my mother, my madness

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June 2020







my mother, my madness

A woman reluctantly takes on the responsibility of putting her eccentric rebellious mother into a retirement home and managing her care. She has her own daughter to raise and nurture, a marriage and a business to hold together, and her own psychological troubles due in good part to how she was mothered.

my mother, my madness is her account of her mother’s last ten years, at once funny, harrowing, mundane, chaotic, and full of insight. It is a rich and moving story that unfolds through its characters like a novel.

Colleen Higgs

Colleen Higgs is a writer, writing teacher, and publisher. She is the author of two collections of poetry (Halfborn Woman, 2004, and Lava Lamp Poems, 2011) and a short story collection (Looking for Trouble – Yeoville Stories, 2012). In 2020, her memoir, my mother, my madness was published to critical acclaim. She founded Modjaji Books in 2007 and after publishing nearly 200 books is still Modjaji’s manager and publisher. She is also currently the coordinator of the English network of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers.

Colleen Higgs's author page

my mother, my madness is a search for self in the murkiness of fractured/broken mothering. It reminds us that within the darkness of our burdens we can find light, love, and acceptance. – Tracy Going

“Colleen Higgs’s journal entries express the tedium and despair of caring for a collapsed parent, but streaming beneath them is an unrelenting courage. Her spare, gripping lines are a quiet hymn to a daughter’s wholeness of spirit despite the brokenness of her mother.” – Tracey Farren, award-winning SA author

“She asks the primary questions: what is love, what is good enough mothering, how does a grown daughter negotiate a mother’s last years. my mother, my madness unfolds not only as a narrative but as a meditation, a spiralling towards the freedom that love and understanding bring.” – Joan Metelerkamp, poet

“A profoundly moving and gorgeously written book.” – Ruth Ancer, clinical psychologist

Living with difficult or abusive parents when you are a child is an area often covered in memoir. What it’s like to continue a relationship with them when they become old and dependent on you is not a subject I have often come across. My Mother, My Madness by Colleen Higgs is a (partial) memoir of the last ten years of her mother’s life. It takes the form of diary entries. In October of 2009, the author writes about her mother: “She only knows how to complain, to say what she doesn’t want, what she doesn’t like. She doesn’t know how to say what she does like or want. Apart from obvious things, like Coke and cigarettes.” The book is written in a tone that is flat and tired and funny, one that captures so much about how it is to be the dutiful daughter of a difficult aging parent. “Mom is completely non-compliant you know” is the title of one section. These are the words of one of the staff members at the place where her mother lives. Higgs runs her own publishing company, she has a daughter she is trying to mother better than she was mothered, and she is getting divorced. And through all of it there is this other relationship that requires her to do things for, and mostly bring things — like Coke, cigarettes and clothes —to her mother. The tension between duty and resistance isn’t resolved until her mother dies. I read the book in one quick sitting two weekends ago. A lot of it resonated for me. I admire that Higgs is able to tell so much about a complex mother-and-child relationship, without feeling the need to dissect or uncover the many hurts and neglects of growing up with a caregiver who struggled with the basics of parenting. There are always new ways to tell familiar stories and Higgs’s particular angle felt fresh. I really liked this book. Karin Schimke – on Instagram

“What a beautiful, honest memoir about mothers and mothering. I highly recommend it.” Lauri Kubuitsile

Colleen Higgs is a poet and the dauntless founder of Modjaji Books, a small publishing house specialising in women writers. She was, however, utterly daunted by her mother Sally, another woman who had suffered an appalling psychological wound. At just seven years old, she was given away to a childless aunt and uncle and was only reunited with her biological parents when she was 38. Higgs writes: “My whole life has felt like a long, deeply unsatisfying love affair with my mother. She is the beloved who doesn’t love back.”

my mother, my madness (Deep South) is Higgs’ diary of her mother’s last 10 years, spent in a “Luxury Retirement Resort” near Century City. It takes courage to be truthful about the frightfulness of a parent, but Higgs writes with frankness and the tale is tender and compelling. Sally sees out her days in a recliner, smoking three-and-a-half packs of Rothmans and drinking two litres of Coke a day. The walls are yellow with nicotine and the carpets grey with fallen ash. She looks, says Higgs, like a bergie — dank hair, crumpled clothes, and long toenails. She had been diagnosed with bipolar syndrome and early-onset dementia, but often doesn’t take her meds. Her teeth fall out. She flushes away her soiled broekies and Higgs is constantly buying new ones, along with the monthly Cokes and smokes, four packs of nine double-ply toilet rolls, snacks, and You magazines.

“I’m the receiving station, a clearing house for all of Sally’s problems and troubles, claims and payments, woes and needs, complaints, sadnesses, despair, discomforts and small pleasures,” she writes. At the same time, Higgs is mothering her own young daughter and drifting apart from her husband. Her insight and resoluteness are admirable.

“When you have a mother like Sally, how do you recover?” she asks. “How do you make something of your life that isn’t all about suffering, reluctance, resistance, bushels and hiding under them? Sally is what there was. She was my mother, the roots that fed me as I grew.”  Michelle Magwood in Wanted Online

I loved it. Spare, simple, but deceptive as the issues are profound and handled with a remarkable lightness of touch. Leslie Swartz

After finishing her book all I can say is … WOW! I felt like I was holding my breath for Colleen all the way through. There are books, and there are books, and this is truly your heart and soul on these pages.      – Janice Leibowitz, Chai FM

It is such an intimate story, so simply told, but emotionally complex. I was very moved by it.  – Karen Jennings, 2022 Booker prize longlisted author

As the task of caring for two generations at the same time – the one above and the one below – falls increasingly to the middle-aged, it is comforting to read a book like my mother, my madness.

This is not because Colleen Higgs offers easy solutions, inspirational words, or the assurance that it will be all right in the end. It is precisely because she approaches the subject with unflinching honesty that this book has been such a hit. How do you care for one who never learned to care properly for you? How do you split your attention between a needy child and a needy parent?

Perhaps Higgs’s greatest strength is her use of humour. The narrative weaves together farce, dry wit, and mordant comedy to make the impossible seem commonplace. Maybe it won’t be all right in the end, Higgs seems to promise, but it will end. And that seems a fitting motto for 2020. – Fiona Snyckers, award-winning author