after detail, small action after small action, all seeming to ring true. Is accretion a mode you consciously work in, and who do you consider to be some of your forebears?

As you now know, I find intuition to be an inadequate guide—probably in life, certainly in art. A true artist (not unlike a good mother) is supposed to always know what’s best for her work. Well, I don’t! And your question makes me wonder if accretion is, for me, a sort of alternative to intuition. Or at least a variation of it. Lacking a compass that I unthinkingly, unfailingly trust, I “just” put one foot in front of the other, one sentence after another. I’m bound to arrive at a destination this way, and, though it may not be the one I imagined, it is—maybe precisely for that reason—most likely to “ring true.”

I would be defying an unpleasant truth about family trees if I chose my forebears, but I’ll steer everyone to Grace Paley’s story “Wants.” I doubt that Paley, a woman of great conviction, lacked intuition in the way I often do, but she builds masterpieces out of ordinary details. At one point in “You Tell Me,” Janet asks a big question that points to an even bigger fear: “Is it really too late?” My own story doesn’t have an answer for her, but Paley’s does. Go read it if you want to find out. ♦

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