“ALL HAPPY FAMILIES are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” writes Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. And so it is: family dysfunction has always attracted the attention of poets, from the bloody mess of Agamemnon’s family circle, to King Lear’s heartless daughters, to the skin-crawling creepiness of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” Family drama never lacks for an audience; we consume these sagas eagerly, rapt, weighing each detail against the quiet (and not-so-quiet) angers, griefs, and regrets that mark our own family histories.
In her debut memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, Ashley C. Ford narrates her family’s peculiar brand of unhappiness (much to her mother’s chagrin; “Why can’t you ever write about the happy times we had? We had happy times too,” she complains to her daughter upon reading her work). Ford’s father is sent to prison when she is still a toddler. She grows up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with her mother; younger brother, RC; and grandmother. Along the way, two half-siblings her mother has with an on-again, off-again stepfather join the family. Ford executes her task with both unstinting honesty and rare tenderness toward the deeply flawed, but steadfast, circle of adults who raised her. The resulting portraits, of her mother and grandmother, in particular, are remarkably vivid and humane, haunting the reader long after one has closed the book’s pages.
As a young child, Ashley learns to split her mother into “Mother” and Mama in order to deal with the confusion caused by her alternating bouts of protective love and abusive rage. Her mother’s anger is demonic, out-of-body, fugue-like. “My mother’s rage drained the light from her eyes, and she became unrecognizable to me. There was Mama, the loving mother we knew before whatever sparked her ire, and then there was Mother who showed up in her place. […] She rose from somewhere within Mama and did the latter’s dirty work.” Slaps, hits, and kicks inevitably followed. Much as she strives to predict the appearance of her parent’s terrifying alter ego, Ford finds the line separating violence and love in her family is never clearly drawn. In a habitual game of hide-and-seek, Ashley’s mother pretends to be a monster come to eat her children, and they shriek in delight as she lunges at them with mock-ferocity. One of her brother’s screams, however, suddenly triggers Ashley to panic that, mid-game, the Mother has somehow slipped in to take Mama’s place. Grabbing a knife from the kitchen, Ashley races to her brother’s rescue. At the sight of a four-year-old brandishing a knife, her mother breaks out laughing; all three eventually succumb to the hilarity, rolling on the floor, clutching their sides. “That was the last time we played that game,” Ford remembers. Ashley’s more memorable gaffes often made their way into her mother’s stories, and she would recount them gleefully within the family circle, “nearly choking herself as she giggled” through the telling:
“I sure did whoop her ass that day.” My mother’s face would split into the smile I rarely saw. It illuminated her entire face, from hairline to chin. I thought that smile was her prettiest. […] That smile sometimes made me forget the pain, and I would laugh too. Over time, forgetting the pain to make the best joke got easier and easier and easier.
Ashley’s grandmother’s dark bedroom is a quiet refuge where she retreats to escape her mother’s rages, a space whose “soft powders and sweet lotions made [it] smell more like a pastry shop than a place to rest.” Her grandmother was proud, well dressed, careful of her reputation; she taught Ashley the importance of keeping up appearances. Out in public, her ever critical eye sought out those women she deemed “underdressed, mismatched, or sloppy.” When she caught a target, she would lean in to Ashley’s ear, “[h]er musky perfume […] heavy in the back of my nose […] tast[ing] like the warmest version of my oldest memories,” and whisper her withering verdict: “Now you wouldn’t ever see me out here looking any kind of way. Thank god I raised all y’all better than that.” She didn’t think her criticism cruel. Rather, “[t]he sharpness of her words were meant to hook into our soft outsides, toughen us, shield us, and become our armor against the prying eyes of a stranger’s judgment.”
Ashley’s mother’s ferocity could also be wielded against outsiders, those who threatened to harm her family. When a distant cousin is molested by her stepfather, Ashley’s mother goes wild, becoming hypervigilant about her every interaction with boys, searching for signs her daughter has either been targeted by or has carelessly made herself the target of unwanted male attention. “If anybody ever tries anything with you, I will kill them,” she warns both Ashley and RC, “star[ing] as if we were already hiding something she would soon find out with or without our confessions.” “I will believe you, and I will kill them.” And so, in a tragic twist of her mother’s logic, when she is raped by a schoolmate at 13, Ashley keeps it to herself. “I trusted my mother to deliver the violence she’d promised upon anyone she believed violated something that belonged to her,” she writes. She had already lost one parent to prison; she wasn’t about to lose another.
Ford understands the raw, almost noncognitive force of family dynamics, and it is not by accident that, whenever her story begins to approach the limits of rational articulation, an animal enters the scene. When her mother succumbs to postpartum depression, Ashley spends some months living on her great-grandfather’s farm in Missouri. When the time comes to return home, Ashley at first refuses. By way of answer, her grandmother takes her out into the backyard, digs up a nest of snakes, pours lighter fluid on them, and strikes a match. “The snakes did not slither away or thrash around as they burned. They held each other tighter. Even as the scales melted from their bodies,” young Ashley observes, “their inclination was to squeeze closer to the other snakes wrapped around them.” The snakes become a living emblem of her grandmother’s fiercely held belief: loyalty to family above all else. “You will have to go back. We’ll both go back home,” she explains, as they stare into the pit. “These things catch fire without letting each other go. We don’t give up on our people. We don’t stop loving them.”
In another scene, Ashley sits with her grandfather at his kitchen table as he chops up catfish and dismembers live frogs, pulled from a bucket at his feet, to eat for supper. “Don’t trust them boys out there, little girl,” he preaches, “sp[itting] the words onto the twitching frog’s half-open body.” Ashley knows little of her grandfather except that he and her grandmother used to beat each other when they were married and that, by his own admission, “I wasn’t no good. Men ain’t really no good.” “I thought Grandpa broke and ate everything that might love him,” Ashley muses. “I didn’t want to sit here and learn to do the same.” After “his fingers [had] bent and popped [the frog’s] sinewy limbs,” her grandfather laces his own fingers together and stretches as if to pop his knuckles. “Please don’t,” Ashley begs. “I thought the sound his hands made would hurt me. […] I was the fish on the table between us, pushed into myself so hard I would soon snap in half.” The mute spectacle of a suffering animal body becomes, under Ford’s pen, a way of figuring beyond words the force of intergenerational trauma, the inextricable ties of both love and pain that bind her family together.
Ashley’s father — the “somebody” whose beloved daughter she dreams of being — is most notable for his absence. “I can’t remember a time before I knew my father was incarcerated, or just ‘in jail’ as I said for the first decade of my life.” Her father remains a blank and a silence in family discussion, and Ashley seems to know by instinct never to pry into the nature of his crime. Through occasional phone calls, one in-person visit when she is 11, and the letters he sends her faithfully from prison, Ashley constructs for herself an ideal father: the very embodiment of unconditional love and approval she doesn’t receive from her mother and grandmother. As such, he is the lodestar by which she sets her course forward. Like Gatsby’s Daisy, he can never disappoint, because he can never show up in the flesh to fall short of what she has dreamed up for him. Indeed, it is in the course of an argument with her grandmother about Ashley’s failure to treat her mother kindly that her father ideal is shattered. When Ashley gingerly brings up her mother’s failings, her grandmother retorts brusquely, “You need to be nicer to your mother because you don’t even know why your daddy is in prison.” “He raped two women,” she then proffers, before adding, “Don’t tell your brother.” Ashley is gutted by this new piece of information, and struggles to reconcile her prized image of him with the reality of the violence he has inflicted upon the bodies of others.
Somebody’s Daughter narrates Ashley’s journey to adulthood, through the aftermath of rape, her first long-term romantic relationship, a succession of teacher-mentors, her eventual acceptance into college, and her grandmother’s death. The story is framed by her father’s release from prison, and the family’s joyful, if difficult, reunion. Post-Freud, the genre of memoir can all too easily slip into a therapeutic narrative rhythm, a kind of psychologized version of Aristotelian catharsis, marching the reader through the requisite steps of trauma, recovery, and reconciliation. One can imagine Ford’s story being plotted as a tale of how she eventually succeeded in integrating the split selves that haunted her childhood: Mother and Mama; bad girl and good girl; father and rapist. Yet it is to Ford’s credit that her story never succumbs to such pat narrative conventions. The family reunites, physically, in the book’s final pages, but psychological and emotional integration is much less easy to achieve. Like Freud’s recognition that true analysis is, in fact, interminable, so Ford acknowledges the essential mystery that lies at the heart of every family.
“It wasn’t, and isn’t, my place to forgive [my father] for what he’s done,” Ford comments at the close of the memoir. “But my father is part of me, and I couldn’t turn away from that.” The fact of his act of violence is as incontrovertible as the fact of Ford’s love for him, and she isn’t hoping for any magical reconciliation of the two. “God is so good!” her aunt cries in jubilation at her beloved brother’s return to the land of the living. It serves as a closing reminder to Ashley — and the reader — to embrace the intertwining of grace and pain, even and especially when we can’t understand it.
Ellen Wayland-Smith is associate professor of Writing at USC Dornsife College. She is the author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table (Picador, 2016) and The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (UChicago Press, 2020).