IT IS GENERALLY AGREED that boys get in trouble without a strong male role model, a good and honest man to emulate. The absent father figure is the explanation for gangs, drug abuse, and young men who continue the cycle and abandon their pregnant girlfriends.
Recently, more and more researchers are discovering the importance of fathers in the lives of daughters as well. Linda Nielsen, professor of Educational and Adolescent Psychology at Wake Forest University and author of the seminal Father-Daughter Relationships (Routledge, 2012), writes, “Fathers generally have as much or more influence than mothers on many aspects of their daughters’ lives. […] [W]ell-fathered daughters are usually more confident, more self-reliant, and more successful in school and their careers.”
So it might seem amazing that Gloria Norris has grown up as healthy and accomplished as she has. She is a screenwriter, filmmaker, and now a published author. In her captivating memoir, KooKooLand, Norris presents her father, Jimmy — violent, terrifying, and probably insane. He appears to be anything but the model dad. The opening chapter is titled “Blood Feast.” That’s the name of the horror film he’s determined to see — with his wife and two daughters, ages 14 and 9. The film is jam-packed with cannibalism, extreme torture, and gruesome deaths. Virginia, the older of the sisters, hides her head, but little Gloria won’t take her eyes from the screen. She is desperate for Jimmy’s approval, wanting badly to be the son he often says he wishes she were. When her mother timidly suggests that maybe the film is too much for the girls, Gloria tells her dad the movie is the “best slice-and-dice ever.” Steve Allen (among others) has been credited with saying that comedy equals tragedy plus time. A lot of this story, now 30-plus years after the fact, is just that kind of hilarious. Jimmy is a fantastic character until the reader remembers he’s not a character — he was a living, breathing man who abused his wife and children and the world.
Gloria’s mother, Shirley, will do anything to keep Jimmy calm. Gloria’s sister, Virginia, hates him and does her best to avoid him — in return he pays less attention to her. Gloria is the one Jimmy takes along with him everywhere. They go to Boston’s red light district to see “the watering holes and strip joints he had frequented when he was in the merchant marine,” and to the family bar, Nick’s Ringside Cafe, with the cigarette smoke, the pickled pigs feet, the “alkies,” and her grandfather, Papou Nick, who scares her even more than her father. Jimmy takes her to the dump to shoot rats with a man who brags about skinning a squirrel alive, and he takes her hunting so she can wade through the water and pick up his dead ducks. Gloria is his sidekick, and the con men, thieves, racetrack juicers, and drug dealers her father favors know her by name. The only place her father won’t bring her is to his bookie, though she never learns why that, of all places, is forbidden. Norris does a wonderful job writing these scenes from her childhood self’s perspective. She makes the reader see her experiences as both exciting and routine, the way they would have been for a child who grew up in this world. At the same time she skillfully reminds us that these “adventures” are happening to a little girl. It is impossible for the reader not to be disturbed.
Memoirs about fathers are often written in an effort to make sense of this man who had such power over the author’s life. For example, in The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father, Geoffrey Wolff spends much of the book researching and analyzing his father’s early life. He relates Duke’s peripatetic schooling including letters home and report cards, examines his disastrous relationship with his own father, and interviews people who knew him. In dissecting and uncovering his father, Wolff hopes to define himself. KooKooLand is not heavy on documented research. It is lighter, airier, even when talking about murder, and reads as easily and quickly as a novel. Norris doesn’t spend much time wondering what made her dad the way he was. Other than the few stories Jimmy tells his daughter about incidents he suffered as a child — never corroborated by either grandparent — Jimmy is just Jimmy. Little Gloria emulates him and fears him. She uses his phrases and mimics his speech patterns: “So he twenty-three skidooed,” she says, and “I wished I wasn’t a crummy little pip-squeak.” And yet, even as a child, Norris knows her father was not a nice or happy man. She knows he’s a hypochondriac who reads medical journals and textbooks avidly. She knows he’s very smart, if uneducated. She knows he’s fanatically proud of being Greek, an ex-Merchant Marine, and a man who takes care of things. He’s definitely a sociopath, but she knows he loves her.
At least Gloria has a father who is involved in her life, even if he is oppressive and frightening. He has his hand — the hand she has seen “rip out the still-warm guts of dead animals ten times [her] size” — in her schooling, clothing, and choice of friends. He tells her what to eat and how to eat it. He has a vicious kind of control over her, but he is also a father she can hide behind and use as a threat. “[Jimmy] knows who the snitches are. […] You and your old lady better clam up from now on,” she tells a boy who is bothering her — and clam up he does. She can count on Jimmy to fight for her if necessary. Loyalty is of supreme importance to him, and he repays it in kind. Like Jeannette Walls’s dysfunctional parents in The Glass Castle, Gloria’s mom and dad will not win any parenting awards, but they are there for her. And like Jeannette Walls, Gloria’s foundation of loyalty and love — unstable as it seems — helps her grow up and succeed.
It’s Gloria’s sister, Virginia, whose story is the most heartbreaking. Victoria Secunda, journalist and author of Women and Their Fathers, discovered that “periodic” fathers, fathers who are not involved, and who are present only intermittently in their daughters’ lives, have the most deleterious effect. Without a father’s love and attention, daughters are unable to relate to men other than sexually, are often promiscuous, and are much more likely to have substance abuse and self-esteem issues. Virginia is a textbook case. Without judgment or sentimentality, Norris writes about how Virginia drops out of high school, leaves home, gets pregnant, and has a backroom abortion. She marries an addled Marine and gets pregnant again. She becomes a prostitute — “She just lay on the massage table and let the guys squash her with their blubber and they paid her even more money” — and the mistress of a married man. The men come and go, and it takes Virginia a very long time, much longer than her kid sister, to find her way. In short, direct sentences, and with a child’s acceptance of things as they are, Norris reports on her sister’s troubled life. She slept with men, gave a cut to her pimp, but “it still left her with enough dough to rent a nice apartment […]. One with its own washer so she didn’t have to go to the Laundromat and use a machine that some idiot had washed a bunch of shitty diapers in right before her.” Ninth-grade Gloria is happy for her sister.
KooKooLand is about love and all the strange and awful ways it manifests. At its complicated heart is another account — the story of Little Gloria’s big crush, Susan, the beautiful and sophisticated college-aged daughter of Jimmy’s best friend. Susan is a touchstone, a beacon keeping Gloria moving forward. She gets good grades like Susan. She wants to go to college like Susan. Norris beautifully captures her younger self’s longing to be absorbed into Susan’s oasis, and her fantasies of following Susan to college and then to California — the place Jimmy calls “KooKooLand” — where they will sit on the beach and be each other’s best friend forever. The reader aches for it all to come true.
But it can’t. Halfway through the book, the story takes an abrupt left turn. A horrific double murder rips Gloria’s plans and Susan’s life to pieces. Susan’s father, Hank, brutally murders Susan’s mother and a man he mistakes for her lover, and the memoir slides inevitably into an account of the crime and its rippling repercussions. Jimmy’s reaction is shocking but not surprising: “A man’s wife embarrasses him, she pays the price. Sayonara, baby.”
From the very first page of KooKooLand, Norris hints at this incident to come. She writes so well and so much about angry, violent men and their antiquated, blind opinions that something like this has to happen. Jimmy’s and his friends’ actions can only lead in one direction. Even so, the murder is not the most important or appalling event in this book. KooKooLand is neither a tale of true crime, nor a neatly resolved mystery; it’s a memoir of a relationship between a father and daughter who — despite violence and depravity — remain connected.
There is palpable relief when Norris gets away from home on a full scholarship to college, where she meets new people who influence her in healthier ways. She deftly writes this transition to her adult self, becoming a different person, in life and in the book. The idioms and rough accent vanish, used only occasionally for emphasis or humor. In this writerly way she shows how completely she has separated from her father.
Not that it was easy for Gloria Norris to get out from under Jimmy’s “hairy claw,” much less write about him. To write about your father is to sit in judgment — and she was trained from birth to let Jimmy do the judging.
Jimmy lived long enough to see Gloria move to KooKooLand and establish herself in a successful career. Even as he lay dying from cancer he never apologized or even acknowledged his monstrous behavior. Instead he took credit: “Hey she’s my daughter,” he says, laughing, “I taught her everything I know.” The most poignant moments in the book are when young Gloria has a mean or grasping thought: totally normal, but each time she is terrified to think that she really is “just like Jimmy” — that’s her worst fear. Instead, though, she grows up to write this funny, moving, page-turner of a memoir. Norris is tough as well as insightful, and it’s obvious from the book that her father is part of who she is. For better or worse, she grew up with Jimmy — lucky for us she grew out of him as well.
Diana Wagman is the author of the novels Bump, Skin Deep, and Spontaneous, numerous stories, essays, reviews, and screenplays, including Delivering Milo, directed by Nick Castle and starring Bridget Fonda and Albert Finney.