What with this book showing up on quite a few of this year’s “best nonfiction” lists, and having received an ALC of the audiobook from Libro.fm, I figured I’d better to get to it before the end of the year.
“My emotions moved through me faster than I could name them. Feeling any of it felt like the beginning of losing control, and losing control felt like certain death in my body, if not my mind. If I didn’t process the feeling, I wouldn’t feel it, and if I didn’t feel it, it couldn’t kill me.”
This memoir is an incredibly personal, emotional recounting of the author’s childhood/young adulthood searching for the best way she could to finally be able to define herself as “somebody’s daughter.” From her complicated (at times fraught) relationship with her mother, to the close but expectation-laden relationship with her grandmother, to her nonexistent but idealistic relationship with her incarcerated father, Ashley Ford communicates with clarity and a brevity that is impressive, considering the depth of the feelings, both how these adults shaped who she became and how she found the space and support she needed outside of them to become herself as well.
While that blurb pretty much covers, topically, everything within this memoir, I do (of course) want to point out a few more things. The way Ford communicates the complicated realities of her parental relationships, from the charged interactions with her mother to a belief in the love of a physically absent father (and the related innocent/pure idolization of said father that can only come from being a child) to the, as mentioned, close but full of deeply internalized judgement-based lessons, relationship with her grandmother, this is a full story of the adults whose actions and reactions formed the person Ford would become and the decisions she would make. The way each supported her (presence, music, words of affirmation) and let her down (emotional instability, the truth of their incarceration), and the way that affected her, is given to the reader with, at times heart-filling and at times heartbreaking, unflinching honesty. Of note, and I’ll put it here because I am not sure where else to put it, the snake story/lesson about family, from her grandmother (that I want to say the cover illustration is in some way related to) was intense. Phew.
Ford also doesn’t flinch away from sharing her experiences with the sexualization of women’s bodies and the unfair and ridiculous responsibility of that being placed upon her (and all young girls’ and women’s shoulders). This is presented in difficult juxtaposition with the layered guilt/shame it built inside her and how it all so horribly combined with her struggle to understand the violence that was done against her in general, and especially in light of coming to terms with her father’s crimes (him as a man) and her adoration of him (him as a father). Along with this, it is worth mentioning that her descriptions of disassociation throughout her childhood for various traumatic events – from her moms verbal/physical abuse to her rape by an older “boyfriend” – are heart wrenching.
I know that during the course of the memoir, Ford addresses this, but I do still want to say that there are quite a few moments where she presents memories from childhood that I do feel like would be really hard for her to truly remember. Like, I don’t remember anything from that age with such intensity and clarity. It makes the reader feel like you don’t want to believe it, honestly. However, as I said, Ford does address this, saying that despite hearing from multiple sources that her remembrance of these events isn’t possible, that doesn’t negate the fact that she does have these memories, backed up with her assertion that, unlike many adults, she has never forgotten what it felt like to be a child. And they are told with the exact mix of awareness and innocence that children seem to possess, so that they hold such a ring of truth that it’s hard to disbelieve them. I’m not sure what my point is here, other than to say I did notice the specificity of childhood memories, questioned it, and ultimately came away convinced of them.
While this memoir was, in the details, much more about her relationships with her mother and grandmother than the blurb makes it seem, there are definitely some culminating/defining moments that come back to her father. And of course, it is impossible to separate out how certain moments of her life might have been different had he been there, so it is correct to say that the looming fact of his absence is real on every page. Regardless, there was a vulnerability and genuineness in these pages, as Ford shares her coming of age through poverty, complicated family relationships, an incarcerated father, adolescence/puberty, and the deep wounds of societal expectations on and interpersonal violence against women, that connects the reader to her, through her words, in a very real way. Ford faces down the impossible things without looking away and one can only finish this memoir full of respect for that bravery and grace.
A number of passages were particularly moving, as the writing was really spectacular throughout. Here are a few of them:
“When children are small, our desires seem small, even if we want the sky. Anything we want seems to be only a matter of time and effort away. It’s too early to imagine what’s already holding you back.”
“The library felt too good to be true. All those books, on all those shelves, and I could just pluck them out, one by one, find an empty chair, and read, and read, and read. When I realized nobody would stop me from browsing in the teen and adult sections, that books were a place where m age didn’t matter as long as I could read the words in front of me, I found a home for my mind and spirit to take root. My imagination had already taken me on a million wild rides, but here was unlimited adventure.”
“Kids can always tell the difference between adults who want to empower them, and adults who want to overpower them.”
“I was tired of being disappointed, and it seemed that disappointment started with wanting things. I tried not to want.”
“It doesn’t take long for children to teach themselves not to want what they’ve already learned they won’t have.”
“I did not mind getting hurt as much as I minded being surprised by the pain. I wanted to see it coming.”
“When you don’t grow up with a certain kind of affection, even if you know you’re worthy of it, it can be hard to accept in adulthood.”
“My mother wasn’t perfect. Our relationship was complicated, and difficult. She was my imperfect mother. We were two different people, and found that hard to accept in one another. But I was hers and she was mine. That’s how it had always been. Who would I be, if not hers? I didn’t want to be without her.”