We don’t choose to exist on this earth any more than we choose who our mother might be. Accordingly, Melissa Broder’s latest, Milk Fed, wields Mother as the crux of Rachel’s daily struggle. Just three years after the release of The Pisces, Broder is building on an oeuvre of highly specialized neuroticism. The kind, they say, is unique to the Semitic mindset. And oh how Jewish (no matter how lapsed) Rachel is in her constant sense of shame and guilt, all traceable to a mom who simply could not love her the right way (appropriately, Broder also has a 2010 poetry collection called When You Say One Thing but Mean Your Mother, a title that seemed to be leading up to this work).
Having fled from the clutches of her mommy dearest on the East Coast in favor of Los Angeles, she still can’t escape the lifelong effects of being indoctrinated with the belief that she was fat. Or that she could always become fat, even if she wasn’t. That she must never let herself be fat again. For during her childhood, she was overweight, had a predilection for all the most calorie-packed Jewish delicacies, particularly when she would visit her grandparents and they would let her delight in knishes, cheese blintzes, schnecken, cherry hamantash–the gamut.
Her mother was horrified at the prospect of her daughter being too unattractive (because big is not beautiful) to, ultimately, land a husband. Though, of course, what it really came down to was that she wanted her daughter to be a reflection of her. Her product, made exactly as she wanted it to be. That meant rail thinness. When Rachel gets up the courage to flat out tell her mother, “I think I have an eating disorder, anorexia maybe,” all her mother can reply is, “Anorexics are much skinnier than you… They look like concentration camp victims. They have to be hospitalized. You aren’t anorexic.”
But when Rachel’s frailness starts affecting the advent of her period, her mother finally becomes alarmed enough to take her to the doctor. She wouldn’t want to ruin her chance of having a grandchild–another reflective piece of property–by tampering with Rachel’s fertility. Then again, in Rachel’s current mental state, she would sooner get an abortion than risk the protruding belly and overall amorphous shape that comes with being pregnant. This word, “amorphous,” is indeed what Rachel fears the most. That if she lets herself truly eat as she wants to–with sheer abandon–she would invoke her worst nightmare: being “out of control,” “disgusting,” “exploding.” And in that explosion, ceasing to exist altogether as the thin person she is, the identity she’s forged for herself as though a golem out of clay.
But her therapist, Dr. Mahjoub, wants her to use some Theraputticals clay to make a different kind of golem (granted, she doesn’t say “golem,” but that’s what Rachel believes she’s created in the end). One that will allow her to fully express what her ultimate phobia about her body is. Hence, the formation of an “immense psychedelic woman.” When she’s finished, Dr. Mahjoub asks, “Don’t you think she’s worthy of love?” Rachel admits, “Yeah.” And yet, because of the only mother-daughter rapport she’s ever known, she’s been conditioned to feel otherwise. In certain respects, this mother-daughter toxicity has tinges of the one in Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Playing the lead character, Rebecca Bunch, one of the running motifs of the show is this daughter feeling as though she has to conceal who she really is from her mother, Naomi (Tovah Feldshuh), in order to gain even a modicum of her approval. And as any Jewish daughter will tell you, approval equals love. Even at the cost of suppressing your very essence.
Rachel’s essence is encompassed by a secret ardor for food. Regardless of how minimally she eats, every thought and action is centered around the act of eating. As part of her daily dietary regimen, Rachel allows herself a low-cal dessert indulgence at Yo!Good, where the Hasidic boy named Adiv who takes her order always obeys when she tells him never to fill the cup up past the top. She also never gets toppings and he never asks if she wants any. It’s a beautiful dynamic, a wondrous example of L.A.-based symbiosis. But one day, when she walks into the Yo!Good for her usual routine, she’s shocked to find that not only is Adiv not there to unwittingly aid in her self-control, but that he’s been replaced by, well, a fat girl.
As Rachel describes her, “She was fat, and she exceeded my worst fears for my own body. But it was as though she didn’t know or care she was fat. If she were concerned with hiding her body, she could have worn something baggy and black. Instead, she’d stuffed herself into a straight-cut, pale blue cotton dress… revealing every stomach roll.” It is from this moment that Rachel’s admiration for and fascination with Miriam begins. And she feels it an eerie coincidence that the clay mold she shoved into her car’s trunk (where she also found, tellingly, an abandoned copy of The Fran Lebowitz Reader) has vanished around the very time Miriam materializes. Miriam whose “courage” to be fat without caring is, in so many regards, what Rachel aspires to.
The all-consuming nature of Rachel’s fast-developing obsession reveals an attempt to replace food with a person who specifically represents all the dangers of loving food. A classic case of the addict’s need to use love as a way to fill the chasm that their drug of choice usually does. In this sense, you see a mirroring of the Rue and Jules relationship in Euphoria, with the former becoming so invested in Jules being her panacea for everything that it can only be doomed to fail. The same, of course, goes for Rachel and Miriam.
Thus far, Miriam has been the only one to “feed” her (in ways both literal and metaphorical). The only one to make her feel like her carapace is fine as it is. Unfortunately, working at a talent agency where she seeks daily approval from a replacement mother figure named Ana doesn’t exactly make her feel uninhibited about her body. Especially since part of why she believes Ana likes her is because they both enjoy drinking tea and critiquing other people’s physical appearance in the office. It’s their “special bond.” Rachel is, indeed, so desperate for a matriarch who understands and accepts her that her masturbation fantasies even center around being mothered by Ana, sucking her breasts and being told, “I want you to feel good.” Her desire to be consumed by a mother plays into the constantly looming threat of her overeating. In her fantasy, she thinks, “I want you to eat me… The consuming mother, closer, closer.”
Like a fellow Jewish writer, Philip Roth, Melissa Broder’s breast-smothering theme, at times, has certain echoes of Roth’s 1972 novella, The Breast. And even the cover of Milk Fed features one giant, 60s illustration-inspired tit, just as certain iterations of The Breast (depending on the edition). But Rachel does not want to be a breast the way David Kepesh does. No, she wants only to place her head on a giant rack and be comforted in the knowledge that Mother loves her. Since she never got that from her own overbearing Jewish mother, she seems to be seeking it now in Miriam. Whose form undeniably encapsulates what the term “nurturing matriarch” means to Rachel.
Rachel’s increasingly sapphic fixation, paired with the fact that Miriam is Hasidic (the sister of the original Orthodox boy, Adiv), reminds one of the 2017 film, Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz as Esti and Rachel McAdams as Ronit (oh, the Rachel surfeit!). On a side note, 2012’s Passion was merely a starter kit for McAdams to take on this lesbian role. One in which, as childhood friends living in their strict Orthodox community, Ronit and Esti are caught in a lesbianic tryst as young girls. This detail also specifically conjures the image of something that happened to Miriam in her own youth. Because of that, she knows she cannot give in to the attraction between her and Rachel, even if she puts out all the signs. This includes dinner at a Chinese restaurant, followed by a screening of Charade. Rachel’s assessment of Audrey Hepburn and her covetable gauntness? “Did I want to fuck Audrey Hepburn? I realized I didn’t. I coveted her black mesh veil, the red suit, the white trench. But I had no desire to kiss those lips… if I put my face between those concave thighs and stuck my mouth in her little pussy with the black hair, straight like an arrow, it could be nice–a Givenchy fuck, swank and lovely. But compared to Miriam, it would be nothing.”
Her sickness regarding weight and its appraisal elsewhere appears apropos of Hepburn in expressing a certain jealousy over the fact that she was starved as a child during the German occupation of Holland in World War II. Sure, Rachel knows she suffered a lot and stuff, but just look at the glorious figure that resulted in her adult years. It is this level of unhealthy thinking that was begat and fortified by Rachel’s mother. In truth, maybe the only thing Rachel’s mother really could nourish was an eating disorder. People impart their own fucked up worldview when they have children, after all. Mere victims of the emotional fallout that’s been wrought for generations.
Thus, the more withholding of the kind of love Rachel seeks and needs–the more distant and disapproving Rachel’s mother is–the more our little waif seeks to fill herself in some other way. Food is the only truly satisfying method, yet it’s at odds with her “Spartan regimen,” her self-denial. Which is, in part, why it’s so appropriate that she would land in L.A., devoid of so many things replaced by ersatz ones in an attempt to fill the void.
At one point, she internally repeats back the advice of her therapist to “expect nothing.” It’s somewhat ironic that she should be floored by the counsel–considering how Rachel is composed of essentially nothing and expects nothing in the way of food nourishment thanks to her eating habits. She reflects, “The simplicity of that directive, its bare-bones, self-contained power was intoxicating. Expect nothing. It was so clean, so potent. It was a phrase you’d associate with a person who didn’t need anything from anyone; a closed system, an automaton. I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be that automaton.” Just another prime example of Rachel’s all or nothing extremes.
After going on so many eating benders in the wake of Miriam entering her life, it is toward the end of Milk Fed that Rachel must finally make peace with the notion Dr. Mahjoub had been reiterating to her all along: “mother yourself, parent yourself.” Rachel, for so long, felt that it “seemed impossible. I had no idea how to be a mom, let alone my own mother. But what about daughterhood? Was it possible that I could be my own daughter?” Employing the reflexive technique of self-soothing by rocking back and forth on the floor of her apartment, she, her own daughter, assures, “The world will hurt you again and again. You will hurt yourself again and again. And when it does, and when you do, you will remember me again and again. You will drop to your knees. You will hold yourself. You will be your own daughter again.”
Maybe those who have sought subconscious fulfillment as a result of not feeling “mothered correctly” in their youth can take slight comfort in that idea. For it might be the true key to garnering, at last, some form of self-acceptance.