My Mother-in-Law Is My Best Reader


First Person

A mother-in-law joke twenty-eight years in the making.


Pablo Picasso, The Lesson (detail), 1934.

My first reader, best editor, and subtlest critic is my mother-in-law.

I’ve known H.—as I’ll call her to protect her privacy and preserve her from unsolicited requests for advice—for about twenty-eight years now. My girlfriend, now my wife, arranged for me to meet her parents for the first time at Veniero’s pastry shop, around the corner from my place in the East Village. When I went outside for a smoke, H. burst into tears. We have been best friends ever since. In those years, I’ve written six books, mostly novels, but I have been under her tutelage for only the last four, which is probably why the first two are not much good.

H. is one of a tiny core of first readers that includes my wife, J. (a professional editor), my sister, N., and my friend S. Before I give them a work in progress, I try to wait until I am satisfied I have done everything in my power to perfect it, but often they find such glaring structural or emotional flaws and gaps in it that a piece I’d believed to be cooked to a T reveals itself to be half-baked, at best. So implicitly do I trust my first readers, and so gratefully do I rely on them to be brutally and consistently honest, that I have abandoned entire drafts of a new novel on their recommendation. Almost invariably, I find that what they tell me about my own work is something I have known in my heart all along but have declined to admit to myself out of inertia, obtuseness, or fear. Only when I hear it from them does it become real to me, and actionable. I have permission to lie to myself—they do not.

Anyone can stumble upon a valid opinion by chance, but it’s surprisingly rare to find readers with the talent and resolve to convey that opinion in a language that makes it useful to anyone else. All my first readers have that talent in spades, but H. is unsurpassed among them. Those who have known her as long or longer than I have are often surprised to hear me say so, because H. is not immediately identified by the directness of her speech or the economy of her formulations. On the contrary, on first meeting her you might be forgiven for concluding that she is a little dreamy and even a little ditzy, or that maturity has not been kind to her powers of focus. But that’s where her true genius lies.

On the phone, she never says hello or good-bye but begins speaking where the oar of her tongue makes contact with the current of her mind, and she ends equally abruptly and unpredictably. When preparing the acknowledgments page of a recent book, I e-mailed her to confirm the spelling of her name, because it is unusual and of foreign origin, with several plausible alternatives, and I can never keep it straight. She replied, I’m not quite sure how I spell my name since it really isn’t firmly in my mind as such. That answer alone would be enough to make anyone love her. Show me someone who is uncertain of the spelling of her own name and I will show you someone who is fully open to the mysteries of the cosmos.

H. is not a linear thinker, and part of the value of her opinions is the challenge of unpacking them. Very little she says or writes is easily grasped at the first attempt, and the patient task of tweezing meaning from them reveals their subtle delicacy and beauty. Here is a typical critique, in this case of a portrait of her father, the Zionist Abraham Buchman, that I was writing for a book:

You Jesse are the naïf re Zionism / Must make the theme of moving forward in history /such a span! I remember his excitement when Mandela and de Klerk got together and he told me that de Klerk wanted to be Gorbachev. He would have moved with the times a lot. Any way you squeeze the topicality will sell the piece as that is the way to shape the story in a spirited but present tense.

This is a comparatively conservative sample of her style of criticism. More often than not she will insist on doing it face-to-face. Only in conversation can you see how her thoughts do not have a beginning or an end but flow continuously and often in several, counterintuitive directions at the same time. Indeed, coming into contact with her intellect is like observing a powerful, churning underground river that has risen briefly to the surface of the earth before dipping once again into some fathomless cavern. You don’t know where it came from, you are awed by its power and mystery, and you are filled with equal parts dread and longing at the thought of being swept away by its roiling waters.

My most recent book was particularly trying for me to write—it’s personal in a way I am unused to and uncomfortable with, and I struggled mightily with the structure until I finally understood what she was telling me. With the enigmatic prescriptions of the oracle of a mystery cult, she explained that the book began with a barrier that the reader was compelled to climb over, rather than with a gate that he was invited to enter, and she showed me the way to build such a gate and such an invitation. On pure faith, I reconfigured the entire front end of the book on the basis of her enigmatic blueprint, and it all fell into place. And yet, I sometimes think that she herself doesn’t fully grasp the direction or end to which her own thoughts pull her. When my daughters were little and H. would come to visit, she would refuse to enter the apartment but would instead stand in the doorway, laughing and prancing and clapping her hands, as if held in place by an overwhelming vortex of her own thought and emotion that had to subside at its own natural rhythm before releasing her. She continued to do this until my children were well into their teens.

H. has taught me a new way to think. I’m not saying that it is the only way to think, or the only way I think, but when I am sitting alone at the writing table and my mind has gone blank and silent, it’s often her voice I hear first. It’s not a voice that is always easy, or even possible, to understand, but when you’re in a fog you don’t necessarily need to understand your guide’s instructions to follow them to higher ground. As long as a writer is reminded to always be truthful and observant and generous and empathetic, most especially when he’s alone with himself, that is probably as much of a lesson as he can hope to learn from his editor. Not to mention his mother-in-law.

Indeed, there’s an irony to my having found such a keen critic in H. of all people, since mothers-in-law are stereotypically portrayed as crude, meddling harridans, perpetually ill-disposed to their child’s spouse and rarely constructive in their criticism. And that brings me to the moment many readers have probably been waiting for: the mother-in-law joke. I don’t actually know any off the top of my head, but I didn’t feel it would be proper to close without one, so I went online, where they are cruel and plentiful. I ultimately found a joke that perfectly sums up my feelings for H., if you interpret it literally:

A big-game hunter goes on safari with his wife and mother-in-law. One night the couple wakes up to find the mother backed up against a tree with a snarling lion facing her.
“What are we going to do?” the wife asks.
“Nothing,” says the husband. “The lion got himself into this mess, he can get himself out of it.”

When I submitted this piece to my first readers (including H.), as I do with almost all my work, the response was very encouraging, although J. objected that inserting a “random joke” at the end didn’t really work. I had to explain to her that the joke is not random at all but highly targeted to the subject matter, being about strong women and how power dynamics can shift in unexpected ways.

H.’s reaction was in character. “Having so much fun with this,” she wrote. “So, is the lion your alter ego?”

Jesse Browner’s new book is How Did I Get Here? Previously, he wrote for the Daily about a sentence of his going viral.