11 October 2022
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford
I wrote the first two paragraphs of this review and then accidentally closed the document without saving it. When I began penning it, I was procrastinating other work. But once I deleted the file, I was so frustrated with myself about losing those two paragraphs that I took a break from this book review and did all the other work I was procrastinating. Once that was finished, I had forgotten about this book review, yet it crouched menacingly at the back of my mind…sort of just waiting and weighing…until I realized it was there – and that I should return to it.
So here we are.
Okay. This book was good. It’s just another example of a memoir I’ve read where I had to think, as I read, “This is something I could do.” There were things about it that I enjoyed; there were things about it I didn’t enjoy. The truth of the matter is that I’m far likelier to appreciate fiction over memoir. I cannot say why that might be…ok yes, I can. I think it’s jealousy. Envy. Fiction doesn’t tell me any true stories, and so there’s nothing about the characters to truly envy: they’re not real. Memoir presents a truth. The author’s story is real and thus enviable. Moreover, it’s written and published, already. Enviable. See?
I’d like to say that I was disappointed by the book’s uncertain trajectory, except that I know that’s my own problem, not Ford’s. When I picked this book off the shelf of an independent book store in Santa Fe, I digested only the first section of the synopsis on the back cover: “…Ashley navigates poverty, adolescence, and a fraught relationship with her mother…” I projected onto this book my expectations: it would be about her relationship with her mother – perfect. And while there is much in this book to show the evolution of her relationship with her mother, that relationship is not front-and-center. Ford moves onward and upward, away from her mother. I was frustrated. I was confused.
What I hadn’t noticed was that the second two-thirds of the synopsis on that back cover focused not on her mother: “…she wishes she could turn to her father for hope and encouragement. There are just a couple of problems…” This book’s trajectory is all pointed toward reunion with her father. How do we know? Here:
“I’d told myself before I got there, that I would refer to him as ‘Dad’ because I was not a child. I was a grown woman, and I was pretty sure grown women didn’t call their fathers ‘Daddy.’ But in that moment, I felt like someone’s little girl. And I’d been waiting a long time to feel like somebody’s daughter.” (177)
Ford has pulled the title for her memoir from this moment, this climax, when she meets her father in prison for the first time in thirteen years. This is no story about Ford and her mother. Not really. If I’d realized that from the moment I first read the back cover, my expectations wouldn’t have been so thwarted. It’s my own fault, really.
Another issue I had with this memoir was the same issue I had with Mary Karr’s: the author’s personality grates mine. This is all about me, and I know that. Ford is the type of person who’d approach Spencer in the library, sit next to him, and tell him he’s beautiful – out of nowhere. This is not something I’d ever do. Although Ford reads, like me, she does not seem to have the interior world I’ve developed for myself. She has processed big moments as I might, but she doesn’t process the small moments as acutely as I do. We approach the world differently. I want consistent deep processing. I want calm and order. Ford’s story does not offer any of this. I want to dwell in minute details; Ford’s story does not offer this either. It is all big details, big moments, big noise – which are all too big for me. The irony of my interest in nuanced detail is that my writing reflects my own sensitivity – big emotions – in a way that approaches melodrama. So why in the hell can I not accept others’ melodrama? What’s the difference? How does this make any sense? I’m not sure. I’ll think more on it.
All that said, Ford’s relationship with her father, despite his being in prison her whole life, despite his gnarly violent history, spreads a warmth through my innards: this is the kind of acceptance I always wanted from my own father when younger. While I was seeking a story about mothers and daughters, I found a story about fathers and daughters – and maybe that was what I really needed. There is nothing, to me, more impactful in this story than the moment Ford’s father gives her permission to write. As I read these words on a shuttle bus to Bandelier National Monument, I gasped: “You gotta be tough to tell your truth, but it’s the only thing worth doing next to loving somebody” (181). My daughter, next to me, looked at me for explanation, so I read it out loud to her. Words like this from my father would change my life; I can only imagine how Ford felt hearing them from her own. To tack this on at the end of this paragraph, I do think I have such approval from my father, these days. We’re evolving.
As for her relationship with her mother, who was unregulated, shame-compelled, emotionally and physically abusive, Ford handles it well throughout the book. Rarely, if ever, does she express bitterness toward her mom; in fact, she maintains a relationship with her mother through the end of the story. Her mother begs, when Ford decides to tell her story, “Why can’t you ever write about the happy times we had? We had happy times too” (197). And this sentiment struck me. It reminded me of my own mother’s humanity, my own mother’s suffering – that my own mother was “doing her best” as she raised me. Whether her “best” was “good enough” for me is an entirely different story. It was important for me to read this passage. It will (it already has, during my procrastination of writing this book review) impact the story I tell.
An intense read, this was.