It took Michele Filgate over a decade to articulate the essay that generated her new anthology collection What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: 15 Writers Break the Silence. The topic of that essay was her stepfather’s sexual abuse, but what Filgate actually wanted to capture was how that experience altered her relationship with her mother.

In her introduction to the anthology, Filgate describes the hurt many feel when a mother-child relationship fall short of ideal, no small part of which comes from the pervasive assumption that a mother-child relationship's natural state is a happy one. This anthology—sometimes bracingly, sometimes humorously, and sometimes devastatingly—shows readers the falseness of that assumption.

Some of the collected essays center on near-universal aspects of mother-child relationship. Sari Botton (editor of the Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York), for example, examines the significance of gift giving in her relationship with her mother. Others focus on what makes their relationship fall outside the assumed norm, like André Aciman (author of Call Me By Your Name) who explores the ways his mother's deafness shaped their communication. All of the essays consider what goes unsaid, even in the closest of mother-child relationships.

Melissa Febos (Whip Smart, Abandon Me) uses the architecture of Greek mythology to make sense of how she pulled away from her mother, into dark and secret worlds, then returned to find that the bond between them would endure. Alexander Chee (How to Write an Autobiographical Novel) exposes a fear he carried silently for 35 years. He recalls a phone call he made on the eve of the publication of his first book, which dealt with experiences of sexual abuse and pedophilia that he had kept hidden from his mother. “The borders around this conversation are like something hot was set down on the rest of the memory and it burned,” Chee writes.

Photo by Sylvie Rosokoff

Another author grappling with the intense power of memory is Nayomi Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors) whose essay describes a home where upheaval, dysfunction, and destruction were routine. Munaweera ends her essay with contagious optimism, writing: “We can make lives that we couldn’t even have imagined when we were little [and] carry the little ones who we were into these new and luminous lives.”

But reaching adulthood is no guarantee that those relationships can be redefined. After all, every mother is also a unique person. Lynn Steger Strong (Hold Still) interrogates the deep differences and surprising similarities she finds in herself when she becomes a mother, neither of which her own mother is interested in discussing. Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) experiences the inverse, probing how her relationship with her estranged mother makes her question raising children of her own.

No single anthology could encompass every variation of the relationship between mother and child, but What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About covers a multitude of permutations. The frank and intimate essays follow through on the book’s promise to combat the cultural myth of the ideal mother, the mold of which all human moms—no matter how competent, patient, and loving—must inevitably break.

(Michelle Filgate appears in conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch and Rene Denfeld tonight Wed May 1, 7:30 pm at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, free)