Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology by Nancy C Atwood (Editor), Roger Atwood (Editor)

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They will tell you that the depth of that meanness often depends on what life has done to a person, on the impressions left by brushes with people different from you, on those rare times when the parallel universes came close enough to touch. -Rick Bragg from All Over but the Shouting 

Growing up in working class America takes the spotlight in this non-fiction collection of excerpts from memoirs written in the 1980’s to 2014. The many voices within encompass more differences than their ethnicity, each life experience despite location is it’s own microcosm. The readers themselves are brushing up against parallel universes here. Some grew up with parents who were immigrants, wanting desperately to gain an education, no matter how limited their options. “I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s going to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” This from Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  For so many immigrants their limited language skills in their new country has them working jobs far beneath their skill and education level, naturally children growing up in such homes have to help their family out, to stay afloat even working as young as nine as Luis J. Rodriguez did. Child labor wasn’t new to the Rodriguez family, his own mother a cotton picker. Maya Angelou herself wandered the streets, living in an empty car in a junkyard for days. There lies a pulsing heart full of determination, at such a tender age. Something about struggle lends wisdom, feeds talent, some gain strength from adversity they face but there wasn’t really a choice, not where living in poverty is concerned. You do what you have to do.

We talk about race and inequality, but reading about it from another’s perspective is a different experience entirely. This excerpt from Joe Queenan’s Closing Time: A Memoir, speaks volumes about how sheltered our world views often are when we are young and surrounded only by what we are taught and experience in our own environment. “Until our paths crossed, I had no idea that people with dark skins were even allowed to be Brides of Christ.” Poverty and abuse too, it is inspiring to read about the mountains others have traversed, that even when it seems fate is against them, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and fought their way to what they wanted, a better life. It’s not enough to be smart, conformity is often the beast one had to embrace, danger, racism, and discrimination. Class, coming from nothing you have to learn how to fit into those grand, distinguished places you find yourself in, places others navigate with ease, born to it. It’s not enough to ‘make it’, you have to survive and figure out where you fit and how. It’s rebelling when you need too, conceding when you have to. We like to think we’re above class in the Western World but it’s just as alive here as anywhere else. Maybe you don’t enter places where your social standing is tested, your education, your wealth or maybe such doors are closed to you, but they exist all the same.

Alcoholism and how children grow up in the midst of it, the fighting over money and lack thereof. The things mothers and fathers keep from each other, a game children are not yet well versed in and the disastrous consequences as shared in an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir (and a personal favorite of mine) The Liar’s Club. Mothers of divorce who get lonely and try on a man and his family, blended families not quite mixing. Salvation that is almost as bad as loneliness, trying to become a part of a new family like Tobias Wolff. Hanging with kids on the city streets, all rough and tumble. Friendships with boys whose homes become refuges where some mothers play piano and fathers have excellent libraries, an eye into different worlds. Homes where bigotry is just as natural as breathing, where mother’s get beatings and crying “Don’t hurt my teeth”, is her only defense as her son watches on afraid momma will be killed. (Rick Bragg,  All Over but the Shoutin’).

This collection is varied and wonderful, even in the darkest corners there is light. It offers up meaningful moments in some of the most ‘hardscrabble lives’ as told through memoirs that will likely inspire readers to read the full books.

Available Now

University of Georgia Press

 

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Being Mean: A Memoir of Sexual Abuse and Survival by Patricia Eagle

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What has been lived will never be erased, and possibly never be completely understood.

Being Mean was a term as violent as a loaded gun in Patricia’s household. Her memories of her childhood and the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her father, enabled by her cold mother isn’t easy to stomach. It’s a society built on silence, the weapon isn’t used solely by abusers but entire families because to confront the horror of what is happening is to admit a sort of defeat and vileness in one’s own home. To the victim, particularly when it starts at a tender age, there is a traffic jam in the brain because how does a child understand what is happening to them when there is a chaos of confusion and conflicting feelings? Our bodies feel good, so is that bad if what is happening is something you both hate and enjoy? How do you measure normal with nothing to compare it to, until you’re old enough to witness what an easy, natural, harmless affection is between father and child?

How often, through stories of abuse survivors, do we hear that when the victim tried to tell their other parent or a trusted family member they were  ‘smacked across the face’ or deemed a liar, a bad girl/boy? Worse, jealousy- a mother jealous of the affections given to her child, affections that violate every cell of the little girl’s being. How do you grow up and not act out or struggle with impulses? It isn’t unusual for a woman’s body to turn against her, with the reproductive organs. It seems we bury our emotions there, a silent graveyard of transgressions. You may dissociate psychologically but the body knows, and it will revolt.

If this were a movie of the week, Patricia would out her father and there would be a trial, he’d be shunned at some point, her mother would rally behind her. This is real life, and real life is crooked. She is a sick woman, she remembers wrong, she is making it up right? No way did her Daddy do that! The reckoning never truly comes, Patricia will struggle with the abuse memories and her love for both her parents her entire life. There isn’t a magic word or moment that suddenly heals all, because like she said “what has been lived will never be erased”, it rises to the surface within her relationships with herself, her body and others. How can you ever truly understand such abuse? Children blame themselves when a parent harms them, be it mentally or physically. In Patricia’s case, her father was abusive towards her mother, each parent had their own scars in life but does that excuse or explain enabling sexual abuse? Is his violence towards her mother a reason to ignore her little girl was being exploited?

In this violent home, it was easier to just keep the peace. Mommy knew and did nothing. There was “one last time” at the age of 13, Patricia had to block it out in order to build a life. College was her way out, the only escape. Sexual promiscuity, abortions, abusive relationships, a young marriage that feels like falling off a cliff, drugs to numb her mind and body, these are just more escapes labeled adventure. We journey alongside pivotal moments in her 65 years of life, and even find her caring for the very parents who sexually and emotionally abused her. Does her mother ever apologize for her own guilt or acknowledge the truth? What do you think? It takes a lot of strength and courage, and more forgiveness than I know I have in my heart to be the person Patricia is.

A raw, painful read. It is so difficult to be a witness to the early pages (memories) of the sexual acts, and not feel rage building within’ for every child who has ever suffered or is being abused right as you read this. I wish prayers were enough, they’re not, it takes action and those who love the child enough to protect and speak up. I can’t even count on both hands how many child abuse survivors I have met in my life, not even including those around me who know of children who have been abused by family members, strangers, partners of parents. Sometimes it feels like the real epidemic of our times. This is one victim’s story in a sea of many.

Available Now from She Writes Press

(Published June 11, 2019)

 

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir by T Kira Madden

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I wanted love the size of a fist. Something I could hold, something hot knuckled and alive.

Growing up as a privileged child isn’t always as glorious as the rest of us think, and of course no one wants to hear you complain because you have all that wealth, the private schools, horses, fantastic shoes but as a biracial child coming of age in Boca Raton, Florida -T Kira Madden struggles mightily. Born as a love child, early childhood begins with a mannequin father whose heft has more presence and love than her own flesh and blood daddy. Her beautiful Chinese Hawaiian mother knows her best and as single mother does everything she can to protect them, the mannequin is her mother’s idea used as a stand in for her her father’s sporadic visits to their mice infested apartment. Her father who feels like a giant stranger. A successful older man who already has an established family shifts sails and decides to live with T Kira and her mother, so begins the fierce memoir.

When her parents aren’t fighting or in drunken, drug-fueled fights her dad is passed out on the couch in a stupor, life is mad obsession over her show horses, an uncle who is unlucky in love, massive humiliation during junior high, hunger to fit in, and the gut wrenching loss of innocence that isn’t confronted until years later. Her father in their life means overflowing ashtrays, they’re rich but live off cheap food, life going off the hinges as much as the wooden doors in the house after one of his rages. Like this, she still loves him. Then there are secrets, so many secrets through generations and her father isn’t the only one with things to hide. As her family grows so too does an understanding of all the things she didn’t see while her eyes were smeared with youth. There is cousin Cindy and her beauty, which isn’t always a prelude to a charmed life. When T Kira ‘finds her own pretty’, she goes wild with her tribe of fatherless girls. The exotic features that once made her prey to kids in school with racial slurs becomes ‘sexy’ among her girls. Parties, drugs, sexual exploration, losing people and herself until the girl from Boca becomes a New York woman. In college she allows herself deeper love and intimacy with girls and faces what it means to be queer or not.

There are moments of such honesty it makes you wince. She lets too much happen to her, living at times on autopilot, as young people hungry for love and attention do. Terrible things happen because of her trusting naivete. Her parents didn’t shelter her from all the adult situations were tangled i, and it costs her. We are shaped in childhood, but it doesn’t have to be our ruin. There is love between T Kira and her father, but the confusion of living in the storms of his moods, his violence  towards her mother, threatening her as well, wrecks her home. In his absence her mother destroys herself with drugs, and her father abandons them, leaving T Kira to be the caregiver, addiction in a parent a force someone so young shouldn’t have to contend with. Children are meant to be the needy ones. It wasn’t always nightmarish, she has sweet memories of her father taking her to her first baseball game, their trip to Vegas when she was five, but there is so much distance between them. She tells us at seventeen of New York “I’ve moved here to be closer to my dad. I want to walk his streets, eat his favorite pastrami, try on a new relationship with him.”  She loses her father, every remnant of him is ash, except the memories.

“Ghosts are better than nothing. Ghosts move. They want things. To haunt each other, then, is a way for my mother and I to keep him. He is more than a voice in the walls., a Ouija board movement, an iridescent cloud in the dark; he can exist here, inside us, through possession. We do our best to play the roles. Our bodies are not big enough.” 

     Falling in love with someone, I think, is at least like that.”

 

An innocuous Christmas present after her father’s death pries her mother’s past open wide. There may be more love out there than T Kira could have ever hoped for. The end of the memoir was moving and heartbreaking. It’s an unfinished story, because T Kira has so much living left, and so the family grows. It’s not just about the ache of missing ones father while he is alive and dead, her mother is a larger than life presence too, especially in the later years.

Others have called this gritty, and it is, it has its funny moments, particularly in her blind youth, because no matter how cool people claim they were, there was an awkward desperate phase we can all relate to. You want to jump into the pages and stop her from embarrassing herself as much as save T Kira from dangerous decisions.  Rich doesn’t mean happy, being wealthy isn’t protection against the dirt of the adult world. It is a story of surviving your childhood, and coming to terms with your parents flaws while also recognizing they were people before they had you, people who made immense sacrifices and mistakes. It is holding on to the love you find in the memories, even those we revise.

Publication Date: March 5, 2019

Bloomsbury USA

 

Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family by Anika Fajardo

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Not quite foreign, not quite domestic.

There is something about the above line that beautifully expresses the assumptions made about mixed race children, particularly when it wasn’t as common in our author’s youth as it is today. Skin color, ethnic features tend to be used as a map for other people to ‘tell your story’, which more often than not is wrong. Then there are expectations we cling to ourselves, as Anika Fajardo wanted to embrace her Colombian side and finally get to know the father, Renzo, who had been absent from her life for over two decades. Anika wanted to love and relate to the things a Colombian should, like authors and spicy foods. Of course, we all fall under the spell of  stereotypes for ourselves and others.  A man of secrets, and yet welcoming her as if they saw each other everyday, he greets her at the airport. The point of her existence begins first with the love story between her mother Nancy and her Colombian father Renzo. Once his student, Nancy fell in passionate love with the charming artist, having come to Colombia for a semester of college abroad in 1970 at the age of Nineteen. Eventually, when marriage came and baby made three, the romance wore thin faced with the harsh realties of  financial difficulties, isolation, lonely nights for Nancy while rumors of Renzo and other women were impossible to ignore. Her job teaching wasn’t much better, how does one end things when love is dead? Nancy made a life altering choice, one that solidified the future for their daughter Anika, who though born in Colombia would be raised in Minnesota, America.

A new family takes shape, a family made of two, mother and daughter. Through the years there are step siblings that come and go, but nothing that sticks. It always goes back to just the two of them. That her whole family is split, divided between Colombia and Minnesota, a family she will not meet until she is 21 seems more fantasy through her childhood, her mother never quite denying her access to her father but not encouraging it either. Her father is letters, her father is a phantom. It wasn’t always for selfish reasons her mother chose to steal her away to America, there were health problems, dangers in Colombia that could be the difference between life or death. Naturally, Anika spends much of her time wondering how different a person she would have become had she and her mother remained. Culture molds us like nothing else! Much like immigrants, there is always a divide in people who are torn between two cultures, as she states “not quite foreign, not quite domestic.” 

Her visit to Colombia gives her missing pieces to the puzzle of her parents early relationship and her own father’s life after. There is love, but to him she was always that baby whom he last held, not the full-grown young woman who stands before him. She is like a ghost, looking so much like her mother’s twin. Too, she explores the things that drove her mother to make such a life altering decision for them all, simply by visiting the places her mother once lived. Colombia is as much a mysterious family member as her father, sticking out like a sore thumb when she first arrives, covered up where women dress far more provocatively (by American standards anyway) confidently comfortable as sexual beings, fully at home in their bodies, she can feel her artlessness like a sore tooth. Tasting the sweetness of ‘unfamiliar fruit’, vigilant of the possibility of intruders, aware of the threat of drug cartels while in the back of her mind, her hunger to meet her father far surpasses the fact that Colombia at the time of her visit was ‘one of the most dangerous countries on the earth.’  With the presence of his wife Ceci, who is kind enough, there are two strangers for her to get to know. Renzo and Anika do share a few memories, one story in particular she tells him that he too remembers, one she hadn’t even realized he was a part of. Memory is slippery but so much harder to fully recall are the earliest ones. Reunions aren’t always full of deep meaningful conversations, intimacy takes time, they share DNA but they are still strangers. Her father talks a lot, but ‘says nothing.’   Seeing his moods, and understanding her mother’s ways solidifies for Nancy why they fell apart, and how it never would have been a harmonious home. Even five years after her visit to Colombia, there remains more to her family story, big things that were kept from her that Renzo delivers in the form of his “enigmatic emails’.  At first, it may be more than she wanted to know. Her father, that man whom could cause women to swoon with his ‘disarming charm’ is both ‘overly emotional and fiercely cut off’, the master of his own story and Anika’s because there are more chapters, untold surprises.

There is death, danger, cultural shock, love, loss, secrets and a growing family. It is about desperately wanting to know your roots, to find the missing pieces of yourself and to finally meet a parent who is like a phantom limb. It is the odd coincidences of paraellel lives, the strange experience of coming to love strangers who are your blood, the peculiar curiosity of what ifs, the wonderment that another you could have easily come to fruition had life taken different turns.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

University of Minnesota Press

The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies by Megan Griswold

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It’s said when doing anything, a nearly alchemical  event happens right around the ten- thousand- hour mark- you become an expert of sorts. So I suppose, in an unintentional way, I will declare myself an expert searcher.

There is no doubt in my mind that Megan Griswold is an expert in searching for remedies of body, mind, soul and heart. This isn’t your usual run of the mill self-help book eater, nor a woman suddenly entering some spiritual awakening. Megan was born to it, with parents who were Christian Scientists who called their practitioners for ‘treatments’, not doctors over their ailments. Her father David was born to the religion, her mother Joyce a ‘newbie’ and believer, attributing curing her ulcerative colitis to Christian Science. Little did they know their daughter would spend her life doing her own searching, spiritual and mental work. Not all things are transcendental, want to be holier than thou, the universe will test you! Test her it does, especially when it comes to her husband. Let’s not jump ahead, but then again she did attend the About Sex seminar at the age of 14, before she had even kissed a boy. Is it so surprising when she falls in love with Tim, her ‘well-meaning, well–mannered puzzle’? Someone she can probe, explore, dissect?

Is Megan stripped physically and emotionally digging through all the muck of her being sometimes? Sure. Does she ingest weird or toxic substances for spiritual practice? Well, do you consider gulping Hoasca risky? It’s tea, okay? Sure, she may purge her insides and as she says ‘imagine what it would be like to completely fall apart’ and there is your glimpse into the tea’s spiritual enlightening.  She may be eager to try any religious/spiritual experience on for size but certainly Megan doesn’t ‘dabble’ in therapies, not like so many other people. She doesn’t half-ass anything!

This memoir isn’t all hilarity, in fact there are some very serious family and relationship issues here within. These are not the usual ‘wow my spouse leaves the toilet dispenser empty’ issues either, these are spiritual dilemmas. Her own father can sometimes downright infuriate the reader with his arrogant spiritual blindness. “If I don’t see it, it’s not real.” Oh, if only life were like that… There is a tenderness towards the end of the novel, everything that happens with her mother’s health. I felt myself getting weepy. Yes, Megan therapist shops, and is game for any spiritual practice, training, self-help geared towards evolvement but truly it’s not just about getting to know herself. Somehow she comes away with a better understanding of those she loves. Maybe her search slows, but let’s face it, there will always be room for improvement.

It gets messy, and admittedly embarrassingly ugly but whether methods are tried and true or a complete fraud, she gives it her all and we get to ride her karmic bus as tourists. Add this to your memoir list, out 2019!

Publication Date: January 22, 2019

Crown Publishing

 

In the Name of the Children: An FBI Agent’s Relentless Pursuit of the Nation’s Worst Predators by Jeffrey L. Rinek, Marilee Strong

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“To handle the horrors we must deal with on a daily basis, many in law enforcement become hardened and compartmentalize their emotions, which has its own deleterious effects. I was not able to do that, nor could I stand at a clinical distance and rely on some technique or one-sixe-fits-all theory of criminality and remain untouched by the horrors I saw.”

During his 30 year career working as a FBI agent, Jeff Rinek witnessed the most vile crimes against children from sexual abuse, torture, abduction, murder and child abuse, sometimes from their family members. I had to read this book in parts, human depravity is beyond belief at times and I had the option of putting it down until I could catch my breath, Rinek and other’s in his line of work don’t have that privilege. I have the utmost respect for the brave men and women that work in this particular field. Not many have the stomach for it, and it isn’t surprising that the work he has done has stayed with him, for how could it not?  This is the stuff of nightmares, but Rinek isn’t writing in the vein of sensationalism. This is a man who has kept every victim and their families within his heart, everything he has experienced has touched his own wife and children. Jeff shares not only the horrific cases he has helped solve, but the troubling ways it effected his family life. How could he not be overwhelming concerned for the safety of his own sons, having seen the darkness that befell so many innocent children? How could he sleep peacefully at night with the images of crime scenes floating in his mind, just as horrible the confessions of child molesters and serial killers thundering in his ears? It’s impossible to truly separate the two worlds.

Jeff Rinek had a way about him that made the criminals feel comfortable enough to confess, I think it is most evident in his dealings with Cary Stayner. Not many could keep their emotions in check enough to empathize with someone who has committed monstrous acts. I know when we label something evil or monstrous it makes it impossible to understand how someone can commit such atrocities and maybe prevent them, but it’s hard not to feel this way. Without his ability to reach into whatever humanity resides in the criminal, we may never know the truth. It is important to be able to understand the psyche of man as much as we can, whether we’re repulsed or not. It matters to the victim’s family, particularly when bodies are missing. Maybe there is truly no such thing as closure, maybe the ‘knowing’ is more horrifying than what the mind can imagine, but living without answers is to be further victimized.

In reading about these tragic, horrifying crimes, it made me think about why it is so important for people to report crimes that happen to them, or things they witness that don’t sit well within them. Nothing truly happens in a bubble, and often in abusive relationships, be they physical or sexual, often men or women go further in victimizing others, especially children (the most helpless and vulnerable of us all). The hard truth is, if someone has harmed you, you aren’t the first, nor likely to be the last. One of the most shocking realities is how often child molestation is enabled by other adults, such as wives. I’m not surprised children don’t come forward more often, the feelings of shame involved, the stigma boys in particular (especially as they become adults) are met with in coming foreward about sexual abuse is heartbreaking. I’m reading another book right now about Evil, it’s more from a  psychological standpoint, but when I read true crime books, or listen to a victim recount their harrowing experiences it is damn hard to want to understand the psyche of criminals. How do you remain removed from cases, its human nature to empathize, particuarly being a mother or father yourself. Of course seeing the body of a child that has been defiled in every way imaginable one would think of their own son or daughter, fear would be rooted inside your being. Rinek dealt with the worst of human nature, how could he not imagine the worse if a phone line home is busy, or his child doesn’t get off his bus?

The violence, ritualized sexual abuse, physical, and mental trauma, torture the children suffered under the ‘religion’ Allen Harrod (their own father) started is as hard to stomach as every story within yet it is with the tenderest of care Rinek, along with others, helped the children find their strength to seek justice and have kept watch over the children long after the case ended. The bravery of Harrod’s eldest daughter in coming forward is incredible, though shocking that it took her going through three different police agencies to get anyone to look into the matter. Without her, who knows how long Harrod and Labrecque’s crimes would have continued, under the guise of religion. Much like the people involved in seeing justice served, it’s gut wrenching to know the truth of how the children suffered, but worse to imagine being the children involved. Human depravity is boundless but it’s knowing the children (their victims) will carry not just physical evidence of their nightmare for the rest of their lives, but have to cope with PTSD, have to navigate the world without an example of healthy family relationships, and in a sense deprogram from what for them was ‘normal’  that remains with you long after reading their story. That these things happen in our so-called ‘modern times’ is worse than any fictional horror I can conjure. You don’t have to be close to the case to feel the frustration and anger at the justice system, how easy it seems for criminals to continue their abuse once captured, still victimizing everyone involved through ‘legal manipulation.’ Then there is the game of going to trial. Evidence is a peculiar thing, what is left out as to not ‘prejudice the jury against the defendant.’ Ridiculous in many cases, such as pictures of adults raping children in this situation shouldn’t it be admissible, doesn’t the victim deserve to see justice served? It’s one thing to hear it, but when there are photos to back the child’s confession, well? Statute of limitations is infuriating in and of itself, if a child comes into adulthood and finally has the ability to seek help, to expose the abuser only to find out they can’t be charged anymore, how is that just? Something is certainly broken. It’s hard not to feel like children don’t matter enough, it certainly feels like criminals often get a slap on the wrist, are released only to commit even more gruesome crimes. But I feel heartened that men and women like Rinek work hard for them, it seems to even the balance, at least a little.

Retired now, Rinek remains just as passionate about making the world a safer place for children and for us all, as he did when he was working full-time. He has remained in contact with the children victimized by Harrod and Labrecque. It is obvious his job was his life, and he is the sort of agent the world needs, someone who puts all of his being into solving crimes, and caring for the victims. It’s hard to review this type of memoir, because it comes from a deeply personal part of Rinek’s life. It’s enough to say that if you can’t even read it, because it’s our natural instinct to close our ears and eyes to terrors, imagine how the victim’s loved ones feel, how the men and women in law enforcement have to go home every night with the knowledge of such horrors branded in their minds. It’s important to be a voice for those who have been silenced, and to see those who have harmed children caught, so they can’t leave more families destroyed.

This truly is an unflinching look into the life of FBI Special Agent Jeff Rinek and how his job effected every facet of his life.

Out today!

BenBella Books

 

To the Moon and Back A Childhood Under the Influence by Lisa Kohn

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At first I had no idea that anything was wrong with my childhood.

I have a vague memory as a very young child and a newscast of a lot of people marrying one another (strangers to each other) in Madison Square Garden, and my parents mumbling something about it being ‘crazy’. I was a kid, dazzled by the many brides so when reading this memoir about the Unification Church (which some still call the Moonies and consider a cult) it clicked that this is the group from that long ago newscast. People often talk of Bohemian childhoods, but Lisa’s far surpasses many ‘hippie’ stories, her parents were free spirits that ‘stuck out’ even among those of their generation. Sure, she watched Jefferson Airplane in central park but her childhood was anything but carefree and charmed. “Mimi had tried on religions and movements like some women try on clothes.” Mimi, her mother, falls under the spell of Father ( Reverend Moon)- not her real father Danny (whom isn’t one for the label father anyway) when hearing him speak she found her purpose in life. Her children are dragged along by her passion for the religion.

When her parents first met, her mother was a straight A student, daughter of a judge while her father, Danny was ‘the beatnik son of socialist intellectualists’. Rushing headfirst into marriage the summer they were out of highschool, having children, her father attending college for a time, their marriage didn’t last long and her parents divorced. Danny moved to New York while Lisa, her mother Mimi and brother Robbie lived in New Jersey.  Her father, a bartender and partaker of serious drugs had always been ‘anti-establishment’, and certainly isn’t able to provide stability anymore than her mother who is swallowed by the Church. A mother who once made the children suffer through micro-biotic diets, sugar-free living, a tv-less existence, an abusive boyfriend and whatever new fad caught her attention now pushes her children away to devote her entire being to the cause of Reverend Moon. While her mother needed to find truth and meaning, and their father came and went with the wind, Lisa and her brother relied on themselves confused by the differences in their parents lifestyles, slowly becoming aware just how strange their lives, their parents were in comparison to their peers.

“These were the beliefs that wrapped themselves like creeping vines around my mind as I grew up- during my most formative preadolescent and adolescent years- always clasping tighter and holding my life, my soul, and my sense of self together.” Lisa becomes just as enraptured as her mother, she learns to share the love and sell the ideas of the church on strangers, and friends alike. Love-bombing people with the hopes they will join, not exactly appealing to fellow students. Lisa and her brother Robbie fall in love with the positive energy and the always smiling fellow moonies. It isn’t long before they become close to the ‘True Children’, top of the hierarchy. The church becomes more their ‘real life’ than school and home, soon their mother is no longer living with them, her devotion solely to the church-  her ‘calling’. Living with their grandfather “Pop”, she begins to shoulder adult responsibilities. Rather than feeling anger towards her mom, she just assures herself that it’s an important sacrifice her mother has to make, and Lisa should feel proud. Easier said than done.

When her Pop is admitted to a psych hospital it is Danny’s turn to house Lisa and her brother. Danny’s lifestyle is loud, carefree, filled with late hours, crazy wild friends and there is little chance of him putting his partying ways and drug abuse aside. He is as passionate about coccaine as her mother is about Reverend Moon and his teachings. Living with their mother, not an option, Lisa is unwanted. Her ‘puritanical’ church beliefs begin to collide with her peers, who are more interested in skipping school and experimenting with drugs, sex, all things forbidden youth loves to flirt with. Danny’s way of life too is antithesis to the Church of Unification’s values, exposing his children to everything the church reviles.

As time goes on, her mother moves often and seems to drift further from her children. As Lisa comes of age, she becomes a groupie, discovers she and her brother are banished  (considered impure) for a time, and begins to question this church she once felt devoted to with all her being. Then there is Stuart, and first love. Her life is in turmoil -just what does she believe in? Church rules change, now she can’t even be with True Children, due to Reverend Moon’s latest decree, because people like her are a ‘satanic influence’. She begins to experience new forbidden things away from the church. Drinking, dancing, parties, boys and eventually Cornel. She begins to crack. It takes years, but she begins to emerge from her difficult childhood and the influence of both her parents and the church. While suffering with an eating disorder she proves even her therapist wrong with her pregnancy, already trying her best to be a better mother than her own. Finding that with her first-born child, old fears rise. A life spent distancing herself from her past involvement with the church comes full circle in the last chapter, Reunion.

I was thinking about the whole ‘cult/church’ aspect and thought ‘really families themselves are a little like cults’. What family is without its strange habits or demands? What family doesn’t warp the mind a little of each member? Now add an actual cult (outside influences) to your own family chaos and you can imagine Lisa’s struggle. If we spend our adulthood recovering from our families and childhood, how does one manage to recover from life in an actual cult? How does a woman learn to be a solid, present mother and wife?

This is a first person account of a life inside a cult, or church, depending on who you ask! Facing pain, rejection, abandonment, the confusing chaos of two parents who are equally destructive forces in her childhood, Lisa Koon somehow creates a stable, healthy beautiful life out of the ashes of her childhood.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Heliotrope Books