My Mother’s Lover: My New Story in The Atavist

My Mother and Angus, Hawaii, 1944

A big day for me: Today The Atavist published My Mother’s Lover, my account of a World War II romance my mother had with a flight surgeon, and of my search for this man six decades after my mother lost him. It’s a war story and a love story — several love stories. I’ve been trying to fully excavate this story ever since my mother left us a riddle about it on her deathbed — even as was trying to work its way out of me the whole time, almost ten years now. A slowbake dish. The story has taken several distinct forms in my imagination, in notebooks, in drafts of various length and finish. It began to take this current, published form early this year, after conversations with the founders of The Atavist, Evan Ratliff and Nicholas Thompson, suggested this story was a good match for that venue.

I’ve admired The Atavist as an innovative way to tell big nonfiction stories from the moment I saw Ratliff’s Lifted (a heist story) in its first issue. For My Mother’s Lover, The Atavist offers not only the space to do this story justice but the chance to enrich my usual longform narrative mode with art and documentary elements that would be hard to embed in any other format. The Atavist also includes an audio version of the story, which was both a delight and at time emotionally excruciating to record. Though this story sometimes posed enormous emotional, formal, and compositional demands — or really because it posed those demands — it was a joy and an enormous privilege to work on.

In a way this is a new sort of story for me: Aside from some forensics about halfway through, it’s not about science. Instead it’s about about family, love, loss, identity, and the lengths we go to try to understand our lives and to recover and redeem our lost loves and chances. Yet those same themes — the drive to recover our chances; to understand our lives so we can reshape them — also animate several of the science stories I’ve put the most of myself into, from a search for a cure in A Depression Switch or the mysteries of sociability and deception in The Gregarious Brain to the genetic roots of temperament in Orchid Children (aka Science of Success), which I’m now expanding into a book. Science too amounts to a sort of striving, an attempt to understand. And it enthralls and sometimes liberates us by helping us understand the confoundingly fluid forces that push us through life, and which we try to direct to our advantage — sometimes in vain. In that sense this personal story is like much of my work, only more so.

In this case the striving went back and forth through time: My mother’s early attempt to find love and happiness; my own attempt to understand her quest and find the man she pursued it with. It started with a single name, Angus, and opened out into quite a bit more.

The story is now out in an iPad version ($2.99) via The Atavist iPad app; that iPad version has the full story, many photos, a short documentary film, and an audio version. The Amazon Single version (US, $.99; UK, 1.39 GBP) has the full story and some pictures but lacks the links, movie, and audio. You can read the Kindle version on a Kindle, obviously, but also on virtually any device or computer — just grab the free Kindle software at the right-hand side of the buy page (US; UK). The story should be released as a Nook version as well. You can find all of them at the Atavist site. Hope you enjoy it. (If so, please consider writing even a very quick review wherever you bought it; it makes a difference.)

PS: I may write more about the making of this story later, but want to thank up front seven people crucial to the form it takes in the Atavist: Atavist co-founders and editors Evan Ratliff and Nicholas Thompson; creative director Jefferson Raab and production ace Olivia Koski; and my fellow writers and journalists Maryn McKenna, Adam Rogers, and Steve Silberman, who read a pre-submission version and gave feedback that vastly improved the story — transformed it, really. I can’t thank them enough.

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