Being a lesbian runs in author Carla Tomaso's family. After Tomaso's grandfather died, her grandmother spent the last several decades of her life living with her daughter's female gym teacher in what was then called a "Boston marriage."
Tomaso's mother followed in those footsteps, marrying Tomaso's father but maintaining same-sex affairs on the side. When Tomaso's mother and father divorced, her mother moved in with another woman, and they spent the rest of their lives together. Today, Tomaso lives with her partner of 40 years, psychologist Mary Hayden, in the same town she grew up in — Pasadena, Calif.
Tomaso, a soft-spoken but friendly woman with a warm, welcoming smile, has been teaching English at a private, all-girls Catholic high school in nearby Sierra Madre, Calif., for 35 years. Inside a stately library on the campus grounds — which were, at one point, a monastery — Tomaso sat down with The Advocate to discuss the "unremarkable" nature of being a third-generation lesbian, how that affected her own internalized oppression, and mostly, how she managed to process her toxic relationship with her cruel, narcissistic mother through her latest book, Frozen, on sale now.
Frozen, Tomaso's fifth book, which she says she spent an entire decade writing, was the author's way to find closure on the tense relationship she had with her mother, who was fond of referring to herself as "Mommie Dearest" and contending she had no heart.
In the semiautobiographical novel, the protagonist, Elizabeth, believes she is finally free of her demeaning mother, Helen, when Helen dies at 70. But in just one of many odd but interesting curveballs Tomaso throws readers, Elizabeth suddenly finds herself forced to care for her mother again, when Helen is reanimated after being cryogenically frozen — and returns in the body of an 11-year-old, but with all the memories, bite, and bark the elderly Helen fiercely wielded.
The Advocate: Was writing Frozen and creating a character based off your mother, a cathartic experience for you?
Carla Tomaso: This is the first [book] where I really focused on the fictional character of my mother, and I thought it would be really interesting to try to see what would happen if the fantasy of a daughter ... could come true. If she could change the character of her mother.
We don’t like to not be able to [change reality], and I think that’s an OK desire. I don’t think it’s negative or not accepting of reality. I think it's wonderful, trying to change your reality. That’s what the narrator tried to do in this book.
And of course, it's based on the character of my biological mother, which made it really hard to write, to tell you the truth. It was very therapeutic, but it was also really hard to get the distance I needed to craft the book. ... It was meant to have depth, but it also has this science-fiction quality, and the exaggerated quality of the behavior is pretty farcical. Which is how I like to write anyway.
How did it feel to write a character who had the chance to essentially re-create this archetype of your mother, giving Elizabeth the opportunity to try to raise this person who she was hoping would become the mother she always wanted? Was that bittersweet? Cathartic?
I went through stages with that. At the beginning I would cry, [thinking] this is so moving, and what a horrible bitch this character is. I thought that meant it was good writing. I then proceeded to get off of that a little bit. What I discovered [was] ... the narcissistic mother was taking over the book. Just as in real life. That was becoming a real problem, because it wasn’t her story. But she wasn’t the changing, dynamic main character. I think that’s my story too. I think that’s cool the way that happened. I really had to push it, I had to try to make the narrator change and grow.
And you started writing the book when your mother was alive? Did she live to see the publication?
She was alive at the beginning of it. And then I got to realize through critique that it was just repetitive — the mother being a horrible bitch through the book, and then she's gone. That didn’t give the narrator enough to do.
How are far into the writing process when your mother passed away?
Let's say I'd written half.
And you felt liberated because your mother wasn’t going to read this? Or was it multilayered?
I think it was more my own personal view of myself. I know there are websites of narcissistic mothers and fathers, and I started defining her more that way — how she really sucked the air out of every room she was in. She even used to call herself "Mommie Dearest" and she thought it was funny. She used to walk around with a letter opener — a knife — and I said, "Be careful with that, you might fall and pierce your heart." And she said, "Who says I have a heart?" and I thought, Whoa. No one’s going to believe she said that. I thought I was being so transgressive, playful with her.
It sounds like there are certain instances of fictionalized accounts of real life. How much of that was in the book?
I think it started as more of that, but as I pulled back I took out characters and added characters, I manipulated a little bit. A lot of scenes have basis in things that happened.
Many of your books have that fictionalized autographical component, but why write this one now?
I think it was something I knew I had to deal with. It's not interesting to me to write complete fiction. I think I saved my life by writing it. I wanted to be more playful with my settings and magic. I've always been attracted to magic and sci-fi, not in a deep way, but in going out of reality. I like being transgressive. I like to shock. I'm fascinated by people who would murder someone. And people who would want someone dead. Just those extremes of human behavior. I think finishing the book I feel a little bit of a loss, because it was a way to connect to [my mother], even though the book isn’t a positive mother-daughter experience.
My grandmother grew up very wealthy. She was put into a marriage; they found a husband in the family business. He had a lot of mental problems — they called it "dementia praecox" in those days. It was secret, but it was kind of a violent marriage. She had my mother, then he committed suicide. My grandmother then started a relationship with the gym teacher at my mother’s prep school, and they lived together for the rest of their lives.
My mother met my father at Stanford, married him, had me, and always had relationships with women too. They divorced, a woman moved in with her, and they lived together for their rest of their lives — which was awful [because we didn't get along].
But then I grew up and I met [my partner] Mary. And Mary’s a good person. I went to an all-girls school, so I was comfortable with lesbians, and women together. I really don’t think I had much more than the cultural internalized homophobia. I think it really benefited me — even though these relationships weren't sterling, I knew my mother's friends [who were] older lesbians.
I don’t think it’s strange. I think the fact that I don’t shave my legs is stranger to me than being a lesbian in our culture. So that’s the story of third-generation. It's not like I didn’t have shame with my mother walking in, holding hands with [her partner] the bitch. I had shame, but it was more about her and who her partner was.
At least had some visibility of lesbian relationships, even if they weren’t stellar, you knew that was a possibility.
And it never wasn’t. On the spectrum of lesbianism, I think I'm way [at a] 10.
[My mother and grandmother] went through a lot. I mean, the "Boston marriage" people never referred to anything sexual, and they were ashamed of people celebrating their relationships. My mother's friends were celebrating how they had been together all these years, and my grandmother was horrified.
When my father was getting out of alimony, he said, "It's like she's married." And my mother was so offended by that. When she would tell me, after a few drinks, about love affairs she had, she wouldn’t tell me the men’s names, but she would tell me the women’s names. For her it was shameful in a way. So I see that happening with them and their generation. I feel so lucky to not have to deal with that.
Did you have a coming-out revelation when you came out with your mother?
I don’t think I ever came out. Mary and I went and bought wedding rings once, and my mother was totally bored with it. I don’t think she much cared or noticed. Did I have a coming-out moment? More like "Oh, my God, I'm attracted to this girl or teacher.” In high school ... the fantasies were so comforting in terms of maternal stuff. I had fantasies about maternal women. I think the main one was when I started liking women my own age, I couldn't pretend it was a maternal thing anymore.
I feel there are so many elements to your experience that are make me say "Really?!"
The book, even though it’s a fun page-turner, people don’t run up to me and say "God, I loved your book!” It's violent, it's sad, it’s the horror of this woman. Even though it's told in a farcical, light way, I think it's still really troubling. I think it's kind of challenging in a funny way, to think that a mother and a daughter could have that much distance and lack of connection.
I think that’s something that a lot of readers can relate to. Perhaps not in such an extreme scope, but relationships with our mothers can be sticky, and when you add sexuality and mental health issues things can become even more entangled. Combine that with the power of being closeted and what that can do to someone’s psyche, and it’s a powerful force. Do you think your mother’s narcissism was a coping mechanism?
I really don’t. I think of my father killing himself, because she loved him so much. That’s in the book — the narrator’s understanding of how her mother became this way. Something happened to stop her development as a human being. They grew up very privileged, and I think the privileged quality gave them freedom to let them be whatever sexuality they wanted.
This book and several of your others have been described as dark comedies. What do you think the utility is in this dark comedy in processing traumatic experiences?
I tried to write a sincere version of this, without the farce, but I couldn’t do it. It's not my style. My style is really having a veneer, humor, and wit over a depth of emotion. I like being playful. It could be a way of processing trauma. I feel like I'm sentimental or self-pitying if I go there.
What comes next for you?
I'm working on a play. I'm having trouble diving into a novel again. I'm thinking about setting the play in a high school. I love writing dialogue, so that will be something different. I'm working on that now.
Frozen is now available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon.com.