Like Family: Growing Up In Other People’s Houses: A Memoir, by Paula McLain
Although I must admit that I often read books that this genre falls into, namely the memoir of a disastrous childhood , the reason I read this particular book was not because it was offered by a particular publisher, but rather because it happened to be the book of the month selection by the local CASA office, and seeing that reading and commenting on books is a fairly obvious personal interest, I requested this book from a local library to look at it. Given that there will be a great deal to criticize about this book, it is worthwhile at least to comment on its virtues–it is remarkably easy to read despite its frequent flashbacks and flash forwards that disrupt its generally chronological flow. Even so, it is an easy enough book to understand, and its prose style is well-written. It is obvious that the author’s years of writing education allowed her to hone an excellent style of writing, regardless of what can be said about the content, and it is equally obvious that this memoir represents an attempt to come to grips with an immensely difficult and broken childhood, one that the author has struggled, and seemingly not succeeded particularly well, at overcoming.
The contents of this book are pretty straightforward–250 pages of material that discuss the author’s troubled personal and family background, including the multiple marriages of both parents, problems with alcohol and crime and poverty, the child and her two sisters entering and spending most of their childhoods in the foster care system facing various kinds of sexual abuse and privation and a general feeling of not belonging, and then being unceremoniously dumped on the world upon aging out of the system. From the beginnings of the book in its detail of a family breaking down to its ending with an epilogue showing that the author’s sisters appear to have done better than she herself did at living successful family lives, the book itself consists of details and the painful act of reflecting upon a difficult past, filled with the longing for nurturing and love and belonging without finding it, and the fact that people often persist in repeating the same mistakes made by the generations before them. There is a heavy air of multigenerational failure here, one that, given the author’s own broken marriage, appears destined to last at least one more generation.
In reading a book like this, a fairly critical and demanding reader is left with deeply ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, one wants to give some sort of encouragement and support to children like that the author was growing up. It is clear that there were, and remain, some pretty systemic problems with caring for children who are unwanted, abused, or neglected by their parents and who have no obvious family able to pick up the slack. Children continue at an alarming degree to be abused by their parents and by those strangers who take waifish vagabondish children in. People often struggle with attachment, and all too many people, like the author, have viewed their unborn children as parasites, and had a tendency to run whenever things got difficult rather than to do the difficult work of communicating concerns and listening fairly to them. This is a book that leaves an unsatisfying feeling in the heart of the reader, who is left with an author writing a lot but unwilling to accept personal responsibility for her own choices and mistakes, but rather passing the blame of them on to others.
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