Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History by Jaipreet Virdi

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It is easy to be swept away by promises of miraculous cures for incurable diseases.

The universe has a strange sense of humor, as I am writing this I am getting over a virus and I’ve temporarily lost hearing in my right ear going on 3 weeks now. For me, it’s fluid behind the eardrum, but for this reason I finished this novel thinking about how important losing your hearing is for those born with it. I’ve had several family members lose their hearing due to cancer, old age, as well as damage from working around loud machinery. Most of us are ignorant when it comes to disabilities that don’t directly affect us, in fact before reading this I hadn’t really understood that people need to learn to hear when they get a cochlear implant. It’s hard to understand that a person, with the aid of hearing implants, doesn’t hear the same as those of us with properly functioning ears do. Before my own father started using a hearing aid I didn’t know how it distorted some sounds, magnified others and how awful it is for him to hear when more than one person is talking. As with anything else about humanity, there are different ways of being deaf and ‘cures’ and ‘aids’ don’t work for everyone, nor are they necessarily desired.

The conversation about embracing Deaf culture is a personal one, particularly to those born deaf. To many people, it’s not a matter of ‘curing’ something they never lost in the first place. Other people’s expectations of what makes a person whole doesn’t take into account their needs, their decisions. Reading about parents searching for cures it’s heartbreaking for both the child and the parents. For those who want to restore their hearing every new invention and scientific breakthrough can just be one more disappointment to bear, some more dangerous to one’s health or outright deadly. While Jaipreet Virdi shares a history for the deafness cure, too she interjects her own personal trials and tribulations in defining her own place in the Deaf community. Jaipreet was not born deaf and therefore her hearing loss doesn’t “ fit with the discourse of deafness and Deaf culture, because most Deaf people were born deaf and thus, never had any hearing to lose.” Her goal is to “enrich our understanding of an unrepresented aspect of deaf history: that of the medical and technological avenues for “curing” hearing loss.” These cures involve everything from airplane dives, chunky devices, and all sorts of  “Electrical Wonders.” Even advertisements that shame women for their unfashionable hearing apparatuses is simply just another way to demean a person and make a ton of money off a medical condition.

There are, of course, those in the medical community who made discoveries that were great strides in medical science but for every genuine, qualified doctor there were quacks and frauds. Factor in the exuberant cost for treatments, cures, and hearing devices and people have no other option than to purchase what they can afford, generally for products that did more harm than good if they worked at all. Loving parents that were well meaning hunted for cures largely because in the past the fear their child couldn’t manage in a world that doesn’t support disabilities caused alarm about their child’s future. Society tends to attack anything that is ‘different than’. Their fear that their child couldn’t survive without the ability to communicate as the majority demands placed them on quests to try anything to cure their Deaf child. But what of the child forced through treatments that are often more painful than not? As an aside, this happens with all sorts of illnesses, defects, disabilities that are physical or mental. The truth is, most parents want to make their child’s future one where their child will be safe, functional long after they are no longer around to care for them, it often comes from a place of love. Yet there are two sides of this coin.

What of the child like Jaipreet Virdi who has had to learn how to live between two worlds, that of hearing and the deaf, feeling she isn’t planted firmly in either? People often forget how important hearing is to language, for it is through hearing others speak as well as our own voice that we can pronounce and enunciate.  A not so simple skill most of us take for granted. Hearing, in the end, matters and is just something most of us don’t think about. As we age, hearing as much as sight is a sense that tends to go. All of us are prone to illness and injury, that can easily end in the loss of hearing. It’s easier to not think about our senses, until we or someone we love loses them.

How can we not empathize with the need those born Deaf have to embrace their own community, feeling whole as they are? Sometimes we fail to understand that all over the world people have their own way of existing, it may be different from our own, but it’s not less. How much of oneself is anyone expected to give up to fit in, particularly when you lose more of yourself? We all must measure our own happiness, and create a place for ourselves, why should it be any different for someone with a disability? With that said, it wouldn’t hurt to educate ourselves about the difficulties others confront, to at least try to understand each other better and respect personal choices.

This book is full of hearing history, which is shocking and sad as well as fascinating. It’s part memoir and medical history/science. Maybe I was more interested in this book having witnessed the frustration of those who have lost their hearing. Seeing firsthand how someone is dismissed when they can’t communicate what they need to. I don’t always think other people are cruel (though such people do exist) I think they just don’t know any better, which again comes down to “unrepresented aspects” of hearing loss and many other disabilities. In a world as populated as ours, there really isn’t an excuse not to educate ourselves. There is a line that stayed with me, “We marvel at how people pass as normal by hiding the signs of disability.” Why should they have to hide?

If you’ve ever been curious about the world of the hearing impaired or Deaf (which is the same world you share) this is an informative read.

Publication Date: May 1, 2020

University of Chicago Press

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

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Mary’s mother is well practiced at laughing off moments like these, behaving as if nothing is strange. To do anything else would be the same as admitting that she lacks any real control over the situation- that she cannot understand what is happening in her house, much less how to stop it.

Hidden Valley Road is the story of a family, created by Don and Mimi Galvin (ten boys and two girls) picked apart by the ravages of schizophrenia, a disease that takes the foundation of the family and ‘permanently tilted it in the direction of the sick family member’.  What happens when it appears in several family members? When, like the fear of it’s contagion, the parents aim a laser focus on each child afraid they may be next? How does this attention harm every sibling? How can the parents possibly dodge the terror of, ‘who will be next’ ? Is it any surprise that fear of odd behavior in their own children will follow the siblings later in life?

In the beginning, Mimi and Don envisioned a life full of ‘limitless hope and confidence’. Don was ambitious, and war bound after joining the Marine Corp Reserves, before heading out near Okinawa where he was to be stationed during the war in 1945, he married Mimi. While he was away, Mimi gave birth to their firstborn son. Soon followed more children, born while her husband  came and went for his career, at times he was home from Georgetown (finishing his degree) and Rhode Island to the Navy’s General Line School. Focused always on his career, which came first, Mimi was left either trailing after him with the children or awaiting his return alone with their offspring. She with dreams of a lawyer husband and a life where she could raise their brood alongside their family in New York, bided time until the war was over. Don was using the military as a means to his end, a career in law or better yet, political science. The end of his service came but he reneged on their plan and instead joined the Air Force, which lead them surprisingly to Colorado Springs.

Despite Mimi’s disappointment and after many shed tears, she began to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. Together, she and Don discovered a passion for falconry, one which they shared with their boys, coming of age in the 1950’s. (I found this fascinating). Mimi rushed headfirst into raising her children all on her own without the help of nannies, family anyone. She would raise her boys to be cultured through art, music, nature and as more children came (if Don had his way Mimi would be pregnant forever) she worked even harder at being the best mother anyone could be; their clan would be the ‘model’ American family. Her passion for motherhood knew no bounds! It fed her ego, there was a special pride in ‘being known as a mother would could easily accomplish such a thing’, raising such a brood with unwavering determination and love. Why such a large family, well if it made Don happy, it was her joy to provide more offspring. Personally, as a mother with two children I found her enthusiasm and energy incredible, I get tired just thinking about it.

The dynamic in the couples marriage changed, Don’s career in intelligence yet another thing to keep Mimi at a distance, while she remained the rock for the children through the years, the one left to supervise, a ‘happy warrior’. But her dream of perfect children, everyone in line, the ‘model American family’ was about to shatter. Battling the common childhood illnesses like chicken pox, everyone knowing their chores, cooking, cleaning, for a large family is a mean feat but battling a little understood mental illness in a time where there wasn’t much compassion to be found in anyone straying from the social norms was a terrible mark against you. When the cracks first appeared in the eldest, most adored son (the namesake Don Jr.) who often watched his siblings, bullying them, setting them up against each other, it was largely ignored. The busy family didn’t have time for squabbles, the father’s favorite was believed. Even when he would smash dishes, and act out with violence, Don and Mimi behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, confusing and horrifying the other children. Something was wrong, no one knew it more than Donald himself. He would take the mental disturbances with him away to college, where it would soon show itself.

With the two older boys eventually out of the house, and Don Sr’s professional prospects, order had to be maintained, there could be no admittance of anything being off kilter. Such a thing is a stain that could ruin Don’s career and the Galvin’s social standing. Maybe the boys wreaked havoc, ending in bruises when they were home visiting, but ‘boys will be boys’ and need to become men and stand on their own. Then Don Jr fell apart, again and again, and it was no longer easy to deny something was wrong, not when it could no longer be hidden from the public too. He would never climb out of his illness, despite medicine, science, doctors best efforts. Worse, the abuse their daughters suffered in silences, denial. The embarrassment of their brother’s illness a thing they felt ashamed about and resentful of.

I can’t do justice in a review, it’s hard to summarize what the entire Galvin family went through, the hope, the fear, the denial and sexual abuse. I think about those decades, where mothers were often blamed for any sign of mental decline, where shame was all that mental illness bought you. When turning to doctors often did more harm than good, even now medication that is meant to help navigate mental illnesses do the body, all it’s organs so much harm, but there aren’t many alternatives beyond avoiding medication altogether and that leaves you exactly in the same abyss you started from. It victimizes the person coping with the illness, but you can’t ignore the voices of the family members that are forced to cope with the illness too. Children that are neglected because the illness consumes so much energy within the family, the physicality of it. Science isn’t moving fast enough, despite leaps like studying the Galvins and why schizophrenia claimed some of the children and not others. It feels too late for the Galvins in many ways. As much as we make judgments about Mimi and Don’s attempt to pretend everything is normal, how can we not empathize, imagining being in their place. Parenting is difficult enough, much of what we deny is fear motivated, comes form a place of love, and sure sometimes our own egos.

I’m always drawn to stories and studies about mental illness. I have a schizophrenic uncle, my own son is on the autism spectrum (he isn’t the only one in our extended family)… but for my uncle, I have seen how people fear mental illness, the hopelessness of my grandmother (when she was still alive) and yet immense love and support for her son who would not take his medication, and lives the life of a loner, often taken advantage of and there is nothing anyone can do. There is so much we do not know, and it’s hard for many to trust doctors when some of their treatments have done more harm than good. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless, your choices limited. Of course we aim to fix things, who wants to watch their family member suffer. It is reality still that with diseases people often find public support, compassion yet where there is mental illness most reactions are fear based and the public often judges those coping with it a ‘lost cause’. It’s the terrible result of little education. Doctors can only treat as well as the scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, but behind the illness are very real human beings.

This book is heartbreaking, and I have great admiration for all the Galvin children  (those still alive are full grown adults now, of course). This is really their story. They own it, they live in the aftermath and each makes choices based on their own emotional compass. Their story broke my heart and it will stay with me. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Doubleday Books

 

 

Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains by Cassie Chambers

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Generosity was both an insurance police and a deeply held value.

Kentucky born Cassie Chambers grew up in Owsley County, all too aware of the hard-work and struggle her grandparents and their children dealt with. Cassie parents were both still working their way through college, living in Berea but close enough to her Mother Wilma’s family when they had her. With the impossible cost of childcare, they relied on those in Owsley to care for her, and it is here that Cassie ran around ‘getting into trouble’ and playing with her many cousins. It was a second home where she was privy to stories about all her aunts and uncles. It is also where she wondered why it was so important for her granny to see her mother Wilma get a college education, when for many it was never an option.

Working on a tobacco farm (Wilma’s family didn’t own it) was backbreaking labor, more incredible was her Aunt Ruth who was the best tobacco worker in the county, better than even some of the strongest men. Rising early in the mornings to help when she stayed with her kin, she saw firsthand that it was never an easy life. Her granny was just as hardworking, even at her advanced age and despite the poverty and years of struggle, she always had her pride and an easy smile for others.  It was through spending time with her clan that Cassie’s curious nature was fed, where she learned hands on science, engineering and art. With her parents as an example, education was a goal knew she must strive for. So how did this young girl whose family tree is deeply rooted in Appalachia find the wherewithal to attend Yale and Harvard, becoming a lawyer?

Obstacles in the mountains of Kentucky can feel insurmountable when each day is a struggle just to feed one’s family. When there isn’t work to be had, when you live below government-designated poverty, when the counties haven’t developed like the rest of the country and the rest of the world has forgotten you. Where all politician’s promises fall by the wayside once they are in office, if they even notice you at all. Here, one must wrestle with leaving the support and strong bonds of family to find work, and anyone who has ever attempted such a thing without money (even with a college degree) understands it can be quite a feat. Staying can feel easier, but it is not without hardship. An education, as seen through Cassie’s rise and the opposite end, as we see with her cousin Melissa’s choices, is jarring. As Cassie reiterates, they are the same in so many ways, born from the same stock, branches on the same tree yet Melissa had drug addicted parents. Drug addiction haunts the hills, there isn’t much hope in a place that offers nothing for it’s young by way of entertainment, where health care is shaky at best, where the coal mines were never as big as in other counties and tobacco farming collapsed. This is a land where fields are left empty and yet they are a proud, strong people. Where women throughout generations help in birthing children, because there isn’t anywhere else to go and if there is how can they afford the proper, necessary care?

Outsiders see only poverty and like Cassie says, feel pity and disgust, never getting past the surface to understand why natives feel such a connection to the land, generations in their family. Through the fear she and other women in her circle feel navigating the world outside rural Appalachia, it is evident how much courage it takes to strive for more. To judge the people as ignorant is a travesty, for they have learned how to exist in the past through feeding themselves and each other growing their own food (I have a garden, it’s not easy at all and has more failure than success), have worked with the harsh elements to survive, helping birth children, and her own granny could take apart anything and put it back together for the better. Stupid? Not one bit. Lazy, pitiable? No way! By returning to lift those in need, with her education in hand, it is inspiring. Women, in this memoir, lifted each other even while they themselves had nothing. Ruth, the older sister, was selfless providing in every way she could for Cassie’s mother Wilma so that she could find a better life. This support, in turn, made Cassie’s future possible too. It warms the heart see such generosity come from people who have so little. That the rest of the world looks down upon people, like Cassie’s Papaw whose work was backbreaking and long, far harder than anything most of them have ever done, is shameful. These are folks, especially the women, who somehow manage to feed their children while working their weary hands to the bone and still feel a sense of duty to their community while keeping faith in their god by living what they preach.

This is a tribute to the women whose grit was passed down to Cassie. Rather than bemoaning their circumstances, they get things done and often in creative ways. Like Cassie said, there is no such thing as “I can’t do it.” It wasn’t easy for Cassie to work hard, to step outside the comfort of her family and assimilate into an elite place (Ivy League schools) but with the strength of her family’s blood running through her veins, she wasn’t going to give in to self-defeat, it isn’t their way.

Hill Women is a heart-felt, engaging telling of one girls rise from poverty that was only possible through the love and support of the strong, wise women before her.

Publication Date: January 7, 2020

Ballantine Books

 

Little Weirds by Jenny Slate

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I was born bucking the idea that I should have to be anywhere that I don’t like or talk to people who make me feel dead or trapped.

Jenny Slate is an actress, comedian, author and in a collaboration with director Dean Fleischer-Camp created Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. It’s adorable, I have a thing for stop motion and it has also become a book series. That aside, I have only been aware of Jenny Slate as an actress. This book is more musings, confidences, and reflections on her past. She is at times serious, often funny, a little on the sweet side (I’m a heavy reader of raw memoirs, people toughened by heavy issues so this was a pleasure) and always clever. When the book first opened, I thought it was going to be a memoir in poetry as she tells the reader “I was born like that”, born bucking certain ideas, with a love of nursing big scared things, and she was a ‘fast bad baby’. She gets lonely just like any single one of us and exhausted by heartbreak. Jenny longs for love, for someone who fits into her strange little world, because what else is love but having someone who carries in their blood your brand of weird? She shares her grievances, desires, hopes and ghosts with the reader and jumps from past to present, because doesn’t memory work like that in all of us? It’s never a straight line, life. We live in the present with the past calling us back, lingering as it does like a scent.

She wants to fall in love, can she find it online? Isn’t that the modern way? She both longs to join with someone and also exist in her own ‘vortex’. Waiting, waiting… surely he is out there somewhere? Jenny wants to live in a gentle place, filled with joy but she has her small deaths to shed, as all the living do. She travels, and in Norway tries to remain aware of her surroundings, to be strong on her own when she isn’t journeying with her friends. Often readers shy away from books written by famous people, what the heck can they have to say to the common folk? A lot it seems. Jenny has enough humility and refreshing honesty to not come off as some super ego monster. She is often just as lost, curious as the rest of us. She has times of success, love and fulfillment while experiencing the grace of being alive and moments of fear, emptiness and pain. She feels ugly, she feels lovely and absolutely comes off as a little quirky, a little weird! That is what makes this memoir a little pleasure.

Her style made me feel like I was hanging out with a close friend when she is warmed by wine, a little rambling with surprising moments of lucidity, clarity and open heart confessions. The style might not be for every reader, it’s lyrical, she wanders off the thought path often but her curious nature remains a constant delight.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

 

Toil & Trouble: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs

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It takes extreme horror for me to feel better about my own life. Which, now that I think about it, is what people are always telling me that I do for them, so screw it.

Augusten Burroughs has a innate cynicism that always makes me laugh or cringe and nod along with, yes- someone gets it. You don’t have to be a fan of witches,  broomsticks and cauldrons bubbling to enjoy this memoir. You can be a fan of love or disaster, old beautiful houses that ‘want your blood’, and look haunted. Maybe it’s not ghosts, maybe it’s old trees that is a looming threat or repairs and gruff old handymen. There are a million things that can haunt our lives that are scarier than monsters and ghosts but sometimes the very things that make up our chaotic little lives get us to the place Augusten has arrived. But it’s been a journey. So carrying a secret love of witches or not, most of us can relate to the struggle of just being alive.

A witch, you say? Let him explain to you what he means before you get a knee jerk reaction of laughter or disbelief. Let him tell you about his family, and strange occurrences that feel like so much more than happenstance. Whose life isn’t full of the strange… the unexplained… and hell- why not? It’s hard to be taken seriously when you try to explain the weird patterns, the ‘coming into things’ that you foresaw, or conjured in your mind, heart. Aren’t mothers sometimes uncannily wicked in their predictions, about the future of their children, why not his mother before her illness consumed her? Lucky for you if it’s good stuff, the reverse can be true (trust me) for most people it’s a combination of both. I long to say, “you’re mad!” but in a good way, with a fat smile on my face. Maybe more than anything, he pays attention to the details of his life where so many people never see the synchronicity in their own.

Much of the novel is about the home he bought with his beloved, “We have purchased a mystery” and anyone who goes gaga for old houses will get a kick out of the reality making a home of one can be. It makes for funny and exasperating shared moments, all this talk of dreaming the home into being. Why not? If we can think it, we can create it, it’s how great works of art come into being, inventions, movements, revolutions- why not our own wants and desires?

I think this memoir is about Augusten Burroughs being Augusten Burroughs, this is me- take it or leave it. It’s intimate, honest, and peculiar, just like him. He seems to be at a point in his life where he has a solid grasp on who he is and want he wants, and sure life still presents moments where anxiety overwhelms him, he still confronts mental health fears with his family history, but you know what a great stabilizer is? Someone who loves you and grounds you, someone who takes you seriously when they need to and doesn’t always think ‘it is your crazy talking’ when you are adamant about a looming threat, even if it’s as ridiculous as a monster tree… when you know that tree is an evil force out to kill the two of you! Because maybe it actually is, maybe there is something to this natural instinct that has guided Augusten throughout the chaos of his life. Who are we to laugh at that? Who are we to demand proof of the things that pull someone through this ridiculous little journey we call life?

Whether you believe in magic or don’t, it’s still a fun read. It felt like sitting and talking with an old friend, someone I can tell spooky stories with beside candlelight or share the eerie, inexplicable things that have happened in my life (that others would call downright nonsense) stuff requiring a person to suspend disbelief, and have them say “No way, me too!” or “Get outta here, really?” Be it reading about a retired opera singer “The Soprano in the Woods” who is a little too close for comfort, or his response to PETA when it comes to Beavers (have you watched them attack), I was fully engaged. In fact, I am glad my husband and I never did find that beaver we were hoping to see in New Hampshire many summers ago- violent little creatures (cute though), who knew?

Take it with a grain of salt, or a circle of salt around your witchy self, your choice. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

St. Martin’s Press

 

Ordinary Girls: A Memoir by Jaquira Díaz

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And the girls I ran with? Half of them I was secretly in love with. Street girls, who were escaping their own lives, trading the chaos of home for the chaos of the streets.

In Jaquira Díaz’s memoir, Ordinary Girls, readers dig into the influences that shape the life of a young juvenile delinquent. She is more than that, she is first a confused, lonely, little girl who lives with a mother whose mental illness is spiraling into a deeper, darker place. As she grows up, she escapes her broken home or the ‘chaos of home’ and takes it out on the streets, with her tough as nails approach. She finds a sisterhood of girls who have suffered as much, or worse, and makes them family of the heart. It is all about escapism, what else is there in poverty and abuse then reckless abandon? What else is there for them to do but get high, drunk, fight til they draw blood or find themselves knocked out?

Living with a parent that suffers from schizophrenia is difficult even when you have extended family and friends, doctors willing to help, but imagine when the children are left to wonder at their mother’s strange paranoia, behaviors, rages? When a mother’s delusions are real to a child, and no one explains or fixes anything, what is to become of you? Worse, one who is a drug addict on top of it all. How can there be stability when the rest of the adults have fled? From her early childhood in Puerto Rico to their move to Miami, Florida- Jaquira is subject to very adult situations, and always leaving behind the love and support of her beloved abuela, the one person who loves and cares for her. At a young age the shock of what her father sells (drugs) makes no sense to her. Naturally with the people who come around, the children are exposed to the foulest of behavior. She doesn’t know any better about how poor they are, everyone seems to be just as bad off. The shock of violence in the streets is even more horrific, how can anyone maintain their innocence in such a place? Government housing projects full of shootings, stabbings, drug raids, and mouths full of stories that plant the seeds of terror in any child. You toughen up or you don’t make it out alive. You learn fast.

Her parents destructive love, her mother is a woman who ‘obsessively, violently’ loves Jaquira’s Papi (father) who is nothing short of a womanizer, seems fated to ruin. Was it his disinterest in her mother, the crack or coke that caused her to hear voices, or was it this very love that destroyed her? Certainly it was a catalyst, and it made life for Díaz nothing short of hell. Can kids get used to mugs flying over their heads during their parents jealous rages, fights? Doesn’t it follow then that maybe her brother’s bullying and meanness might be born through it too? Like it or not, we learn from our families, and our environment. It’s hard to imagine a softer world if yours is loud, painful. It’s hard to serve kindness when all you have been served is bitter, spitting hatred while your belly and heart rumble for sustenance.

Split between families she has one loving, accepting abuela and another grandmother, the white one, who made  feel ashamed of her ethnicity, using her hair as a means to punish her for being ‘other than’. She made sure Jaquira knew she would never be as beautiful as her mother’s side. Strange to think there was more violence in that than all the ugliness she is submerged in, but that really cut me to read. This woman who should lift her grandchild up, make her proud of every cell of her body instead is the first to really make her feel that who she is supposed to be is shameful, low. It’s the same with fear, the adults are supposed to assuage a child’s deepest terrors, not become the monster.

Then Mami begins to see a man, lurking, looming like a murder waiting to happen. Her terror hums inside of Jaquira, all she wants is her parents to be together again, for her to be safe and loved with her abuela but god or the universe doesn’t seem to listen to the cries of a child like her.  Just like everything else not meant for children such as she and her siblings, wishes and prayers are ignored. Her father comes and goes, and they behave as if he had never left. “The five of us were the kind of poor you could feel in your bones, in your teeth, in your stomach.” You can only imagine such a poor, if it’s never been your reality.

She is never happy nor in a stable environment for long, her mother steals her back and forces her madness on them- worse, Papi doesn’t seem to care, no one is ever coming to save them. It’s only a matter of time before she grows up, much too fast, and as a teenager becomes a hood rat. Then it was a desire for a violence she could never come back from, because she and her friends would never be ordinary girls who make their sadness seen through “sleeping pills and slit wrists”, if she is going to self-destruct it’s going to be a wild explosion! Beat downs, drugs, gangbangers, court dates, this is how someone will finally take notice, maybe her papi? This is how she lets her age out of it’s cage.

Must Jaquira remain in this state and either end up imprisoned or one day as mad as her mother? Or worse, dead? This is a tale of sadness so dark and overflowing that it becomes rage. This isn’t who she wants to be, she isn’t going to accept this battered, beaten down version of a girl. She will have the last word in who she is! She will fight and make it out, but not without mourning for those who didn’t. Through writing this very book she is reaching those who need to hear that someone has been there, she is a voice in the dark shouting alongside you, someone who wants to see all the girls, who are anything but ordinary, crawl out of the ruins.

A heavy, brutal journey.

Publication Date: October 29, 2019

Algonquin Books

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.

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University of Georgia Press