Allie Rowbottom’s debut memoir and family history, Jell-O Girls, opens with her spooning Jell-O into her dying mother’s mouth. It’s ironic, given their family history, that Jell-O is the only thing her mother Mary can stomach as cancer whittles her body to nothing. Rowbottom and her mother “come from Jell-O,” thanks to the savvy purchase of a great-great-great-uncle in 1899, but this is no enviable inheritance. Mary, whose story is laid out in fine detail over the course of Jell-O Girls, views this legacy as a curse, the very shape and edges of which she dedicates her days to unraveling.
While Mary does not accomplish this mission over the course of her lifetime, Rowbottom certainly does. With crystalline language and a novelist’s measured eye for story, Rowbottom explores Jell-O’s hold over her family, weaving together a history of the sugary treat: a family history full of alcoholism, mental illness, sexual abuse, and ill-fated choices, as well as a cultural history of the domestic-science movement, which played an integral part in shaping America’s vision of femininity in the industrialized, post-War era. In a lesser writer’s hands, this endeavor might have ended in a sloppy mess, but Rowbottom’s skill keeps all of her ingredients remarkably well-contained.
Perhaps it will seem unnecessary to state the central metaphor in Jell-O Girls: that the expected function of women in society is not unlike Jell-O’s, “…the piece that held the family, the culture, the country, together.” It is, in some ways, an antiquated notion. Like Jell-O, the domestic standard of femininity has struggled to stay relevant as more women work outside the home, take on the role of primary breadwinner, or choose to bypass the “socially acceptable” codes of marriage and motherhood. But one doesn’t need to look far, especially in conservative communities, to find a vision of the happy stay-at-home mom still heartily enforced. Even in the most enlightened circles, many woman struggle with the social expectations heaped upon them.
The idea of molding—as in how to shape the ideal salad and how to shape the ideal woman—is a strong theme throughout the book. Even before Mary’s late-night revelation while reading Adrienne Rich that the curse is actually the patriarchy, the reader can see the feminist lens informing the book. Mary’s mother, Midge, relinquishes a career as a journalist to raise two kids, reasoning, despite her hesitation, that “they were what one did after marriage.” When Midge falls prey to breast cancer and dies too young, teenage Mary falls prey to apathy, emotionless sex, and eventually, a mental breakdown. Though her adult life stabilizes some, and Mary clearly loves her only daughter, her marriage falls apart and cancer, too, riddles her body—something only discovered through her own persistence. Beyond the dismissiveness of the medical world, Mary is also denied free access to her own inheritance, even after trying and failing to gain control of it from her older brother through a court of law.
Rowbottom gives patriarchy due diligence as a matter of course, but this is no strident, second-wave manifesto as it might have been if left in her mother’s hands. Jell-O Girls is too subtle for that, too aware of any number of insidious cultural and emotional forces at play to point so direct a finger. Instead, the story remains a probing examination of how familial and cultural bonds can create an epidemic of constrained and physically ill women. This is brought full circle by the inclusion of a 2011–2012 news story from LeRoy, New York (fittingly the “birthplace of Jell-O”), which covered a group of teenage girls suddenly overcome by physical fits of frozenness and convulsions: an illness deemed “conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness” by experts when no other explanation could be found. This illness is not dissimilar to those suffered by Rowbottom and her mother at various points in their lives, and the two women take particular interest in the girls’ plight. Rowbottom writes in regard to the outbreak of illness,
We tend to think that when a woman expresses her bodily pain or suffering, her very expression of it is also her crime. She is both perpetrator and victim of her own trauma. But in doing so we cover over the complicated truth of our anxieties, placing them instead inside the image of a woman, a girl, making her a vessel for all our fears.
In the final third of the book, Rowbottom enters the scene as a young woman who, despite the progress made toward freeing women from the bonds they’ve endured, also suffers from a variety of physical maladies that are easily traced to mental and emotional distress. She spends several years living with an eating disorder and later experiences panic attacks. The female body, it seems, is always a battleground, on both the personal and political level. As Rowbottom enters adulthood, and her mother becomes more and more ill, a profound interdependence arises between them. Before her death, Mary entrusted her story, and the story of Jell-O, to her daughter. Jell-O, that seemingly innocuous, gem-colored dessert, has a darker history than one might expect. Through careful research, Rowbottom reveals the company’s long history of exerting influence on the female body and role in society. Mary may have intuited the curse of patriarchy hanging over her (and every woman’s) head, but Rowbottom brings her mother’s hunches to light.
Jell-O Girls is hard to put down, effortlessly weaving together personal history, family history, cultural history, and more. Rowbottom presents her narrative with the clarity of an outsider, acting as a journalist would, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions about all she uncovers. And while she writes about remarkably charged material, her emotions stay in check, steering this engaging book into clear, fresh territory. That Rowbottom could create a work of such beauty and meaning from her uneasy inheritance is truly an act of redemption.