Jell-O heir Allie Rowbottom’s keening book is at its core an act of devotion to her mother, Mary. Based in part on a memoir Mary was unable to complete before her death at age 70 in 2015, “Jell-O Girls” carries out her mission: to define the “curse” Mary believed had killed her mother and was killing her, “the messages about women and their worth that her family sold with each box of Jell-O.” Rowbottom shares her mother’s trenchant view of Jell-O’s subliminal social programming, and her passages about the brand’s marketing offer stimulating feminist cultural analysis. What gives her text its emotional force is the interweaving of this material with her own personal stories and those of her mother.
In a stage-setting prologue, Rowbottom spoon-feeds her hospitalized mother Jell-O, the only food she can keep down. It’s winter 2015, and they are watching a television news story about a group of girls in LeRoy, N.Y., who exhibited mysterious tics eventually diagnosed as conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness. “This illness and its attendant metaphors, my mother told me, were what she’d been trying to write about all these years,” Rowbottom reports.
Jell-O was manufactured in LeRoy until 1964; the factory’s closing led to soaring unemployment and fractured families that quite possibly caused stress the girls unconsciously converted into physical ailments. Although her family made millions from Jell-O and lost nothing when production moved south, Mary saw herself and the afflicted girls as equally victims of a patriarchal order that expected women to be as sweet and smooth as Jell-O, to keep quiet about any conflicts engendered by the strain of maintaining a cheery, shiny surface: “The curse was the sickness that silence becomes when swallowed, lumps of unspoken words ticking like bombs.”
These ideas seem a tad schematic at first, as does Rowbottom’s account of her grandmother Midge’s short life — one that included a fateful decision to move her husband and children from Peru back to her native upstate New York and the family business. The narrative moves onto stronger ground with Mary’s youth, when she was molested by her brother’s friends, enmeshed in a manipulative sexual relationship with a married cousin, lost her mother to breast cancer at 13, had a breakdown at 19, and spent two years in a psychiatric institution. Based on Mary’s writings and talks with her daughter, these episodes convey female repression and enforced silence with textured specificity more persuasive than the prologue’s generalized pronouncements.
Jungian therapy and feminist readings helped Mary in her 30s end years of excessive drinking and compulsive promiscuity. She got married at 40, when she was pregnant with Rowbottom, and the book’s happiest pages chronicle the author’s first two years with her parents on the Connecticut shore. But then Mary fell sick. Doctors initially dismissed her symptoms as stress or hysteria for more than two years, until a female physician did exploratory surgery and found tumors in her intestine.
Her mother’s quarter-century battle with cancer shaped Rowbottom’s life. Mary began the memoir after her diagnosis and shared with her daughter the bitter conclusions she drew about their family’s toxic legacy. This was confusing and difficult for a young girl, Rowbottom acknowledges, but much worse was her parents’ divorce after her father’s affair with her eighth-grade drama teacher. “Your mother’s hysterical,” he snapped when Rowbottom mustered the nerve to ask him about it. Once again, a woman’s anger and pain were dismissed as all in her head.
Like countless teenage girls before her, Rowbottom began dieting to exert control over her chaotic life (sugar-free Jell-O became a staple). By the time she was in college — when Mary’s cancer returned — she had a full-fledged eating disorder. It was her mother, recovering from more surgery, who insisted she get help. In a touching scene after Rowbottom began treatment, the two women met outside a New York City gallery, and Mary folded her daughter in her arms. “You came back,” she said. These simple words affirmed a closeness and commitment that would carry them through the mortal decade that followed.
Mary’s cancer recurred just a few months later. In the narrative’s final third, Rowbottom chronicles in harrowing detail her mother’s downward spiral and the painful complexities of caring for a dying parent while trying to construct her own life. The grim physical particulars of Mary’s deteriorating condition are not scanted, but neither is the dedicated support of friends — including her ex-husband. Her parents’ reconnection startled Rowbottom. “We both had so much growing up to do,” Mary explained in one of the reflective conversations with her daughter that took the edge off her feminist rage without apologizing for it.
Nine months after Rowbottom got married in her mother’s Connecticut garden, Mary died at home. She would undoubtedly be pleased that her daughter has so thoroughly explicated “the Jell-O curse” as played out in one privileged, unhappy family and in a century of selling gender stereotypes packaged as powdered gelatin. What lingers most after reading “Jell-O Girls,” however, is Rowbottom’s moving portrait of abiding mother-daughter love.
By Allie Rowbottom
Little, Brown, 280 pp., $28
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Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post.