As I write this I’m live-streaming President Barack Obama’s Barnard College commencement speech on my laptop.
What’s a laptop? Imagine a typewriter that’s also a Sears catalogue that’s also a post office that’s also a high school yearbook. Oh, and in the dark before dawn, when the wind howls like a pack of rabid Dire Wolves and thunder claps like a thousand canon balls colliding in the ether, you can log on and look at pictures of cats wearing Halloween costumes.
As for Obama, it’s true: he’s of African descent. More importantly, he’s brilliant and beautiful and a supporter of gay marriage. I wish you were with me, Betty, watching the president tell the women of tomorrow that, yes, you can close the gap between life as it is and life as you want it to be.
Because, that’s your problem, isn’t it? You were born with a perfect face—the angels architected your cheekbones—and it didn’t seem far-fetched for the world around you to conform to this standard of beauty. You giggled at Bryn Mawr, then modeled in Italy, then met and married the seemingly ideal man, an ad writer with his own set of divinely crafted facial features.
But beauty’s a facade, Betty, and beneath the skin your heart is as fragile as anyone’s. Last night I felt sorry for you. You were so fucking sad, weighing those cheddar cubes on your kitchen scale as if destiny could be measured in ounces and yours was to suffer in starvation. If only you could hear Obama, read Jeanette Winterson, watch Paula Deen’s Home Cooking, and throw that goddamn scale out the window, because you’ve already lost like thirty pounds since the fat suit, and the problem is carbs and simple sugars anyway.
Truthfully, Bets, although things are better, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. America’s twin obsessions are still weight loss and redemptive makeovers; obsessions so deeply ingrained that even a classy show like Mad Men must cater to the populist audience. It’s not your fault: that Weight Watchers subplot is just a ploy to boost ratings.
A thing I’ve learned from watching Biggest Loser is that one must suffer endless public humiliation before finally shedding the weight of her history and wearing that slim-cut bathing suit. But you don’t do well with humiliation, and really, how often do you even get to wear a bathing suit?
So I beg you, Betty, to realize that you’re better than all that, that you mustn’t stoop so low. Like last night when you tried to sabotage Don’s marriage just because you saw Megan getting dressed and she looked good in a bra. Megan’s misery will come on its own, don’t you worry. Besides, you have a husband who actually loves you, and two of your three kids could still turn out okay.
This week Time magazine featured on its cover a graphic photo of a three-year-old getting to second base with his Pilates-toned mother. It made me think about you, Betty, and how at least no one could ever accuse you of coddling. And you know what? That kid will be way more fucked up than Sally. Not from the act itself—more kids could benefit from breastfeeding, if you believe the studies—but from the publicity.
So maybe it actually was better back than, before Facebook and gossip blogs and reality TV, when people like you at least had the dignity of suffering in secret, away from the mocking eyes of the American public. But then on Sunday I read this piece in the New York Times Magazine about diagnosing psychopathic children by testing their levels of callousness, and I had another burst of insight and thought, Holy Fucking Shit, Sally Draper is going to murder her siblings in their sleep and then kill you and Don and probably about a hundred other people and eat their bodies before finally getting caught, at which point there will be a show on Bravo that documents her life in prison.
In her brilliant new graphic memoir, Are You Mother, Alison Bechdel discusses the psychologist Donald Winnicott’s theory of the “Good Enough Mother.” As far as I understand it, Winnicott thought it was okay for mothers not to be perfect, as long as they don’t let their kids starve to death. Bechdel’s own mother reminds me of you, Bets. She didn’t hug, or say “I love you,” or embrace her daughter’s sexuality. But she didn’t let her starve, and she did answer her phone calls, and in the end, their relationship might be sort of fucked, but after a lot of therapy Bechdel seems to be doing alright.
And so even though you won’t win awards for parenting, I urge you Betty—for the good of your neighbors—to try to be a “good enough” mother to Sally. I see you already got her a more appropriate nightgown—that’s a start.
Cheer Up Old Friend,
P.S. My friend Rachel wanted me to remind you that scotch has no carbs.
Adam Wilson is the author of Flatscreen.