Arts·Queeries

A comedy for catastrophic times: Rachel Matlow's memoir about her mom's death is an unlikely comfort

Deeply moving and genuinely hilarious, Dead Mom Walking is a "traumedy" unlike any other.

Deeply moving and genuinely hilarious, Dead Mom Walking is a 'traumedy' unlike any other

Rachel Matlow. (Tanja Tiziana)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.

As we make our way through our own private quarantine book clubs, may I make a suggestion for your next selection: Rachel Matlow's memoir about her mother's battle with cancer, Dead Mom Walking. Now, I understand your apprehension based on that descriptor. Reading about death in the middle of a global pandemic hardly sounds comforting. But through Matlow's brilliant sense of humour and beautiful manner of expression, somehow that's exactly what it is. 

An expansion of Matlow's 2016 short radio documentary "Dead Mom Talking," the book chronicles Matlow's relationship with her mother, Elaine. After Elaine — a life-long independent spirit — is diagnosed with Stage 1 cancer, she decides to forgo conventional treatment and heal herself naturally. Obviously this leaves her daughter feeling very anxious about whether the very belief system that made her mother such a special person would lead to her mortality, which — and this is not a spoiler if you've read the book jacket or heard Matlow's radio doc — it tragically does. 

Ultimately, Dead Mom Walking — which was published last month just as COVID-19 was sending everyone into self-isolation — is a stunningly intimate love letter from Matlow to her mother, as she utilizes her mother's own journals and hours of conversations they had in her dying days to bring considerable authenticity to the page. It's also very, very funny. I mean, don't get me wrong: you're going to cry too. But often you'll be crying and laughing simultaneously, which is probably the best way to approach our lives in general these days.

Matlow spoke to me about her book, what it was like to have it come out during a global pandemic, and why she also believes it belongs on your quarantine reading list.

Rachel Matlow celebrated the release of Dead Mom Walking in self-isolation. (Rachel Matlow)

What made you decide you wanted to get this story out into the world? 

Well, like many great ventures, it all started with a good pun. A few months after my mom died, I produced a short radio piece, "Dead Mom Talking," which was focused on the idea of my mom giving me advice "from beyond" on how to cope with her loss. I'd done some recordings with her before she died, so through the magic of audio editing, I was able to create a conversation between us —kind of like Natalie and Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable." 

Following that, I decided to expand the pun franchise. I like to say that Dead Mom Walking tells the "E! True Hollywood Story" — the whole crazy tale of how she died. My editor David Ross, a champion of queer books at Penguin Canada, saw the potential in my story and signed me up. All jokes aside, I think a part of me knew I needed to work some things out. In the aftermath of my mom dying, I was disoriented. I spent months constantly ruminating over everything that had happened, wondering why she'd made the choices she had, questioning what I could've done differently to save her. It weighed me down. So my goal in sitting down to write the book was to try to make as much sense of it as I could. The book is really my quest to figure out the puzzle of my mother's psyche.

This must have been an incredibly emotional undertaking. Was it ultimately therapeutic? 

I believe it was therapeutic. I mean, during the writing process, I'd literally sit with my laptop on my therapist's couch and work out sections with her. Going over everything again, I was able to process my emotions in a way I hadn't before. I'm now more at peace. I achieved my goal of figuring out things as best I could. I got a better understanding who my mom was, and why she made some of the decisions she did. I'll never have all the answers; it still haunts me. But I don't ruminate on it anymore.

What do you hope readers take from your story?

I hope people connect to it in whatever way they do. It's a very specific story, but I think it has many entry points that people can relate to: child/parent relationships, queerness, death, loopy family dynamics, workplace drama. There's something for everybody!

The book obviously came out just as the world was shutting down. How did it feel to have something you'd put so much work into come out at such a stressful time for everyone?

Well, the subtitle of my book is "a memoir of miracle cures and other disasters," so I suppose it's only fitting that another disaster would thwart its release. (I love a little real-time irony.) I was looking forward to celebrating with my friends — other than my stuffed animals — at my launch party. But it's actually fine. It ended up being a very exclusive, and muted, event. It feels especially awkward doing self-promotion during a pandemic, but I've been reassured that people do seek out books in difficult times. My friend Ivana in LA says this time is about dealing with our unprocessed grief. Perhaps my book can be a "fun" way into that for some people, or a reminder to connect with your mother, even if she's not taking the coronavirus seriously enough.

Despite the subject matter, I honestly think this is a really lovely book for people to read in their quarantines — so funny and moving and intimate. What would be your personal quick pitch to people asking if they should read Dead Mom Walking while they wait out this pandemic?

I didn't already have you at "unprocessed grief"? Ha. My friend Rachel Giese called my book "a comedy for catastrophic times." I agree. It's my new tagline! "Want to distract yourself from this disaster by reading about another? Oh boy, do I have a treat for you..."

Are you managing to come up with creative ways to promote the book from your self-isolation?

Here's an offer (you can totally refuse): If your virtual book club reads Dead Mom Walking, I'll be happy to join y'all on Zoom. DM me :)

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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