If clothes make the woman, then the white dresses detailed in Mary Pflum Peterson’s memoir make a helluva good story. A helluva true good story. “White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters” (William Morrow, $15.99) is a sweeping family saga depicting three generations of women and the white dresses they wore on days filled with both joy and sorrow. Among the issues Mary tackles: her mother’s abusive experience in the convent as a young nun; marriage to a man who later revealed himself to be gay; mental illness; and the compulsive hoarding that put the bonds of mother and daughter to the ultimate test. Today, it’s the stuff of a special segment on an important news show, such as “Good Morning America.”
In the wake of her mother’s untimely death, Mary dug deep to understand her mother’s unraveling. With the trained eye of a journalist, the gift of narrative prose, and the unwavering empathy of a loving daughter, Mary explores the episodes that comprised her and her mother’s lives through the prism of the white dresses that marked many of life’s milestones:
The dress worn by Anne when she became a nun and married Jesus: Anne was in the convent for nearly a decade during the 1950s, where she suffered abuse ranging from starvation to denial of medical care. She fled in dramatic fashion. While Anne left the convent, she never left the Church, and remained a devout Catholic until her death.
Anne’s wedding gown: After leaving the convent, Anne hoped to find new purpose as a wife and mother, and married an abusive, closeted gay man. Mary eventually rebuilt her relationship with her father after he came out and divorced her mother. Because of their strict Catholic faith, the marriage was annulled, making Mary illegitimate in the eyes of the Church.
Mary’s high school graduation dress: By the time Mary was ten years old, her house was cluttered with broken appliances and stacks of unopened mail. Anne promised but failed to clean up for Mary’s high school graduation party, a celebration honoring Mary as her school’s valedictorian, causing her perfectionist daughter’s fear and shame to grow in tandem with the heaps upon heaps of junk.
Mary may have endured a difficult childhood, but she persevered and excelled. She was valedictorian of her high school class in Beaver Dam, WI, and graduated Summa cum Laude from Columbia University, where she broke into the competitive world of TV news. She is currently a multi-Emmy Award-winning producer at ABC’s “Good Morning America”, the nation’s number one morning program, and lives in New York with her husband and four small children.
“White Dresses” is extremely unique in scope and detail, yet universal in the author’s curiosity, uncovering the layers of family history and self-discovery. It will appeal to mothers and daughters everywhere and speak volumes to those who have been touched by mental illness, hoarding and the complexity of what it is to be a modern Catholic family. Readers will be inspired to explore and better understand the relationships with their own loved ones.