During one of the texting sessions that became our habit over the period I now think of as both late and early in our relationship, my mother revealed the existence of someone named Janis Jerome. The context of our exchange was my need for context: two years earlier I had set out to capture the terms of our estrangement, to build a frame so fierce and broad it might finally hold us both.
If not an opponent to the cause, my mother was a wily associate—allied in theory but elusive by nature, inclined to defy my or any immuring scheme. The channel that opened between us across her sixties and my thirties spanned two countries and bypassed decades of stalled communication. We pinged and texted our way into daily contact, a viable frequency. This was its own miracle, a combined feat of time, technology, and pent-up need. As she neared seventy, the repeated veering of our habitually light, patter-driven exchanges into fraught, personal territory was my doing, a response to a new and unnameable threat. Perhaps she had felt it, too: that there may not be time to know all the people I had been in her absence; that I might never meet the many versions of her I had discounted or failed to recognize. That we wouldn’t tell the most important stories.
If our withholding was mutual, it was part of a tradition I took from her, and she from her mother. I sought a context for this, too, the narrative affliction so common to maternal lines and so little changed by a century of marked progress. If anything, the supposed release from pastlessness and isolation that kept a woman from imagining herself as universal—worthy of story and its ritual transmission—had further troubled a primary bond. “Mother-daughter relationships are generally catastrophic,” Simone de Beauvoir once observed. This we knew; this everyone knows. It has been understood, too, that the general catastrophe of mother-daughter relationships makes them less and not more interesting, unfit for inscription. As much as anyone, I have manifested this view. For the better part of my life, only contemplating our relationship interested me less than contemplation of my mother. As a writer the subject appeared fatal. Our catastrophe represented an absence of imagination and vitality; it was where story went to die. By the time my mother introduced me to Janis Jerome, however, early in 2016, something had shifted. Unbeknownst to her, I had spent the previous two years struggling to articulate the terms of a new project—about legacy, feminism, and failure, questions I sought to examine and refract through the prism of mother-daughter relations. In my half conception of it, the project would rest in the shadow of my mother’s mortality, colored and inflected as I saw fit by the vague, theoretical specter of her loss. It would deploy specific elements of her life—our lives—to larger, abstract ends. As a matter of inability as much as instinct, it would privilege argument over plot, ideas over narrative, something else over straight memoir. When an editor asked that summer why I wanted to write such a book, I made a comment about it being the hardest thing I could do at that moment, like I had any idea.
Past seventy when she shrugged off mother-daughter affairs, Beauvoir refused to identify as a feminist for most of her life. As a product of similar if not the same confusions, I have found comfort in this. I see a heritage in it, however twisted, and heritage is what I seek. I had not turned to my mother for such things; she seemed to prefer it that way. Like her, I learned by example and lack of example not to look to the women closest to me for a sense of who and how to be, what was possible in life. Unlike her, I had a mother who had lived out a neoclassical epic of self-determination: seventies housewife turned M.B.A. turned CEO. Still, her example proved dim, her transformations hidden, their terms boggled. This appeared to me by design: the breach between us had not been a cost of her emancipation but its requirement. As a child I stopped seeing her clearly; in adolescence I stopped wanting to. I charged forth into an old and new kind of catastrophe: despite a near-complete failure to know my mother, my own becoming was both guided and thwarted by a determined effort not to become her.
Standing on the far side of that calamity, I began coaxing our relationship toward disclosure, background, dimension—a shared line of analysis. It was my habit and my handicap: inquiry as an act of love. If she saw it that way, my mother remained a slippery subject, too cool-minded and wildly individual to suffer grand unifying theories, or to share space with the dominant social movement of her time. I respected her resistance even as I weighed its consequence. Early in this process, her lack of interest in feminism interested me most: What was more feminist, I thought, than the purity of its confusion? I found her attitude perverse but not unfamiliar. I had sent at least one of my selves into the shadow sisterhood made up of women who learn to live for themselves, pretending a discrete existence, hoarding their petty freedoms.
I may have met my mother in that lonely place. I would not have known.
My mother mentioned Janis Jerome as though I might recognize the name. She had popped up that early spring evening—texting, per usual—with questions about that class, my puking dog, Mercy, and an outstanding payment for one of the contract gigs I used to slap together a living. When I complained, again, about the missing money, she urged me, again, to follow up, keep on it. She took a reliable interest in career and financial concerns, but I recognized her advice as an act of mothering by the way it reached one arm back toward the woman who had had to figure these things out for herself. Be persistent until you understand what’s happening, she went on.
When I started at Canada Trust
almost 40 years ago, they were
I pointed it out and my boss
accused me of thinking only
Can you imagine
It was their mistake!!!!!
It made me furious
How did you figure out they
were underpaying you?
I did the math
My salary was supposed to be
10,500 and they were basing
deductions on 10,000
I had the letter!
But I was made to feel small for
It’s a thing with me
In the beginning, they made her a clown. They had her bake cakes. At thirty-three, with a six-year-old and a toddler at home, she had answered an ad in the local PennySaver: assistant coordinator of branch promotions for a national trust company that functioned as a bank. The job was her entry into full-time work. On Saturday mornings she would blow balloons and hang streamers while standing on check-signing podiums. She orchestrated “birthday” parties for branches opening around the city. She baked sheet cakes in our kitchen, wrapping nickels in foil and dropping them in batter-filled pans. Sometimes the cake paid a penny per slice. She would dress in a clown costume: rainbow wig, painted face, floppy shoes. The idea, I suppose, was to make customers feel at home, to promote the bank as another member of the family, with occasions to celebrate and a mother willing to make a fool of herself.
She felt too old for grunt work, to be hustling between warehouses and wearing jeans on the job. Within a year she had agitated for a promotion to product communications and a desk in the head office. I have no memory of my mother the clown. From this period I recall only the texture of white crusted icing giving way, the crumble of burnt yellow cake and beguiling tang of money in my mouth.
It was a thing with her: being underpaid, undervalued, undersold. Part of a new generation of girls educated as a matter of course, she had spent four years submerged in the grammar of a failing language, studying the epics and great myths. She earned a classics degree in 1966 and entered an unreconstructed world, marrying three months after graduation and picking up teaching work where she could find it. Five years, a first home, and one baby later, it appeared she might repeat the course of her own mother’s life: raising children, following her husband’s career, adding tick after tick to a thousand-page cookbook. She feared channeling her mother in other ways: a darkness visited. Sitting in her perfect new dining room with her brilliant husband and precious baby, she would fall to sobbing. But this was hormones, stress, exhaustion. This was not her mother’s life.
Earlier that same year, an event advertised as a “dialogue on women’s liberation” took place in New York City. Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, and two other women joined Norman Mailer at Manhattan’s Town Hall for a much-anticipated debate. D. A. Pennebaker leaped through the aisles, collecting footage his codirector, Chris Hegedus, would eventually help shape into the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall. Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett had declined to join the panel. Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Susan Sontag sat in the audience. Greer, then thirty-two, gave a dazzling performance, dispatching Mailer with ease. He was made to play the glib, shabby fool; she emerged as a new kind of empress.
Only one moment rattled Greer’s command. Handed the mic where he sat in the audience, the poet John Hollander began by paraphrasing the first half of an Oscar Wilde quip: “All women come to resemble their mothers—that is their tragedy.” From there he asked Greer “how the transformations you envisage [for women] might result in a transformation of that theatrical down-curve.” Visibly irritated, Greer dismissed the question. “I can only say that I don’t resemble my mother at all,” she replied, “and [the question is] based in a false premise.” Diana Trilling, then sixty-five, filled the awkward, intervening silence. In fact she thought it a marvelous question, with far-reaching implications. “Who will a daughter identify with if not her mother?” Trilling wondered. “If women are not to grow by identification with their mothers, what are they to grow by?”
When, at thirty-six, my mother decided to leave Canada Trust and pursue a business degree, her boss jeered. Who did she think she was? He stood in her office doorway at the close of her last day, arms folded. Even with an M.B.A., he told her, you might find yourself back in your kitchen, eating bonbons.
She had also applied to law school. A professional income was the goal, enough to survive on her own if need be. At thirty she feared the marriage at the center of her world was beginning to unmoor. The sense of being undervalued as a partner crushed her before it made her furious. She would rise, still married but divided from that self, well-protected by a fat salary and her own place in the world. The law school’s rejection letter settled it: she would get an M.B.A.
Business schools were growing commodities just then, the new sure thing. Their share of total graduate program enrollments nearly doubled between 1975 and 1985. You might call it a movement, a dazzling mesh of systems, ideas, and aims; a culture unto itself, resolved in its vision of the value, order, and operation of things. My mother understood both her world and the wider one to be changing, and demanding change in turn. What was a woman to grow by? Who could even pretend to know? It was necessary—basic, urgent—simply to grow.
No part of this directive drew her closer to the thing called feminism. From my mother’s vantage, the movement then at hand was chaotic, excessive—opposite the secure, empowered, self-sustaining existence she sought. Its mission was overwrought, ill-defined, its promise too diffuse. Feminist identity was limiting, more pigeonhole than portal. Above all, it seemed to her, a feminist was an imprecise thing to be. Radicalized on first contact with a male-dominated profession, even as she seeded her independence, my mother failed to see what all those shouting women in bigger cities had to do with her.
One of a handful of women in her section of sixty-some M.B.A. students, in the program’s early months she panicked. The business school’s acceptance letter had expressed concern over her high school math transcripts, recommending a summer prep course. Management science gave her nightmares. When her economics professor made sadistic work of handing back test results, she would fume: I’ve got a house, a car, a husband, two kids—why am I taking this shit? Anger bore her down at her desk, each night and every weekend. By the second semester she was acing exams and collecting scholarship checks.
Midway through the program, she was hired as a financial analyst at a life insurance firm. She wore skirt-suits, not jeans, to her new office. She convinced a florist to waive delivery fees for a standing order, letting people wonder who sent the weekly bouquets. Fresh flowers on the desk, she thought, seemed like a female-executive kind of vibe. After a year on the job, shortly after her graduation, she was assigned to train a new hire, a man with the same title and position as her but no M.B.A. Asked to review an internal budget, she discovered this new hire was making a lot more money than she did. She went to her boss, then to HR, asking for parity. Both times the answer was no.
As we texted, my mother continued filling in the details of a story she’d never told me: another job came up, consulting work—well-paid but outside her domain. It was also in Toronto, a two-hour drive from our home in London, Ontario. Aware of my mother’s unhappiness at the firm, a visiting consultant had floated the offer. “Sounds tricky,” I wrote her. “Do you still know him?”
It was tricky
I do still know him
He certainly changed your life
He put the opportunity in front
Do you remember I mentioned
There’s a business case about
that whole story
It’s called Janis Jerome
But it’s me
How much had gone missing between us? To what version of me had she introduced this other version of her? I spewed questions. She made clipped replies. We kept doubling back over each other. A former professor of hers had written up my mother’s signal career decision as a business case: Beginning in the mid-’80s, M.B.A. students at her alma mater considered the facts and decided whether “Janis Jerome” should leave her family and take the better job. A parallel case describes “Jack Jerome,” whose situation varied from Janis’s only in first name and gender pronoun. When they teach Jack, everyone votes for him to move for the great opportunity, she told me. When they teach Janis, they don’t think she should go.
But what’s the point of the exercise? Do schools still teach it? Where can I find it?
“I think the case was sold to Harvard,” she wrote.
I did google it, and within a few clicks had purchased “Janis Jerome” from the Harvard Business Review, seven pages for $8.95. An M.B.A. pedagogical tool, business or practice cases often present real or lightly fictionalized scenarios to illustrate best and worst practices, elicit discussion, incite debate. “Janis Jerome” presents my mother’s dilemma with alterations to certain identifying details. Some minor edits have been made since 1984, notably to update the salary numbers at stake, but most of the case remains as it was. Written in high narrative style, it opens with Janis at a coffee shop, “scribbling furiously on a pad of paper” as she waits for her sister, Denise. We learn that forty-year-old Janis and her medical researcher husband, David, live in Montreal. A mother of three, Janis “would have described herself as having had a pretty normal childhood.” A personal history unfolds over two pages: Janis the consummate student, then young bride and mother; Janis the devout but bored housewife, deciding to enter financial services and discovering that she is not content to simply fill a job. Janis grows hungry, forever wanting more, “more responsibility, more challenge, more recognition, more advancement.” The case presents Janis’s drive and perseverance as functions of her nature: high-achieving, competitive, a workhorse and born leader.
On the advice of a vice president at the bank where she works (“It’s the MBAs and CFAs who have the fast track now,” he tells her), “depressed but determined,” Janis decides to go to business school. She tells David she’s done her bit for the family, it’s her turn now. Bewildered but ultimately supportive, David has “little idea what had happened to change [her] outlook on life.” Janis worries about her age and about being surrounded by people with more exposure to the business world. The case makes no mention of how she feels joining the program’s single-digit percentage of women.
Early on, Janis can’t keep up. Nothing makes sense. David is miserable and her youngest daughter cries a lot, “claiming that Mommy [doesn’t] love her anymore.” Janis works late at the university library evenings and weekends. Soon she is tutoring other students. By the second year she is confident and in control. The same pattern plays out in her postgraduate life: fear and struggle followed by mastery and success.
By the time the economist “without much experience in business, no business degree, and little knowledge of the company’s operations” joins her department, Janis is bored with her post-M.B.A. job. She trains the economist—referred to as “this new person,” “this newcomer,” and “the new hire”—then discovers a nearly 50 percent discrepancy in their pay. A single pronoun in the following paragraph betrays the economist’s gender: HR tells Janis “it was necessary to offer him a high salary because of the difficulty attracting financial services executives.” Janis comes to believe the company is underpaying her—“relative to this newcomer”—because they saw little chance of a woman with a young family relocating for a better job.
Five pages in, the case returns to Janis scribbling in a café, ready to unload on her sister the pros and cons of the decision at hand: a job offer with an Ottawa consulting firm. Topping the pros list is the “terrific” money, almost double what she makes in Montreal. Although consulting doesn’t excite Janis, she likes her prospective new boss and sees opportunity to move ahead. The whole thing, Janis tells her sister, “represents a major upward movement in recognizing my worth.” Denise is skeptical: Where would she live, what would it cost? Did Janis really expect David to give up his work and follow her? What about the kids?
“You know, it’s funny. I love the children,” Janis tells Denise. “But I see very little of them now … I know that I’ll miss seeing them, and I won’t be there sometimes when they need me. But there will be the weekends. Actually, I’ll probably end up spending more time with them at the weekends than I do now! I think that I’ve been in the office the last three Sundays!” Besides, it might be even worse for the kids if she stays, stagnates, never realizes her potential. “Wouldn’t I be bitter?” Janis wonders. “And what kind of role model would I be? Wouldn’t it be good for them to see their mother as a successful, independent individual rather than as someone tied to her [crappy] job because of family?”
Making its classroom debut in the mid-’80s, “ Janis Jerome” was devised as a primer on the concept of “fit,” the influence on performance and satisfaction of the interplay between an individual’s characteristics, those of her job, and the circumstances of her life. It was also intended to prompt discussion of dual-career families, navigating career crossroads, and the role of HR in better managing high-value employees. Although the case treats it as incidental, Janis’s gender dominated class discussions. Sitting in the same rooms in which my mother had studied a few years before, a majority of M.B.A. students were disgusted by Janis Jerome. She was out of line and out of control, a “hysterical selfish bitch,” wrote one student, “who doesn’t know what she wants.” Splitting the vitriolic difference, another student described Janis as “self centered with high power needs,” a woman “who knows exactly what she wants.”
In addition to asking whether Janis should take the job, a worksheet asks students to predict, using a four-point scale, whether Janis Jerome will be successful in her career, in marriage, and as a parent. Finally, they are asked to indicate their feelings about her. Where does she fall on a seven-point scale between selfish and sharing? Cold and warm? Submissive and dominant? Bad spouse and good spouse? Caring and uncaring? Ambitious and unambitious? Good parent and poor parent? Shortly after introducing the case study, its coauthors reimagined the exercise to harness the extremity of student reactions. They changed Janis to Jack and began teaching the two cases in parallel: two sections of the program went home with Janis, two with Jack—each group unaware of the other. The next day all four sections would gather to share their responses.
The contrast stunned faculty: Janis was a cold, calculating, self-involved bitch; Jack was an ambitious guy with a difficult problem. Janis should stay where she is, lower her expectations, be happy with what she’s got. Having changed course on the cusp of middle age, Jack seemed poised for a professional breakthrough. And bravo to that: what’s best for Jack is by definition best for his family.
After a first sprint through “Janis Jerome,” I read and reread. The layout is simple and—despite a glut of Britishisms and exclamation points—the language plain. If the facts were clear enough, the story kept slipping out of view. It was a familiar sensation, a sort of narrative blindness that focused me on the margins, the things left out. I associate this feeling most with my mother, whose elisions had beguiled me long before her story did. That “Janis Jerome” rests so fully on omission, I thought, helps explain a determinedly private woman’s agreement to dress her life in a wig and funny nose and offer it up for judgment. If the situation is complex, its framing is clean and context-free, a matter of variables and outcomes, success and satisfaction ranked on a numeric scale. The case reduces an existential, gendered dilemma to a purely professional, genderless one. A broader version of this transformative promise had drawn my mother into the world of business. She mastered its concrete terms and structuring principles with what must have been tremendous relief. Told in a different language—the bland jargon of marketing clichés—its stories describe a realm of knowable systems and achievable goals. “Janis Jerome” was designed to be one of them.
My mother didn’t imagine the exercise jumping its rails. The invention of a male twin surprised her. Though it elided the discrimination that had marked her early career and helped change the course of her life, “Janis Jerome” wound up telling a story of gender bias. In 1989, the study’s coauthors published “Confronting Sex Role Stereotypes: The Janis/Jack Jerome Cases,” a paper that describes early reactions to the case and presents data from a more recent Janis/Jack Jerome exercise involving 224 M.B.A. students. The 1989 respondents were more encouraging of Janis, less ruthless in their appraisal. Calling the later results counterintuitive, one of the paper’s authors told me they may have been tied to the growing number of women in the program across the late eighties, the school’s increasingly rigorous antidiscrimination policies, and the corresponding tendency of male students to self-censor.
All down the line, my mother turned down invitations to visit the classes debating her life. The 1989 respondents got an update to the case: the real Janis took the consulting job but was fired after one year due to “lack of person-job fit.” She got another job without much delay, they learned—along with a 50 percent salary bump—and had achieved her goal of vice presidency of a major financial services company within five years of earning her M.B.A. “Her marriage is intact,” they were told, “however she finds it difficult to leave her children on Sunday evenings.”
It is, of course, the case’s most conspicuous gap: What happened to Janis between the ages of eighteen and thirty-six? Where had her fearsome ambition hidden itself? How are we to understand its sudden reanimation? Janis’s marriage is a blank space. The case depicts David as both tolerant and priggish. He agrees to become the primary caregiver and helps with tuition but finds the business world trivial, treating Janis’s M.B.A. friends with “impatience or contempt.” The case concludes with Denise’s perspective: worried about her sister, she wonders how she can help with this decision. Then comes a vague note of duplicity, the suggestion that even those closest to Janis don’t know her heart. Having spoken to David in recent months, the final sentence reads, it was clear to Denise “that Janis announcing that she would be taking a job in Ottawa would come as a tremendous surprise to him.”
My mother was already gone when she clipped a 1985 op-ed titled “Women Must Focus on the Big Dream.” Written by Kati Marton for the New York Times, the piece suggests women “aren’t doing nearly enough to combat” a post-second-wave resurgence of sexism. Marton urges women to bend the tricks of men to suit their own needs: “One of these things is self-centeredness. To our detriment, we have grossly underrated this quality. By self-centeredness, I mean learning to isolate a goal—something you want so badly everything else pales in comparison … Women must learn to focus on their dreams at the expense of other, lesser commitments.” My mother glued the article to a sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper, filed it carefully, and transported it from home to home over the next thirty years. “We must banish forever the notion that ambition is unfeminine,” Marton writes. “Ambition is a sign of self-respect. It carries no gender connection of any sort.”
When my mother announced she was leaving the insurance firm—and London, Ontario—her boss and his boss invited her to breakfast. She was thrilled. She imagined the extension of respect and congratulations, her good-faith induction as a peer. Instead, the boss’s boss seethed, berated, warned of her mistake. They didn’t want her to go but offered no reason to stay. It was the last time she bothered to ask twice for equity, the raise, or a big promotion. From then on she saw the signs and simply left, kept moving. No one ever tried to stop her.
The boss’s boss, an American, had ordered the steak. He wore a massive school ring with a blood-colored stone. My mother trained her eyes on it and waited for the meal to end.
Michelle Orange is author of the essay collection This Is Running for Your Life, which was named a best book of 2013 by The New Yorker. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times, Slate, Bookforum, The Nation, and many other outlets. A contributing editor and columnist for the Virginia Quarterly Review, she is a faculty mentor in the graduate writing program at Goucher College and an adjunct assistant professor of writing at Columbia University.
Excerpted from Pure Flame, by Michelle Orange. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 1, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Orange. All rights reserved.