Bequest and Betrayal

Nancy K. Miller is a distinguished literary critic whose treatment of her mother’s dying reveals her as a deeply passionate scholar. BEQUEST AND BETRAYAL: MEMORIES OF A PARENT’S DEATH consists of two books compressed into one. It is, on one level, a study of a variety of contemporary authors (Philip Roth, Susan Cheever, Simone de Beauvoir, Art Speigelman) who have written books dealing with the death of their parents. On another level, Miller’s book is an extremely personal autobiographical account of the emotionally roiling relationship between the author and her mother, an ambivalent connection unsevered by death.

In the process of sorting out her feelings after her mother’s death, Miller confronts a spectrum of knotty issues. She examines critically her relation to feminism and Judaism. She examines the various factors contributing to her decision to be childless. There is a fearlessness in how she catalogs and acknowledges her numerous contradictory feelings.

The author’s memories of her mother, a spunky and willful woman who might be called “feminist” in light of her outspoken individuality, offer a mirror into the author’s complex character. It was clearly an act of therapy for Miller to address frontally such issues as her mother’s sexuality, but the author does so in a manner revealing a carefully crafted sense of scholarly detachment. Yet this measure of scholarly objectivity makes the book compelling reading. Miller’s voice joins the ranks of the other writers she discusses in turning life’s traumas into multi-dimensional literature of lasting impact.