APRIL 21, 2015
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
— Philip Larkin, from “This Be the Verse”
ANY MEMOIRIST with the courage to mine her material deeply enough will eventually arrive at the same bedrock: the wounds of her childhood. How universal the fall from grace that is growing up, and how utterly familiar the disappointment that our parents were not quite the people we wish they had been.
And yet. If we hope to make literature from all that muck, how craftily we must work, lest we end up hurling dirt in the face of our readers.
In her debut memoir, Good Girl, Sarah Tomlinson writes of her childhood, adolescence, and emerging career as a writer, all of which are overshadowed — and, she suggests, undermined — by a neglectful and narcissistic father. Propulsive, visceral, and grimly determined, Tomlinson’s book carries a payload of over 30 years of anger and frustration at a parent whose flaws continue to haunt her.
Born in the mid-1970s and raised by her back-to-the-lander mother, Tomlinson’s earliest memories consist of a powerful longing for dad. On his sporadic visits, that longing was replaced by an overawed wonder at this mercurial figure: a city-dwelling, taxi-driving, Kerouac-reading bohemian whose life seemed to her to be a series of exotic adventures. What the reader senses instantly, but what it takes Tomlinson years to fully realize, is that this man’s lifelong gambling addiction and fixation on the latest fad in personal transformation leaves little room for parenting.
And so she tells her story of growing up: a story of waiting by the window for a father who rarely shows. As a teenager, Tomlinson is smarter, sadder, madder, and more strong-willed than the other kids at her high school, and she’s eager for escape via sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, none of which quite fill the void. She finally makes it out of the nest and is settling in at an ultraliberal private boarding school when a shooting on campus leaves a friend dead and Sarah traumatized.
It’s a tough road, no doubt about that, and Tomlinson is entitled to her feelings of loss, rage, and betrayal. Yet as the narrative unfolds, it’s often difficult to tell who’s in control of the story: the wounded girl who lacks the experience to make sense of her pain, or the adult writer who means to bring perspective to past suffering.
Written entirely in the first-person past tense, and much of it in the voice of a teen and young adult, Good Girl tumbles out with all the urgency of an adolescent monologue: the compulsive accounting of every drunken fumbling and sexual misadventure, every self-doubt and unhappiness, as if simply telling might scour away the pain and transform it into something new. The work is punctuated with anguished self-recriminations that have the ring of victimhood:
We went back to his house and got drunk. Fast. The more I drank, the more I wanted to be close to him, and the more frustrated and hurt I became when nothing physical happened.
She knew she deserved to be happy. That was why she was getting married, and I wasn’t.
I knew something felt broken inside of me.
I was still on the outside of everything I wanted.
Frustratingly, this narrative tends to creep to the edge of self-awareness only to back away almost every time. In one instance, Tomlinson notes of her early writing career that she steels her resolve by adopting “a simple mantra: ‘Be like a boy,’” but then dives into the next scene without allowing herself to follow the thread of that most compelling admission. The memoir is peppered with similar confessions that lead nowhere:
“Real intimacy was terrifying for me,” she admits:
My blind spot regarding my dad and the patterns he’d created in my romantic relationships with men were so inherent to who I was at that moment in my life, it was difficult for me to see them play themselves out.
Identifying one’s patterns of behavior is certainly painful. It’s also central to the work of writing memoir. And though Tomlinson implies she’s come some distance since the time about which she writes, she does little to let the reader in on her newfound self-knowledge.
Further complicating Good Girl, and perhaps lying at the heart of the book’s inchoateness, is the fact that Tomlinson the narrator is neither ready to forgive her father his failings nor to depose him from his place on the pedestal of her childhood making. As a writer in her late 30s, she sees him clearly enough for what he is: a gambling addict whose lack of follow-through and pathological fixation on New Age philosophy has left him poor, lonely, and rudderless in later life. Yet she reports choosing to confide in her father about her sex life and demurring when a boyfriend refers to him as mentally ill. Toward the end of the book, she writes without irony about adopting her father’s passion for isolation tanks (“As the body-temperature water and toxin-clearing saline soothed me, I began to feel a rising sense of possibility”) and imagines launching a business that could provide him with an income (“I was sure it could be the next big thing in L.A. […] The investor, however, was not as convinced as I was.”).
And so Good Girl progresses, lurching from breakthrough to breakdown, brief moments of ecstasy punctuating a baseline of depression, loneliness, and a persistent hangover. Men come, but they always go, leaving Tomlinson raw and distraught. Writing is one of her few joys, but even writing brings with it a plague of self-doubt and a “constant state of financial worry.”
The crux of Tomlinson’s suffering comes in the form of a suicidal fantasy in which she envisions lying in an elegant hotel room, swallowing handfuls of pills, and washing them down with expensive bourbon. It’s a fantasy, she writes, that fills her with a relief. But as a reader it’s impossible not to worry about her, and at the same time not to wonder why she’d ask us to hear about every heartache and to stand by as anger and despair lead her to self-destruction.
It’s her father, of all people, who suggests that Tomlinson’s anger might interfere with her success as a writer. After reading the opening chapters of her unpublished novel, he muses, “All that anger can be hard for people to take.” It’s a surprisingly lucid observation from a man whose delusions have led him to place his faith in herbs purchased online to cure his cancer. Yet Tomlinson doesn’t have much to say about his insight other than that it miffed her: “Luckily, my dad rambled on to other topics.”
In rare moments, Tomlinson shows an ability to step outside the constraints of her point of view and describe her character in context: having slept with a man whose house is strewn with his baby daughter’s toys, she wakes up sober enough to see herself as “the interloper who threatened (an) entire childhood realm.” Too often, though, she misses the chance to contextualize her suffering. She reports that her grief and illness lead her to seek relief over and over: from a shaman in Topanga canyon, with a stint on the “Body Ecology Diet,” during a welcome relapse into the muffled comfort of alcohol. Her story of life with a bad dad is not the excoriating tale of dysfunction and trauma of Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, nor does her pain drive her to quite the self-destructive or reparative extremes of Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Yet her theme is that of so many memoirists: charting the slow, heartbreaking work of healing the wounds left by an unreliable parent. However, what’s missing in this reportage is the voice that hovers just outside the story, that murmurs in the reader’s ear, “What I couldn’t see at the time … what I know now … it would be years until I finally realized …”
As Phillip Lopate writes in his essay, “Reflection and Retrospection,”
In writing memoir, the trick […] is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.
Yet Lopate remarks that he finds in his students a common “resistance to retrospective analysis,” something he attributes in part to “an unwillingness to relinquish their rage.”
It’s precisely such a lack of dual perspective — the relentless blow-by-blow recounting with little pause for reflection or analysis — that keeps Good Girl from reaching a freer, more expansive literary plane where deeper truths and even humor, à la Larkin, might lie.
Unsurprisingly, Tomlinson’s prose is strongest when she forgets herself and sinks into close observation of the other: a process she clearly relishes.
In one passage, she describes sharing a meal with her father’s mother, who partway through their conversation “lost interest, attacking her meal with the fervor of a once beautiful woman who had long trafficked in the favors of men, and had therefore been on a diet her entire life, and was now going to eat every French fry the universe put in her path.” In that single, deft sentence, she gives us a vivid character and flashes a wry and worldly sense of humor that’s strikingly absent in her recounting of her own suffering.
Similarly, she captures her father in all his delusional glory and childlike glee as he visits her two-story Boston apartment for the first time:
He was halfway across the warped kitchen floor when he stopped, transfixed by the view of treetops and sky straight ahead. He put both hands out as if to steady himself on a surfboard, bent his knees slightly as if testing the give.
“Far out,” he said.
To the degree that there is redemption in Good Girl, it’s not where one might expect it, nor indeed where Tomlinson herself seems to feel it should be. In the final pages of the memoir, she’s still preoccupied with her place in relation to her father and her lovers, and writes tepidly of her newfound determination to “be the good girl of my own choosing […] and the woman she had finally become.”
Yet the hopeful message of Tomlinson’s memoir isn’t that she has overcome the pain of yearning for a father who was unavailable. Instead, it’s that she has taken that pain and used it to make herself a writer. Though Good Girl isn’t the best showcase for her talents, wielding language with spunk and power is clearly Tomlinson’s gift to the world and her way of making sense of her life.
Good Girl won’t be the pinnacle of Tomlinson’s literary achievement. But she needed to write it.