Hopey: From Commune to Corner Office
Reviewed by Terry Galvan.
Mueller’s incisive autobiography illustrates an inspiring, if unconventional, upbringing in a household where alternative “hippie” culture is the norm.
Southern Indiana doesn’t necessarily conjure images of flower children or Woodstock-style orgies. Mueller’s memoir sheds light on this niche subculture tucked between railroad tracks and abandoned warehouses in a small university town. Mueller’s mother wasn’t a privileged kid fleeing suburbia, but an unwanted daughter fleeing rural Appalachia in pursuit of a better life. There, Mueller’s mother didn’t just join a commune—she ran it.
Hopey functions as a suspenseful, productive conversation among mother, child, and sister reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. With an unpretentious authenticity rarely seen in nonfiction, Mueller’s writing shatters the madonna-whore archetype of motherhood and femininity. Male romantic partners are transient and episodic, if colorful; none of them stay around for more than a few pages. They leave their mark but do not dominate the narrative, functioning more as set pieces on the great arc of these women’s journey together. The smell of marijuana, she says, is the smell of her childhood. Perhaps most touching are Mueller’s nonjudgmental meditations on parenting and motherhood, in which she fleshes out her mother as a fundamentally good and wholesome person with human struggles. Despite recurring poverty and lack of what we consider to be basic necessities, Mueller describes the “commune years” of her childhood as blissful.
Mueller’s an empathetic writer who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, regardless of their questionable behavior. Such naïveté might trouble the average onlooker, but Mueller demonstrates adept street smarts and how she learned them—often young, and often the hard way. The narrative never disintegrates into “poverty porn.” Her discussions of trauma don’t focus on misery, but rather on the universal human experience of being shaped partially by family, but mostly by her own willpower. Neither confrontational nor accusatory, Mueller is merely bold in her honesty. She avoids “cleaning up” the truth for the sake of a PG or “safe for work” rating. I worried for young Mueller and her comrades during their escapades, but she shows they were able to develop adult competencies at early ages. Not lost on me was the perhaps unintentional narrative symmetry of drugs: her parents’ recreational and at-times debilitating addiction at the beginning of her life eventually leading to her flourishing career at a drug company. She’s the opposite of a burnout, and she wasn’t necessarily an exception among the “commune kids.”
Hopey can be read as the antithesis to modern parenting attitudes examined in Kim Brook’s Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear (2018). Short vignettes alternate childhood memories with reflections on how those early experiences inform her adult life as a mother and an executive at a pharmaceutical firm. Not needing or necessarily benefiting from conventional “helicopter” parenting, Mueller emphasizes that the lack of structure in her youth was part of what motivated her later success in the corporate world. She reflects that she’s drawn towards order and stability due to lack thereof in her childhood; her valuable ability to make sense of chaotic data in the corporate setting was learned from managing her childhood home.
If anything, this book is about making the best of strange situations, and walking away from bitterness. The alternating vignette format condenses the scope of a full memoir into digestible essays that one could assign with equal relevance in Business 101 or a child psychology class to read overnight. Mueller’s brief, poignant chapters had me on the edge of my seat, held steady with through-lines of order versus chaos and past versus present—not to mention the unbelievably good intentions of the people in its pages.
Chicago’s complex social landscape inspires Terry Galvan’s writing, from the realistic to the fantastic to the downright horrifying. A former anthropologist and Fulbright grantee, Terry spends nights performing at literary events throughout the city, shopping their novel, and nursing their Catholic guilt with a good deal of whiskey. Follow Terry on Twitter @TerryGalvanChi and terrygalvan.com.