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Updated: Oct 6, 2022

by Elissa Altmann

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy famously wrote in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I disagree. For example, take Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing by award-winning journalist and food writer Elissa Altman.

Motherland tells the story of Altman’s relationship with her (Altman’s description) narcissistic mother, and Altman’s lifelong journey to find her own identify and a life separate from her mother. Most readers probably don’t have a mother like Altman’s mother, Rita, a 1950’s TV singer still longing for the limelight. And yet, daughters of narcissistic mothers will recognize the unhappy patterns Altman so vividly captures.

From the beginning of the book, we know that Altman has managed to create a peaceful life for herself as a writer in a quiet corner of Connecticut with her wife of twenty years, Susan. However, Altman’s emotional peace is shattered when Rita, still in New York City, is terribly injured in a fall. Altman, an only child of divorce, is forced to take care of her.

From an early age, Altman is well aware that she is not the traditional feminine daughter her fragile mother needs, a daughter who will mirror Rita back to herself. In one scene, Rita picks up Altman from school “which she never does unless someone has died” and takes her to Bloomingdales for a wardrobe and makeup transformation. “Can’t you just do this for me?” Rita implores.

At the Bloomingdales makeup counter, Altman gets caught in a whirlwind of conflict, one that grips her throughout much of her life. Looking in the mirror, her face is “unrecognizable” to her, as if she is “embalmed.” And yet, when her mother hugs her, thrilled with the results of the “makeover,” Altman writes “my heart cracks open with joy.”

Readers with narcissistic mothers will resonate with Rita’s characteristics, even if their experiences with their mothers are not the same. Lack of empathy. An inability to handle their own emotions or take responsibility for their actions and how they impact other people, even those closest to them.

There’s the time when Altman and Susan invite Rita to their home for Thanksgiving. Rita erupts in rage because she is not the only guest. She is not special enough. And yet, in spite of her mother’s behavior and the pain it causes her, Altman has deep empathy for her mother. Glimpses of Rita’s childhood shed light on the roots of Rita’s narcissism.

Ultimately, Altman chooses to maintain a relationship with her mother, although with boundaries which protect her. Daughters of narcissistic mothers often feel alone with their problem. With Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing, daughters of narcissistic mothers have an opportunity to feel connected and understood, even during quarantine.


If you would like more information or to seek help, contact Dr. Stephanie Kriesberg at or email her at Follow her on Twitter at @drskriesberg.

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