New Voices: “Boundaries” by Thalia Williamson

March 4, 2024

“She was a mother who set boundaries.” In her unforgettable essay, Thalia Williamson returns (again and again) to a particular memory from her childhood, as a way to explore her relationship with her mother, her sexuality, her identity. This memory, she writes, “was a negotiation,” a moment that she—for years—has tried to understand.


I am four years old and sitting in the back seat of a car. While I cry, my mother, in the driver’s seat, shouts. It hurts. That’s all there is to it.

I keep returning to this memory. Each repetition revises it. This is how it stands today.

I used to offer more elaborate accounts: with one hand on the wheel, my mother turned to face me. I saw a fury in her eyes like I never saw again—in anyone. We had recently arrived at my friend’s house, a venue that has haunted me ever since. I was supposed to stay the night, had changed my mind, made a stubborn, wailing protest; a sudden terror had clutched my chest. I had left the car before dashing back in; I never left the car. The car had beige leather seats. My hair was blonde. The house had at least two floors and a large private driveway. My mother had hoped she would finally get some time alone. Her eyes glistened with tears. Why have you done this to me?

In no earlier account do I include the pain.

The memory, in other words, was like any other from the distant past. Almost. The difference was that I shared it with someone. It was a touchstone for my mother too. I would raise it time after time.

The memory was a negotiation.

* * *

In the summer of 2020, the same year my mother, with medical assistance and her family in tow, took her own life in Switzerland, I found myself exploring the English countryside with my two brothers. We circled murky ponds along dirt paths, dipped through shaded canopies of oak, were careful not to let nettles brush our skin when we waded through the thickets. It was our first reunion since her death. Nests of leaves carved the sunlight into mottled clumps along the floor. My eldest brother’s wife and kids were with us, but my brothers and I were cordoned off, ensconced in a special zone of quiet grief. My brothers—musclebound, towering figures—are never, when together, quiet.

My eldest brother—the one we’d least expect to take the lead on sharing feelings—broke the silence. I don’t feel bad that I’m glad that she’s gone, he said. None of us were looking at each other, but I imagine his lips were pursed, his eyes stern above his nose, which breakages and surgeries had remolded to a gruff beauty. It’s what she wanted, he said, and she was suffering so much. It really was for the best. It doesn’t mean I love her less.

My middle brother—I believe—agreed. And we wandered along. Canopies. Ponds. Thickets. Nettles.

Guilt shouldn’t even come into it, I said. I spoke as if I was arguing rather than agreeing with my brothers. I probably held a stick I had taken from the dirt path, was whipping the bushes and low-hanging branches.

Her illness killed her, really, I said. I’m not grieving her so much as I am the illness, everything that her disease did to her. To all of us, I mean.

Our relief, I said, doesn’t undermine our love.

If it wasn’t for the illness, I said, then of course I would want her back.

* * *

I remember so little about her. When I try to conjure an image in my mind, I see two faces superimposed. One is crinkled by a mess of tears; on the other is a vacant stare.

After she died, her friends told me how wonderful she was. She was always smiling, they said. She was so brave through it all.

I remember her shouting in the car. I’m four years old. I’m crying. Her eyes glisten. I do not know, in the car, that she is already sick.

* * *

In our two-story home in England, in the quiet village where we lived after we left Singapore, she kept a biscuit box in a kitchen cupboard: Bourbons, chocolate digestives, and shortbreads, and in my later teens, as a special treat, Wagon Wheels—chocolate coated biscuits that encased a thin layer of marshmallow. You could neatly bite off the top half, scrape the marshmallow off with your teeth. We weren’t allowed to have more than two treats in a day and only after dinner. I think we could have three on special occasions.

She was a mother who set boundaries.

I picture the kitchen, the tortilla tone of the tiled floor, the pine-colored biscuit cupboard—an adult’s waist-high—with a little button handle, and the sapphire marble countertop above it. Above that is an arrangement of childhood art.

My middle brother’s drawing shows the five members of our family, stick figures clothed in blues, reds, yellows, and greens, everyone smiling, holding hands. My mother’s flesh is a pastel pink, her hair composed of golden ringlets, if I remember correctly.

Mine is a painting of my mother alone. She is tall and slim. Her head is almost as big as her torso. Light, curly hair cascades down her shoulders. And her face is featureless, an oval mesh of browns: I had made a mistake—perhaps painted her mouth in the wrong shape—and every time I tried to fix her, I ruined her a little bit more, rendered her faceless, monstrous, concealed. I cried so hard they called her to pick me up early from school. I was four-years old, as I had been in the car.

I struggle to picture my mother herself in that kitchen. I cannot see the smile that others tell me she always wore. I cannot imagine her walking, even though she had been able to back then. I see her standing above the sink, looking out the window.

Although I cannot see her face, I know it’s full of sorrow.

And when she turns around, it is an oval mesh of brown. A mysterious, featureless void.

* * *

When I was seventeen, not long after I had been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, I made a gesture towards suicide in the form of some scratches across my left wrist, deep enough that I still have a scar but weak enough that you could see it only if you already knew it was there.

My mother brought a mattress into my bedroom and slept on it nightly in the weeks that followed. She was right there with me, night after night.

She was a mother who set boundaries.

And held me within.

* * *

Had I been crying, in the car, for help?

Had my mother, in the car, been crying for help?

* * *

Now I see her scooting through her apartment in Spain—she has long since lost her battle to keep walking. I’ve told her I need to talk to her. She drives past the sofa and the kitchen table. She bumps into something, a wire or a toy. She renders from the clash an exasperated huff, and her scooter beeps—which she abhors but can’t escape—as she reverses to rechart her trajectory. Then we move together past the network of handles that scaffold her bed. She pauses to screech. She clutches her knee. And we move, via a ramp, onto the balcony.

I’m always coming back to this memory, I say. She sits in the blue scooter with its black leather seat and little black basket. Her eyes are level with my belly button. She hates this arrangement almost as much as when I crouch to bring our heads level. Her hair is a wild bush of thick, interlocking spirals. Even in her 50s, she has few grey hairs. Her face, which was once pale and slender, has become puffy and red; she is still a beauty. You can still see the carve of her cheekbones—a fine-cut shadow that she has passed on to me. I know her smile can still win the day—even if, in this recounting, I am unable to render it.

We’ve discussed it before, I say, this memory, about the time you dropped me off at my friend’s house in Singapore.

I had by this time written a novel based on the pathological relationship I’d had with BDSM fantasies that had, in turn, led me into a relationship with someone who abused me. My mother had read the novel.

I enjoyed the torture scene, she said, when we first discussed it.

The lover had held the protagonist captive, naked and bound, on a cold winter night, with the window open, for at least eight hours. The scene’s most vivid detail is when the captive, set free, after ten or more minutes in a steaming hot shower, continues to shiver from the cold.

You know that it actually happened, I said. It happened to me, mum. To your son (she doesn’t know my gender, because I was, at this stage, unwilling to know).

I thought it was, she said. Yes, I guess I knew it. But I just thought it was so well written.

The source of my fantasies was a puzzle I had sought, through this novel, to solve. A scene within the novel depicted its protagonist as a young boy in Singapore, crying in the back seat of a car. The protagonist understands the scene to hold the key to understanding his mysterious fantasies, but before his investigation within the narrative can really take off, he swings his attention towards the story of his mother’s life.

Through most of my life, the thought of regular sex would make me sick. My fantasies oriented around a woman to whom my merits were worthless, whom I could only please through faithful service, for whom I would take pain, indulging her sadistic desire. I expected nothing in return; the pain by itself was at once my pleasure and my only means to access her. She whipped, cajoled, spat, and smirked. She slapped, and she complained. She was always tightly clad. Nudity would smash the fantasy’s mirror—revealing too much of what was its purpose to hide.

The dominatrix enjoyed, but she was never pleased. Since she was never satisfied, neither was I. All I craved was her satisfaction, to release her from anhedonia, like my life depended on it.

So out there on the balcony, when I had asked my mother about that day when I was crying in the car, all of these stories rotated in my depths.

I think about that day often, my mother says.

I had earlier rolled a copious number of cigarettes and put them in a Tupperware. I brought at least one with me, and I lit it for her as she considered what to say next. She took a massive puff, and her hand trembled as she reached to pinch it.

I feel terrible about that day, she says. I have been such a bad mother. I feel I have been an awful mother to all three of you.

I put my hand on her shoulder. I don’t remember what time of day this happened. Perhaps the sun was setting, and lilac streaks ripped open the sky.

I’m sorry I keep bringing it up, I say. But we’ve been through this before, this silly idea that you failed as a mother. Hey—wasn’t that like, the only time you ever really lost your temper with me? Not too bad, right?

I just always think I’ve been a bad mother, she says.

You’re only human, I say.

I just wasn’t a great mother, she says. I often think about that day.

So we talk about motherhood. I talk about the importance of self-forgiveness. We talk about the difference between malice and mistake. Perfection, as they say, is the enemy of the good. I try to convince her that I’m doing OK, that really, I’m not struggling as much as it might seem. A child had cried in a car, once upon a time. Why did I have to bring it up? What is wrong with me? Am I a terrible son?

You are a flawed human being, I say, like everyone else. And you were the best mother a son—she will never know I’m her daughter–could ever ask for.

Her cigarette is almost out. I pinch it from her lips, careful not to burn myself.

But I do.

* * *

When else have I cried in front of my mother?

She cried after getting lost; she had insisted on giving me a lift. Another time, when I arrived home from school, and when I entered the study, she began to cry—my brothers had by now left home, and this was now a regular scene. In my twenties, she cried on the phone, sometimes weekly, often multiple times a week, occasionally she was in full flow before I’d even answer, hardly able to speak. She cried on her birthday once when I took her out to dinner. She felt bad about how her illness affected my father, she would tell me. She was in pain; she was always in so much pain. She was distraught that her nephew and niece won’t form memories of her healthy days. She feared that I’d forget her better days too. She thought she’d been a terrible mother. The restaurant, on that birthday, didn’t have a ramp.

Am I the keeper of her tears?

Whenever it happened, my eyebrows, on cue, would snap into a furrow that gave the impression—to me and her alike—of sympathy and concern.

Behind them, I was a child, crying in a car.

You’re only human, I say.

Everyone makes mistakes.

You’re going through so much.

You’re not a malicious person.

* * *

I want to talk about the memory, I say.

She’s on her scooter again, but this time we’re indoors; we sit in a brightly lit living room on adjacent red sofas.

My mother brings a glass of whiskey to her lips, leans forward a little, lets her eyes fix on a nothing at the room’s far end, like she is somewhere else—like maybe, by the time I have brought up the memory, she has already ceased to listen.

I don’t think the memory is about you, I say.

She puts the glass down. The lids of her eyes seem to droop a little.

Your presence at the scene was just incidental, I say.

She doesn’t let go of the glass.

I think something happened in that house the last time I had stayed there, I say. That’s why I was so scared. I’m sorry to have to bring you in—it’s just an unfortunate coincidence.

I’ve either got all her attention, I feel, or she’s totally somewhere else.

When I think of the memory, I say, I can see the inside of the house; I see a shadowy figure’s form expand to fill a hallway. I feel terror. And I feel that this terror has followed me ever since that day.

She picks the glass up again, brings it to her lips. Her gaze hasn’t shifted. She is not being rude; she’s sick, and her medication cocktail is ever expanding.

I think that’s why I can’t let go of it, I say. I’m just trying to figure out what made me this way.

She gulps.

Like it’s the key to everything, I say.

The fantasies, I say. The depression. How susceptible I have been to mistreatment and abuse.

It was never, I say, about you.

* * *

I just don’t think I was a very good mother.

* * *

Sometimes I think that when people criticize themselves—I say to my mother in the apartment in Spain—it’s just to protect themselves. It’s like they’re making the criticism before anyone else gets a chance.

She says: You really shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.

* * *

After I finished my novel, I consider contacting the people who lived in that house in Singapore. Maybe one of them remembers something. I search LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram. I download WeChat. I get lost in a sea of people who share the same name. I know nothing else about the residents but that one of them is around my age and had been to the same primary school. I don’t want to ask my parents. This idea—that I had been molested as a child—recurs throughout my life.

Everyone tells me to leave it alone (isn’t that in itself suspicious? I ask). Except my mother. Placing the whiskey glass on the table, she is silent, vacant; her empty hands shake.

Attempts at sex have always made me wretch and vomit, I say. What else could be behind it?

I just want to know, mum, if you can remember anything else about that day, about those people in the house.

* * *

I was a terrible mother, my mother says in a montage in my mind—she’s in her scooter; she’s on the sofa; she’s on her knees in the garden, back in the days when she could walk; she’s in the car driving me into town; she’s in the passenger seat when I drive her home. A terrible mother, she says, sometimes staring into the distance, sometimes her face all scrunched like a tissue, utterly soaked in tears.

She is just so hard on herself, I tell my dad.

She really is so hard on herself, my dad tells me.

Because he and I are the keepers of her tears.

* * *

A few days after my mother’s death, my father shows my brothers and me a series of films he had made with her. In each film, he asks her what she thinks about each of us, respectively. He puts the one that pertains to me on first. God, she’s in a torrid state. She has so many drugs in her system that she seems to hardly know where she is. They’re in my dad’s little windowless storage and work room. The room is just grey walls and clutter. She doesn’t look at the camera. Does she even know she’s being filmed?

He was always a troubled boy, she says.

She is speaking about me. She is just about to die; she still doesn’t know that I’m a woman—that I had been her little girl. There had once been a time when I would try to express it. Then I learnt to keep it to myself. Then I learnt to keep it from myself.

He seemed very lost in life, she says. And then he met that awful woman.

I had never heard her speak like this. He is so sensitive—I had overheard her say. You always do worry—she told me, in my childhood, when I was cast as Mr. Worry in a school play. But more typical was: I love you; you really are quite incredible; your writing is brilliant; you are special.

By the time my dad realizes he has shown the wrong clip—a bad first take, he says—my brothers are shuffling, looking anywhere but the screen or me. My faced is scrunched like a tissue, utterly soaked in tears.

I keep her tears, as in a locket, wherever I go.

* * *

You were the best mum—I say in a montage in my mind—any child could ever ask for.

* * *

I don’t think the memory is about you, I say. Do you remember anything else about that day, about other trips to that house? What was that family like? I think something happened in that house, but I can’t remember a thing.

When we lived in Singapore, my mother says, I was in a bad depression. I was in a bad way at the time. I think I had post-natal depression, and it lasted for a few years. I feel so bad about how I was in those years.

I get that, mum, I say. I kind of know what it’s like; I think you passed on the depression gene to me, after all.

I should have never been a mother, she says.

I didn’t mean it like that, I say. Look, you’ve always said therapy was pointless, because it can’t help with your illness, but I also think you went through a lot of trauma.

I don’t remember my childhood well, she says.

It was always my brother, she says, who got given a hard time.

The protagonist of my novel, whenever he started to consider his childhood, whenever the reader might feel like they’re close to an answer, would unearth more about his mother, would fixate upon her mystery, on her story, on the brown oval splosh that hides her true expression.

* * *

After my mother’s father died, my uncle wrote a scathing essay about him, called SPY AND PATRIOT. My grandfather had published a novel, set during the second world war, whose protagonist is a ‘steely-eyed’ spy who infiltrates the Libyan headquarters of the Nazi general, Erwin Rommel.

The truth will come out in the end, my grandfather wrote in the opening section, titled WARNING. For now, this is the closest you will get to it.

My uncle’s essay would debunk the insinuation behind this claim. The spy in the novel poses as a German officer whom the British had captured and with whom he shares an uncanny resemblance. He is so skilled that he fools even the officer’s wife, for years, while having an affair with her sister.

It is not the hardest claim to debunk.

But my uncle takes six-thousand words to do it. The debunking is a vehicle for settling scores.

[My father] could best be described, my uncle writes, as a victim of his Victorian upbringing, and he carried a Victorian attitude, strictness, and manner into his own marriage and family which would hardly be comprehended by today’s more liberal society.

My grandfather was a liar. He lied about his army rank and his adventures as a spy. He was Parsi, but we didn’t know it until after he died. Did he play for the Harlequins, like he had claimed? There isn’t any evidence. What was he like as a father?

I know he had what we would now call PTSD, my mother told me once, from the war.

I suffered physical consequences for my actions—my uncle writes in his essay—which did little to improve our strained, somewhat formal relationship.

This seems to me the crux of the matter.

* * *

My mother did not suffer physical consequences, as far as she remembers. When she misbehaved, her father beat up her brother, typically with a dog leash or a belt.

But I didn’t go through any trauma—she insists, when we talked about her childhood—I was just afraid of him. I always wanted to be a good little girl.

* * *

When she tells me that she is going to go to Switzerland to die, I begin work on a nonfiction book about my grandfather. I start to see him in that memory: me in the backseat, my mother in a rage, his spirit looming above us or bridging the gap between us. It’s like he is the sky hanging over our heads.

I begin to interview my mother daily. I live in Berlin at the time, where my grandfather had once lived and worked as a journalist. I follow in his footsteps as I speak to my mother on the phone. I walk from the communist blocks of Lichtenberg to the cobbled streets of Neukölln, weathering the bitter cold. To write, I settle in rustic, artsy coffee shops where bare bulbs dangle from the ceiling or else everyone shares a big, round table to write. I sometimes write thousands of words in a single session, at once distracting myself from my incoming loss and diving head-first into it. I frame the story about my granddad through my journey to discover him, which is to say, through my relationship with my mother.

I didn’t feel loved by either of my parents, my mother says.

She can only learn of one thing that her mother would say to her: You’re no beauty, but you’re quite attractive.

It wasn’t the happiest childhood, my mother says.

* * *

I stand on a bridge in Friedrichshain, gathering the courage to enter an H&M, where I want to buy a dress—my first. Days after my mother called me to inform me of her impending death, I began to read articles on the internet by transgender people about their experiences of coming out. I remember tears flooding my tissue face as I read. I don’t remember crying as I wrote about my mother.

I have called my mother not to tell her I’m buying a dress but to delay the act.

Standing on the bridge, near the H&M, I ask my mother to visit herself in her imagination as the little girl whom her mother described as no beauty. She resists. I keep on pushing. I want you to know what it’s like, I tell her, to treat yourself with the kindness you afford to others.

Fine, she says. I can see her.

If you knew she could hear you, I say, what would you tell her?

I listen to the quiet hiss of the phone line. I stare across the bridge at the H&M.

Then she says it: You’re a beautiful little girl.

I love you more than anything in the world, she says.

This is all I’ve ever wanted, I say. For you to say—and see—just this.

To love yourself, I said. Was that so bloody hard?

I suppose not, she says, as I finally start walking towards the store.

And she says, How are you feeling, darling?

I tell her that I’m scared, but I don’t say what of, and as I wrap up our conversation, I slink through H&M’s women’s section like a steely-eyed spy, and I buy my first dress.

* * *

When I close my eyes today, three years later, I see myself in the back seat of a car. I am crying. My mother, in the driver’s seat, is shouting. And it hurts.

I can also see her face, a human face, contorting and twisting, spitting out its pain, unable to control it. I feel myself as a vessel—as a child, mistaking herself for a vessel—for containing that pain, becoming so full so as to no longer feel my own.

Across these tissue pages I pour it out.

* * *

I’m not grieving her so much as I am the illness—I had said that day I wandered, with my brothers, through the English countryside—everything that her disease did to her.

If it wasn’t for the illness, I said, then of course I would want her back.

I feel like I never really knew her, I continued. The sun was setting. Perhaps lilac streaks ripped open the sky. After she died, I continued, whenever I’ve heard anyone talk about her, I feel like they can’t be talking about the same person. Was I the only one who could see her? Or am I one of the few who can’t?

When I grieve, I said, all I can feel is the pain she suffered and how grateful I am that it’s gone.

I don’t remember what, if anything, my brothers said to this. Only that it had gotten dark, and it was time to go home.

* * *

I am in a car, crying.

I’ve been a terrible mother, my mother would say.

But this, like the memory itself, was only a diversion.

It was never really her point.

Thalia Williamson is an essayist, fiction writer, and poet. Her writing has appeared in
Joyland Magazine, The Audacity, Longreads, BRINK, The Masters Review, The Bard Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books

She was a finalist for the 2023 BRINK Literary Journal Award for Hybrid Writing and a semifinalist for the 2022 Sewanee Review Fiction Contest. Her work has received support from the Tin House Scholarship for Trans Writers, the Sewanee Tennessee Williams Scholarship, the Marius DeBrabant Fund, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

She was born in London and now lives in Los Angeles, where she is completing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside and a BA in Philosophy from King’s College London.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved