A chilling read
‘Frozen,’ a new book by Carla Tomaso, is a quirky tale of eerie cryonics, dark twists and a maternal bond like no other that’s not too far from the truth
When Elizabeth finds out her deplorable, recently deceased mother, Helen, has had herself cryogenically frozen, she has mixed feelings. “She was a rotten human being the first time around. Everybody knew it …”
When she learns her inheritance from Helen’s enormous trust is contingent upon Elizabeth’s bringing her back to life and re-raising her from childhood, Elizabeth swallows a bottle of tranquilizers and wakes up in the hospital.
And so begins “Frozen” by Carla Tomaso, a dark, tense comedy involving cryonics, reanimation and a daughter’s determination to create the good mother she always wanted.
While the novel is fantastic, fictional and remarkable, it is also very much Tomaso’s story, one of a woman desperate for her mother’s approval who is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to obtain it.
“Frozen,” Tomaso’s fifth book, revisits the mother/daughter theme found in much of her work and is, despite the creepy cryonics, over-the-top characters and amazing turn of events, the closest to her own relationship with her mother.
Fiction, of course, is never far from truth. And true stories are as fantastic as those imagined or created. Tomaso’s personal story is as extraordinary as the stories she writes, but she shrugs the distinction off as “unremarkable.”
Tomaso is a third-generation lesbian. Her mother and her grandmother were lesbians with stories as riveting and absorbing as anyone could create.
“It’s unremarkable to me, because nobody was really identified as a lesbian,” the author says. “In my grandmother’s generation, lots of women lived together — spinsters, sisters, aunts — and it was thought of as quite normal.”
Tomaso’s grandmother, Peggy, lived a privileged life in Pasadena in the early 1900s. She was very much a society lady, was married off to a suitable husband and had one daughter, Pat. Her husband committed suicide when Pat was 14, and the girl was sent away to school. Peggy later took up with Pat’s hated physical education teacher and they had a long-term “Boston marriage,” as lesbian relationships were termed at the time.
Pat married a Stanford classmate and they had a daughter, Carla, but divorced when Carla was 12. After the divorce, Carla went to live with her father and Pat moved in with a woman Carla hated.
“I don’t think of it as a lovely lesbian history, but instead, it reveals how toxic secret, hidden and denied homosexuality can be,” says Tomaso. “I recall my grandmother making fun of another ‘Boston marriage’ between two of her friends, and my mother never identified as a lesbian because she had to hide the relationship from my father to get alimony.
“My grandmother’s relationship, however, was very happy and they had a good life together” she says. “They were very kind to me, so I felt very positive about women together. And, while my mother’s own relationship was far from good, I grew up knowing many wonderful lesbians.”
Tomaso says being a lesbian is very natural for her, given her unique family culture. It is, she concedes, a background she feels lucky to have, as there was never any shame attached to her own identity. It is the relationship with her mother and the decades of wanting approval that she struggles with and which are still very painful.
Tomaso met her own partner, Mary Hayden, in college and they have been together for more than 40 years. She says having a partner who is a psychotherapist really helps her see things for what they are.
“My mother was just a bad mother,” she says. “She was so bad that my friends labeled her the worst mother ever.”
She then rattles off a stream of examples, all beginning with, “My mother was so bad …,” that it sounds like it could be a comedy act. The anxiety and pain, however, seem just as strong today as when she was a young girl.
“My mother was a classic narcissist. I see that now. All the attention had to be on her all the time. Mary helps me, because she’s seen my mother over the years and how her lack of interest in me affected me. Mary’s view is proof my own feelings are valid.”
Despite the neglect, Carla says she idolized her mother, whom she saw as movie-star glamorous.
Pat was attractive, charismatic and rich. She loved to spend money, drove a Rolls Royce, had maids, liked to buy jewelry, threw lavish parties and had lots of friends, but simply was not interested in her only child.
“To have a mother like that really hollows you out. It’s like you don’t exist. When I was a child, I just wanted her to love me. I was 50 and I still wanted her to love me.”
In “Frozen,” the narrator, Elizabeth, gets the chance to literally raise her mother, to start over.
The book focuses on her journey to wholeness after she thaws out her cryogenically frozen mother, who is reanimated as a 10-year-old girl, and tries to raise her to be the mother she always wanted. Unfortunately, when little mom turns out to be a dangerously exaggerated version of her former self, things quickly get out of hand.
In creating Helen — a character that makes “Mommy Dearest” look tame — Tomaso has written a chilling page-turner, heightened by Elizabeth’s vulnerability and the terrifying anticipation of what Helen will do next.
“Frozen,” she says, “is partly my worst nightmare, partly a fantasy that I could make my mother a better person.”
Tomaso began the book while her mother was still alive and says the writing process helped her work through much of the anger she felt toward her.
When her mother died, Tomaso was still working on “Frozen.” The book, she says, immediately changed direction. It became less about the mother, and the narrator daughter became much more prominent. It’s as though Tomaso herself found her voice. The novel also took on a more quirky, humorous tone.
Tomaso says because of her mother’s narcissism, writing has always been a way to stand out, to be heard. It was a way to get recognition to make up for the attention she wasn’t getting from her mother.
Tomaso’s work is not just about sex, romance and lesbianism. The daughter in “Frozen” is a lesbian, but this goes almost unnoticed, as it’s not central to the plot.
“At 61, lesbianism is not the issue for me. I do, however, have a problem with aging. I think as you get older, you become more invisible. I have a problem with that.”
There is no doubt feeling invisible to her mother has shaped her enormously. She admits it’s shaped her in good ways and bad.
“The good is that I certainly have a big subject to write about and that I had to overcome neglect to develop my own coping mechanisms. The bad is deep insecurity and feeling unsure if I matter, if I’m valuable. My writing may partly come out of this need to be seen,” she says.
A version of this story appears in the December issue of Curves magazine.