Martha McPhee Can’t Go Home Again

In ‘Omega Farm: A Memoir,’ the novelist moves back in with her sick mother and struggles to come to terms with her traumatic past

Martha McPhee’s emotionally crushing Omega Farm: A Memoir unravels as we witness this exquisitely talented and perceptive author’s attempt to finally speak without restraint.  McPhee wrote this while helping to take care of her mother, who’s in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease.  When Covid struck, she took her husband, son, and daughter along with her to her mother’s farm in New Jersey, where they stayed with her for much of the time and then left as the initial panic of Covid subsided. But McPhee didn’t want to leave. She felt compelled to stay with her mother, along with a caretaker in tow, thinking that she could fix her broken childhood, which she carried with her always.  She writes about how her family was always haunted by secrets that hadn’t faded with time.  McPhee writes: “Secrets.  Secrets everywhere.  How many secrets we were all carrying, of our own, of others, asked implicitly to keep them, hold them inside-so many layers of secrets upon more secrets.  You become numb.  You lose your voice.  You are afraid to speak.”

In earlier novels, she has flirted with the idea of trying to come to terms with her difficult past.  Both novels, Bright Angel Time, and Gorgeous Lies, were thinly-veiled autobiographical forays that attempted to uncover the forces that led to her parent’s traumatic divorce when she was five, and her mother’s quick remarriage at 32 to the Texan Dan Sullivan, a charismatic charlatan and known philander.  Sullivan already had five children of his own, and McPhee’s distraught mother brought her broken heart to the marriage along with her five daughters hoping she could create a new home for them. She soon had a new baby girl, Joan, with Sullivan.  The author’s biological father, writer John McPhee, left her mother for another woman in 1970, at a time when such disruptive things were beginning to happen though still rare.  Martha McPhee admits to his desertion shattering her. She started doing poorly at school and would cling to her mother’s arm desperately whenever she could.


To make matters worse, her mother’s second marriage was volatile from the get-go. He was often violent and once burned all photographs from her first marriage in a jealous rage.  He couldn’t hold down a job and often played poker at night. When he won, he would pin the cash to the doors of his children’s bedrooms. He took drugs, drank booze, and claimed he was writing a magnum opus about the dangers of repression, but it remained unfinished at his death.  He had once been a Jesuit trainee but dropped out soon enough, and represented himself as a Gestalt therapist, often holding psychotherapy sessions in the nude.

McPhee recalls that her stepfather could be charming and extremely funny and make you feel as if you were the most important person in the world.  Fleeing creditors,he would take his large brood on exciting trips to Haiti and other exotic locations, often bringing home stragglers who would stay with the family for awhile and suddenly disappear. He loved to hook up speakers to the large trees outside the farmhouse and play Neil Young for hours on end. Her mother soon opened a portrait photography business in Princeton, which flourished for decades and allowed them to pay some of their mounting bills. It gave her mother an escape valve, but none existed for her youngest daughter, stuck on the farm with her stepfather.

Strangely, McPhee seems to harbor no conscious hostility towards her mother for any sort of neglect.  On the contrary, she’s hesitant to criticize others and tries instead to look for reasons that can explain the irrational things they do, even  her stepfather. She prides herself on her competency, and her ability to organize projects others might run from.  When she first tells one of her sisters she is returning to the farm, and her sister warns her she will be eaten alive, she ignores her and goes ahead with the plan.

Being near her mother brings feelings of both happiness and sadness. She tries to focus on positive memories like her mother taking her to Radio City Music Hall, and then buying a Baskin Robbins ice cream cake, which was always her favorite. She remembers with affection her mother giving her a journal and encouraging her to write about what she saw and felt; adding that their family was unusual and there was much to record. But at night, the farm seemed to ignite disturbing memories of feeling vulnerable and somehow contaminated by all that transpired. She recalls how her biological father would come pick up her and her sisters a few times a week and drive them to school. It’s clear her emotional access to him throughout her childhood years  abruptly terminated when he left, yet she hesitates to condemn him. During the Covid time she spent with her sick mother, she would drive with groceries to her father’s house in Princeton and leave them on the doorstep while waving to him and her stepmother through the window.

All four sisters fled as soon as they were able and established themselves in their own accomplished careers and relationships. But Martha McPhee always felt something was wrong with her in a way for which she had no words. She felt she had been contaminated, humiliated, and disgraced, and this poison had spread into the intimate spaces of her marriage and family. She concedes she lived for most of her life in “a container for the shame of my childhood, the chaos, the fear, the powerlessness, the anger…”  We feel how much she wants to rid herself once and for all of these toxicities before they overtake her.

When she returns to the farm with her family at the beginning of the pandemic, she is hopeful this unexpected reunion will heal her in some magical unexplained way.  She busies herself teaching online, and making elaborate dinners for her almost grown-up kids, who are growing restless. The farm is in serious disrepair, and she methodically sets out to fix things that the owners have left to rot. They need to replace the septic tank. The pool is damaged. They need to remove some of the enormous swath of huge oak trees that shelter the farmhouse, and to plant new trees.

McPhee likes the busyness, having a schedule that bursts at its seams.  It seems to appeal to her perfectionism and a gung-ho attitude she has trained herself to summon towards all impossible things.  The hustle and bustle of certain days makes her feel she is on the right track. She can help the caretaker when her mother, who spends most of the day coloring, gets overexcited and needs to be calmed down. Her mother still seems to know her without knowing her, if such a thing is possible. But all this distraction can only work for so long.

I feel it would be unseemly of me to write about McPhee’s shattering revelations, which she doesn’t get to until her narrative is well underway.  It is apparent she has fought so hard to be able to finally be able to put these words to paper that it would be inappropriate for me to intervene in any way. As a reader, the sheer courageousness of her writing sweeps one away, along with her growing insightfulness into herself and those around her. She wants to make things better for everyone, is hard on herself when she feels she has erred, and wants her own  pain to finally wither and go away. But she knows that will never happen. Her approach to writing a personal memoir is achingly eloquent. She has an innate understanding that a memoir isn’t merely a receptacle for blunt confessions and acquired grievances; it is an art form of the highest order. It is the place a writer embraces only when one is reader to face the deepest agonies of the heart.  Her wizardry here is breathtaking.

(Simon & Schuster, Sept. 12)

(You can pre-0rder Omega Farm here). 

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Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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