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Biography & Autobiography Women

Where You End and I Begin

A Memoir

by (author) Leah McLaren

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Jul 2022
Women, Sexual Abuse & Harassment, Personal Memoirs
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2022
    List Price

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A daughter’s unflinching exploration of the intimate and unconventional relationship she shared with her mother—a brilliant, charismatic woman haunted by a traumatic past.

When Leah is eight, her mother, Cessie, abruptly flees her role as a rural housewife in search of a glamorous career in the city. In the chaotic years that follow, Cessie lurches from one apartment, job, and toxic romance to the next. In a home without rules or emotional boundaries, daughter and mother become close confidantes—a state of enmeshment that suits them both. Their bond is loving but also marked by casual indifference. Cessie’s self-described parenting style of “benign neglect” is a hilarious party joke, but for her daughter it’s reality. In Leah’s first year of high school, her mother makes a disclosure that will forever alter their relationship: She confides that from the age of 12 well into her teens, she was the lover of her 45-year-old married pony club instructor. The trauma of the “Horseman,” Cessie explains, is not just a dark family secret but the reason for all her ill-conceived life choices, including marriage and motherhood itself. For years after, into adulthood, Leah is haunted by the specter of the Horseman. He is the nameless anxiety and restlessness she observes in her mother and increasingly recognizes in herself. Eventually, she and Cessie set out to discover truth of what became of her mother’s rapist. The investigation that ensues pushes their relationship to the brink of collapse. Leah is seeking solace in the facts, but first she must confront a deeper, more painful truth: that her story—the story of trying and failing to love a complicated mother—is not the Horseman’s after all. A riveting and devastating portrait of mother and daughter, Where You End and I Begin is a memoir that explores how trauma is shared between women and how acts of harm can be confused with acts of love.

About the author

LEAH McLAREN is a Globe and Mail columnist and Europe correspondent for Maclean’s. In 2013, she won a gold National Magazine Award in the arts feature category for her work in Toronto Life magazine. Her first novel, The Continuity Girl, published by HarperCollins Canada and Warner US, was a national bestseller, spending nine weeks on the Globe and Mail bestseller list. She was born in rural Ontario, grew up in a small town and now splits her time between Toronto and London, England, where she shares a home with her husband and two boys. Twitter: @leahmclaren

Leah McLaren's profile page

Excerpt: Where You End and I Begin: A Memoir (by (author) Leah McLaren)

“Hello caller?”
Rob answers the phone like an AM radio host, his bemused way of indicating he can’t talk long or ideally at all. I’m calling him from the airport tarmac the way I always do. When I left early this morning he was still in bed with the boys—under the duvet, a pancake stack of early edition broadsheets piled on his chest, the kids on my side, hunched over an iPad devising a smoothie for a finicky Swedish monster. I’d found it hard to leave. Three hours later on the phone I can hear Solly and Frankie bickering in the background over the sound of robots and laser fire.
“Leah? Hulloo?”
“I’m not sure about this trip. I think it might be a bad idea.”
Rob pauses. “Are you on the plane?”
“Of course. We’re about to take off.”
My husband is a newspaper man. A ruffian poet of hard deadlines. For him the phone is like a transom—a crude device for the immediate transfer of pressing information. His listening face is a handsome ticking clock.
“Don’t start this,” he says in a low, smooth voice.
“Start what?”
“Tarmac catastrophizing.”
The only time I seriously consider the unlikely scenario of my children coming to serious physical harm is when I’m buckled into an economy window seat, watching a safety demonstration performed by a bored-looking air steward in a neckerchief. Hard as I try to scroll through the new releases or decide on the least worst in-flight entrée, my mind will not cooperate. It’s normal, even instinctive, to be regularly seized by the fear that one or all of your children will die. There are entire industries built on the exploitation of this anxiety. Fear of flying is similarly commonplace, especially alone, hurtling across time zones, continents, and oceans. These irrational panics are so common they have a weird quotidian logic, like the impulse to pray to a god you don’t believe in—just to be on the safe side.
But you know what is neither logical nor instinctive? The all-consuming belief that your children are going to die because you are about to embark on a long-haul flight alone, specifically without them or their father. Rather selfishly, my superego adds. Because this particular trip isn’t even officially for work.
It’s in these moments the awful visions come; the tiny bodies that arc through the air, then slam down, rubber-limbs starfished on windscreens that crackle, then pop. They remind me of the time we watched Frankie trip and then pinwheel down the stairs. The steep and slippery black-painted stair of our early Victorian baby-death-trap of a house. The visions are similar but this time Frankie doesn’t cry. He does not get up. Fear is the wrong word for it. If you’ve ever had a visceral, throat-clutching premonition, you will know that whether or not you believe in the show unfurling on the screen of your mind’s eye is utterly irrelevant. You are there, an engaged participant, however unwilling. You can see it. The future is nigh.
I’ve learned to live with it. What are my options? The National Health Service won’t prescribe tranquilizers unless you’re about to be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. Hard liquor on day flights makes me nauseous. Prayer would be hypocritical. So instead what I do is call Rob and pour a steady stream of persistent, delusional thoughts in his ear. I’m not doing this in the hope of being comforted. My husband hates catastrophizing. I get why it’s irritating, even a bit insulting. I am, after all, implying the boys are going to die on his watch. If he called me up to whinge and borrow trouble before flying off to a hotel in a foreign city, leaving me alone with the kids, I’d be rightly annoyed. So I quickly skip over my irrational premonitions and move
on to the marginally firmer ground of geopolitical doomsday scenarios instead.
“What if they close the borders and I get stuck over there?”
“Won’t happen.”
“Okay, but what if it’s like that novel where half the population dies and there’s a woman who gets stuck on the other side of the world?”
“The clue is in the word novel.”
“And what if there’s a second American civil war and I have to walk to Canada with a band of minstrels, sleeping in ditches and selling my body for scraps?”
My husband is silent.
“I know it’s an unlikely scenario, but it’s not impossible. Rob, I should not be on this plane, it’s—”
“Leah, stop.”
I press on, ignoring the blade glinting in his tone. “Or—or what if I can’t get home? And I end up trapped in New York, in a tiny hotel room, for days? With her?” Meaning my mother.
Rob snorts.
In the background, Frankie begins to whine for an ice lolly. I can almost feel him, my baby boy, tugging on the loose bit of trouser above Rob’s knee. His curls, which we still call blond even though they’ve faded to light brown, creeping over the edges of the purple Elton John glasses I let him pick out for himself. Smudged lenses, frames chipped within a week—like both his front teeth. Milk teeth. We should really get his hair cut.
Rob starts to laugh. Is he mocking me? Then suddenly I get it. He’s amused by the mental picture I’ve painted. Not the dystopian second civil war, which I’d only half meant as a joke, but the other thing, the one I’m really frightened of. The scenario where I end up trapped in a small room with my mother. My own private existentialist vision of hell: Cecily and me, sardined on narrow beige beds, reading paperbacks under matching polyblend bedspreads. The air crackling with silent mutual resentment. Closed-lipped smiles concealing the poison pooling in our mouths.
Now that we’re laughing, I remember how much I like the feeling. We’re good at it too. Rob and I fill each other’s ears with mirth until I am intercepted by a hard-faced stewardess who orders me to put away my phone “immediately, please,and as if by command the line goes dead. The cabin crew is preparing for takeoff. I want to call Rob back, but I can’t.
I’m going to New York City to meet my mother. A long-anticipated girls’ weekend in February 2020. Fun is the ostensible reason. Three lovely days of theater and galleries and eating in restaurants. A rare treat.
But I have a deeper aim. I’m trying to get to the bottom of us—to unpick the tangled knots of our attachment. I’m not doing this out of masochism or duty or even curiosity, although these are all a part of it. I’m flying to New York because I am writing a book about our strange and complicated relationship. Not a book about her—a book about us. I want it to be a story about the ties that bind and chafe, steadying and suffocating us both with their relentless twist and pull. And I need to tell my mother this, officially, and in person. In a place where we can talk and not turn away from each other.

Mum had suggested we book a room at the Chelsea, a seedy mid-price hotel immortalized by the Leonard Cohen song in which he describes getting a blow job from Janis Joplin. Soon after the song was written, Joplin died of a heroin overdose. “It’s where Basil and I always stay,” Mum explained wistfully over the phone. Because their romantic loyalty to the Chelsea is something I’d rather not consider in detail, I overrule my mother and book us a double room at a boutique hotel in the Flatiron District. The rate is cheap, because tourism is down because of the Chinese flu. I’d been informed of this by the guy at the front desk when I called to request a spacious room on account of my mother’s mobility issues (not a total lie: she’d had a second hip replacement a year earlier, though if anything it made her more mobile, not less). When I asked the concierge where we should eat, he advised me to go anywhere but Chinatown.
“I’m not saying it’s not safe,” he added. “It’s just boring. Empty. Zero buzz.”
When I get to the hotel, I discover it’s “locally art themed,” whatever that means, the building converted from an old cinema. The door girl grins at me like an eager-to-please Cardi B. Her hair is scraped back and she’s wearing enormous gold hoop earrings and a quilted satin bomber jacket. Walking around the hotel is like a disconcerting form of time travel. No space is in any way connected to the next. There are two bars: one Colonial, wood-paneled, with estate sale oil paintings, like something out of Edith Wharton, the other a rooftop Hawaiian-themed tiki bar. The main restaurant is low-lit, sleek, mid-century modern, like an Edward Hopper painting. Breakfast is available in a cafeteria-style fifties diner. Everything about the hotel is so self-consciously curated to look authentic, I decide it must be secretly owned by the Marriott.
Mum hasn’t arrived yet, so I wander into the gift shop looking for toothpaste and a phone charger. I find neither. Instead the shelves are stocked with sage smudging kits, essential oils, and a wide array of energy-channeling crystals. I pick out a large strawberry obsidian the size and shape of a half-used bar of soap and surreptitiously slip it into my jacket pocket, where it stays for the rest of the trip.
That’s when I see my mother across the lobby, talking to the young man with the pointed beard at the front desk. I find myself curling my fingers around the smooth, cool weight of the stone. From this angle I can almost see her clearly. A midsize sedan of a woman in a quilted olive-green coat, one hand on the counter, the other on the handle of her silver plastic wheelie suitcase. The familiar soft shoulders, a crop cut the color of burnished nickel. I wave at the pointy-bearded boy-man, who looks relieved, then points, which causes my mother to turn. She swivels, mindful of her new hips, and in doing so is momentarily returned to her natural state: a slim, freckle-tanned flyaway-blonde with devouring blue eyes that alight upon me with interest, then slide away.
“My little Leah.”
We hug awkwardly, pat-pat, no kisses, minimal contact. Perfunctory, but for us this is a lot. My mother draws back and examines me visually from bottom to top without comment. Then she poufs up the front of her hair, forgetting she no longer has bangs.
Our hotel room is on the second floor, a bright but cramped corner suite with bunk beds and a view of Lexington and East Twenty-Third Street. I joke that it looks like a prison cell for hipsters. Mum is impressed. “Very cool,” she keeps saying. “So chic.”
We wander around the block to buy toothpaste at a drugstore, and then get pedicures and head massages in an Asian nail bar. Apart from us, the place is empty. The staff are all in masks and surgical gloves. My mother and I share a conspiratorial Canadian eye roll at the antiseptic hyper-vigilance of American health and safety measures. Once we are reclining in our massaging chairs, I wonder if now is the moment to bring up the subject of the book.

Editorial Reviews

"Intelligent and affecting . . . magnificent. . . . A kaleidoscopic portrayal of family ties at their most complex and beautiful."Publishers Weekly, starred review

"A work of probing insight and undaunted compassion; one that’s fearlessly engrossing, frequently funny and sometimes plain hair-raising." —The Guardian
“Readers will be fascinated by this richly detailed yet never sensationalized account that serves to illustrate the many ways trauma can cast a shadow over a family for generations. McLaren has a difficult story to share, and she does it with kindness and clear-eyed forgiveness.” —Booklist

“Exquisitely painful, funny, recognizable and so full of love; hot of heart and cool of mind. A wonderful achievement.” —Ann-Marie MacDonald, author of Fayne

Advance Praise for Where You End and I Begin:
"Mordant, clear-eyed, loving, devastating. Richly evocative, propulsive, and so well written—her prose sparkles like sunshine over deep water." —Aida Edemariam, author of The Wife’s Tale
“If Edward St. Aubyn were to write an episode of Euphoria, it might come close to Leah McLaren's astonishing memoir. Ecstatically wild and weirdly fun, this book has me praying that it is the first installment of a series—and that I'll be seeing more of this latchkey kid and her mother, both of whom are brilliantly flawed, and make cardboard cutouts out of the rest of us. McLaren has written a poignant and brave modern gothic. I am blown away, madly in love.” —Lauren Mechling, author of How Could She
“Where You End and I Begin is a burningly true and gorgeously written memoir of a complex mother and daughter relationship. At its heart, this is a freshly told story by a great writer about an under-parented generation, where children were free to realize themselves, but also perhaps to become lost in the process. You’re in good hands with Leah as she guides you through the pain and joy of her unfettered childhood.” —Cathrin Bradbury, author of The Bright Side
“Raw and beautiful—I was riveted all the way through.” —Annie MacManus, author of Mother Mother

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