By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Matthew Thomas
Narration by: Mare Winningham
“We Are Not Ourselves” is about life in full; i.e. not just coming of age, adulthood, or death but the complete cycle of life. Its author, Matthew Thomas, is in his thirties when the book is published. He said it took him ten years to write it. It is a story of the baby boom generation, a generation from which Thomas is product more than participant. In spite of a generational difference, Thomas gets the story right; i.e. those of the baby boom generation will see themselves in Thomas’s novel.
Though the book is written by a man, the cycle of life is revealed by the character of a woman. The primary teller of the tale is Eileen Tumulty (narrated by Mare Winningham), the main character. Only in the last chapter, do we hear from an alter-ego of the author. It is the son of Eileen who becomes a teacher; a teacher of literature in his mid-thirties.
“We Are Not Ourselves” reflects on the drive of poor Americans born in the 1940s. This is a restless generation with the ambition of becoming middle class–with dreams of wealth, independence, and upper class sensibility. Eileen Tumulty is an American born of an Irish father and mother that love her but are consumed by the trials of being poor in New York City. Eileen idolizes her father but grows to realize he, like all men, is less than perfect. Her father works two jobs to support the family but is seduced by the thrill of gambling. Eileen loves, respects, and fears her mother but grows to realize her mother is a recovering alcoholic; driven by disappointment of her husband’s gambling, the decimation of family savings, and lost opportunity.
Eileen is bright. She receives high grades from her Catholic education but feels her true-calling is unattainable. Though intellectually capable of becoming more than a nurse, financial constraints compel her to become something less than she desires. Eileen resists romantic entanglement with neighborhood boys because of a desire to rise above the lives of her parents. Eileen is one of the “We” who “Are Not Ourselves” because she cannot afford to pay for an education commensurate with her ability.
Eileen meets an aspiring scientist. Eileen’s husband-to-be comes from an equally poor Irish family. Poverty makes her future husband a saver; i.e. a saver to the point of monkish denial. They have a child. The monkish husband begins to loosen his penuriousness as his son grows to manhood but fears promotion to higher income positions. The fear is characterized by rationalizations. He explains that the good work he is doing in medical research would be lost without him, and the teaching he does in the evenings (as a second job) is too important for him to quit. The father is another “We” who “Are Not Ourselves”. The father begins to suffer from Alzheimer and is eventually hospitalized. Costs for care rise to $8,000 per month. Eileen chooses to take a border, a Russian immigrant, to help with work that needs to be done on the house. The husband’s hospitalization and the nearness of the Russian immigrant cause Eileen to become another kind of “We” who “Are Not Ourselves”.
The son fails to graduate from college because of lackadaisical habits in his final year. He returns to his hometown without explaining his failure to graduate. He goes to work as a doorman for a local hotel. The son becomes the third “We” who “Are Not Ourselves. His father dies. Life insurance, a deceased husband’s pension, and his mother’s nursing income provide for a comfortable middle-class life for Eileen. She never becomes herself but realizes much of her life was and is good. The son eventually acknowledges his failure at college to his Mother. He returns to get his degree, and becomes a teacher. This seems like Matthew Thomas, the author; i.e. another American’ “We” who “Are Not Ourselves”.
“We Are Not Ourselves” because life happens; i.e. parents are not perfect, children grow into their own adulthood, lives end, and life goes on. We are many selves created by the exigencies of life.