I am not sure where I first heard about this memoir, but the title, and knowing that it was written by a queer woman, had me adding it to my TBR without knowing much more. Then I actually bought it for myself in my Holiday “gift to myself” book haul in January. As I was looking through possible book options for The Reading Women Challenge 2020 prompt #24, a book from their own 2019 Award Shortlists, I saw this was one of the nonfiction short-listers, and knew both that it was going to be my choice and that now was the time to start reading it.
“Sometimes it feels like we are only this: moments of knowing and unknowing one another. A sound that is foreign until it’s familiar. A drill that’s a scream until it’s a drill. Sometimes it’s nothing more than piecing together the ways in which our hearts have all broken over the same moments, but in different places. But that’s romantic. Sometimes it’s realer than that.”
This memoir covers, primarily, Madden’s childhood and formative years in Boca Raton, Florida. The focus of many of the pieces, as the title hints at, is her relationship with her parents, though her father’s fairly recent death definitely brings her relationship with him as a central point of introspection and remembrance. There are also a few essays that cover more recent years, with, again, a focus on [reconnecting with] her father, in addition to (at least in part) her sexual awareness/awakening/exploration/understanding and coming-out. There is also a wonderful (and “twist”-y, in a way that makes you realize that sometimes real life is stranger than fiction) last section that covers some of her mother’s life and the way certain choices she made in her youth (or rather, was forced to make) have had reverberating effects through the years and in Madden’s present-day life.
I’d like to just open with the fact that this memoir was amazing. I couldn’t stop reading it. The language was so gorgeous, the writing so artistic, poignant in an emotionally staccato sort of way that I loved, that I tried to read it slowly, to savor it (it’s writing that is made to be savored). I tried so hard to pace myself. But by the time I was about a third of the way through, I just couldn’t hold back anymore and I binged the rest of it in a single sitting. I just legitimately couldn’t help myself. It was that compulsively compelling.
If you are someone who had any form of turbulent relationship with a parent, or one with any inconsistencies in involvement and oversight, Madden captures that reality perfectly. She speaks about the small, beautiful moments they shared together throughout her childhood, the sacrifices and changes they worked hard to make for her benefit. And at the same time, she is able to clearly and candidly discuss the emotional trauma many of their choices directly/indirectly caused her (TW: sexual assault, substance use, some neglect). It elicits nostalgia, love and sympathy simultaneously and her ability to write that all at once really got me in the feels (all types of feels). Even if some of the extremes in her parents’ lives don’t apply to you or your experience, there is still a recognizability in the ups and downs of a parent-child relationship that applies to a much wider spectrum of people, a recognizability that adds considerable…depth(?), or something like that…to her personal memories and tellings.
There are a few essays in particular that I want to call out, that I particularly liked or was affected by. First, I loved “Another Word for Creep” – I recognized myself in a number of parts of it and there’s always something special about those types of books/essays, for me, as a reader. In this vein, I really saw parts of myself in the many unexplainable(?), confused(?) reactions that she had to other girls throughout her younger years, that cropped up as small parts in many of the essays. This unknown pull, with no clear words to express it or understand it (because who were the models for what was possible there?) was very familiar. I picked up on it every single time she noted it and could think of a similar time I had for every single one. In “Can I Pet Your Back,” the list of things that the “popular” people were allowed to do/have/try that I absolutely was forbidden from came back in a rush. Almost every single thing Madden mentioned hit on a memory I thought I had forgotten and the things I wanted but wasn’t allowed. I definitely don’t regret not being allowed them, not anymore, but the feeling of it being so unfair still lives in me. “Collected Dates With My Father” was emotional and poignant – I loved that entire essay from start to finish, including (maybe especially) the way it jumped in time. And, of course, the last section, all of “Kuleana.” From learning more about Madden’s mother’s story, of finding new/lost family, and learning a bit about Hawaiian legends/beliefs, had me completely invested, lost in the pages. Last note, and this is a smaller thing, not specific to a single essay, but every time she mentioned her nosebleeds, I felt a major stir of connection. I had terrible and repetitive nosebleeds, bad ones, as a child. I had a couple small procedures to address them, but I remember being so embarrassed by it, because I couldn’t really control when they happened and stopping them was sometimes very difficult. Down to the feeling of swallowing down the feeling of blood in her throat with her head tipped back, it gave me visceral flashbacks.
After reading the first couple essays, I took a break to stalk Madden on IG a little bit (because, of course) and saw a recent post she made with an adolescent photo of herself and an apology to that younger self for all she had to endure growing up, with a message saying she, Madden, loved her. Honestly, that basically sums up how I felt reading and reacting to this entire memoir. It was mesmerizing, touching, blunt and sort of musical (I don’t know exactly what I mean by that, by the descriptor sounds right to me, so I’m keeping it). What a family, what a life and *hugs* to the girl who lived it all and survived to share it with others like herself who need the touchstone it will provide. I devoured this memoir and I highly recommend it.
A few quotes/passages I highlighted as I read:
“I think about the look just before the happening.”
“Secrets are the only kind of love I know.” (a haunting and affecting line for a child to say/feel)
“A body, severed, does not die right away. If fights, thrashes. Every part of it remembers.”
“She is strong in ways I won’t comprehend until I am much older.” (this line really struck me, what things we don’t understand the magnitude and difficulty of as children)
“But I’d do anything. That’s the problem with me. It still is. I never even pretend to hesitate.” (hits hard and deep)
“No one can hurt you the way a mother can. No one can love you the way a mother can.”
“It’s not that I never thought about it. Girls. Women. It’s that I thought about it too much.” (this, this is it)
“I start to run. Slowly at first, and then faster. A neck-throbbing run. We run from the sharp pings of freezing rain and we run to keep our blood from freezing. We run for [her] hair. I run to keep my hands from trembling. She runs to show me how well she can run in heels. I run because I don’t want time to talk, for her to take back what she’s just said, or for me to do the same.”
“If my mother gave me language, my father gave me magic.”
“But that mother-daughter things – I believe in it now. It’s something that can spool out forever like a string between two cups. A thread that will hum when you need it.”