The most meaningful time Amy Chua (the much reviled and read "Tiger Mother" of recent controversy to the tune of over 7,000 comments on her book's first published excerpt) makes a person cry in her latest book, it is not either of her daughters being raised by Chua's iron fist who are spilling the tears. It's a stranger at a party, who leaves after hearing Chua tell a story about calling one of her daughters "garbage." After seeing that reaction and otherwise receiving information on how offensive her behavior can come off (she hurts other mothers' feelings repeatedly as she denies invitations for playdates on behalf of her girls), I have no doubt that she knew that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was the book she had to write. With dark humor and Ann Coulter-like provocation, Chua plays up her own ghoulishness on every page. In addition to the countless things that by Western eyes look like terrible things to say to one's child, she informs us that she knows how to use a chainsaw (a product of obeying her father strictly!) and probably caused the death of a pair of rabbits her husband bought her daughters that she never had interest in caring for ("Eventually, the rabbits mysteriously escaped," is how she ominously concludes that story). She describes her intonation as vicious and herself as "compulsively cruel" in a book whose surface objective is to defend her take on the "Chinese way" of parenting (readers should obviously beware of any cultural study that limits itself to one subject). For someone who claims that she's "not very good at enjoying life," she sounds like she's having a blast.
Chua is very, very good at talking about herself, but somewhat deficient in understanding her effect on people. In this way, her personality is pure reality star: all the self-consciousness in the world, not enough self-awareness to save her life (sometimes this is not an issue to her, as at one point she explains that she "was too anxious to care about being annoying" -- not that she ever does, anyway!). She says she feels deeply moved by her own nonsense speech that has no awareness of the cinema it purports to contrast with real life: “In Disney movies, the ‘good daughter’ always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then take off her clothes and run into the ocean or something like that. But that’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that’s freedom – not running into the ocean.” I can't think of any such Disney movie, let alone multiple, let alone one ever with teenage nudity. Chua supports the supposed closeness of her daughter Lulu and her mother by explaining "they were e-mail penpals," suggesting that the computer monitor gave off more warmth in her house than any human interaction. She doesn't just shun every invitation to a playdate, she bemoans the very concept ("Why why why this terrible Western institution?"). In a particularly over-the-top (hence, much-discused) scene, her daughter gives her a birthday card that doesn't live up to her expectations and she tells that daughter to redo it with more effort ("I reject this"). She doesn't for a moment consider that her daughter's insincere rush job might be stemming from the brutal way her mother treats her. Maybe she can't stand Amy's ass, and "Here you go! Blah! Happy birthday!" is the only thing the little girl's soul can muster.
There's a similar push behind repeated demands that her daughters write speeches (eulogies for their grandmother's funeral, toasts for their father's birthday party) -- in short, she wants her daughters to emote without feeling. It may be her most challenging in a laundry list of demands. It has everything to do with how Chua views the world and may have a little something to do with how she herself was raised (with a similar iron fist that pushed her toward academics and away from socialization). Above all else, she is not here to make friends: "You have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you," she writes. Granted, it's the most sophisticated take on that cliche we've seen thus far, but not here to make friends is not here to make friends.
There is no doubt, either, that she is here to win. Chua swears her daughter Lulu (her second born and main adversary -- Sophia, the elder, is a relative breeze in that she submits to her mother's demands to overachieve) loves the violin she's forced to play because "I’d see her joking around and laughing spiritedly at rehearsals." Yeah, or maybe Lulu was just trying to make the best of hell. So much of the book is dedicated to relaying the hours of rehearsing and traveling to rehearse and traveling to perform in Europe and Carnegie Hall and blah blah blah blah that it sooner or later should emerge to the reader that Chua is nothing if not a high-brow stage mom. What seals it is a passage toward the end of the book, as she copes with Lulu's diminishing involvement in the violin and her own need to let go: "I had to force myself not to rock and back forth [sic] and hum robotically, which is what I usually do when the girls perform a difficult piece.” Chua is the most articulate Toddlers & Tiaras mother ever and this book is her stage at last. She goes above and beyond vicarious living through her daughters. Overachieving runs deep in her family.
And that is to say that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is fantastically entertaining, specifically for someone like me, who doesn't want kids of his own and is never particularly excited to be around others'. This is extreme human behavior rendered in print and full of scenes that will be impossible to take seriously when they're inevitably blown up on the big screen (imagine Chua running through the Red Square in sandals crying, or the fight that leads up to that fleeing, which includes the sentences, "We’re in Russia, and you refuse to try caviar! You’re like a barbarian.”). Chua has a very dry sense of humor ("The summer after Florence’s passing was a difficult one. To begin with, I ran over Sophia’s foot.") and an extremely nuanced sense of villany -- she knows that what is not revealed is exponentially more ominious than the horrors that she shares ("I was mortified and disciplined Lulu severely at home," is how she concludes one story, pausing from her own word vomit for effect). At times her descriptions are enviable in their precision (on her husband's ailing mother: "I remember how small she looked against the white hospital pillows, like a 75% photocopy reduction of herself"). At other times, the very absurdity of her nature seems unbeknown to her -- when she finds out her Samoyed ranks average on a scale of dog breeds' intelligence, she describes herself as "nauseated." It takes her 30 pages to admit: "I had finally come to see that Coco was an animal, with intrinsically far less potential than Sophia and Lulu." There's even a very nice reversal of power in the book's coda, when Chua talks about getting Sophia's and Lulu's approval for the book, and the headache it was to negotiate two sets of notes. She seems at the mercy of her daughters and at last human.
But that's a brief flash -- it's mostly just melodrama and grand proclamations. Instead of clutching my pearls reading about her boorish mothering, I held my stomach in laughter while reading this book as camp. (Knowing that at least one of Chua's daughters is whip-smart, hilarious and still alive helps keep even the heaviest passages light.) Simply put, "If the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!” is the new "NO WIRE HANGERS!" ("You already have a pet. Your violin is your pet," is a close runner-up.) Chua has effectively written her own Mommie Dearest from the other side's point of view. It's impossible to say whether she felt the need to beat her daughters to it or if she just wanted to brag, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Were there easy answers, this book wouldn't be anywhere nearly as fascinating, and it damn sure wouldn't be the work of a Tiger Mother.