Driving In The Dark: A Childhood Memoir, by Zoe Niklas with Janice Harper
For various personal reasons, I happen to be both a reader  and a writer  in the popular genre of literature known as “memoirs of crappy childhoods.” This book, like several others in the genre, was one I happened to read (and purchase) because it was a selection of our CASA book of the month club. And as someone well acquainted with the dysfunctional family environment shown in this book, I was struck by a few patterns that I was able to recognize. For one, unhappy families tend to be unhappy in the same ways: sexual abuse, substance abuse, children having to grow up fast because their parents are not up to the task of being parents, vulnerability to abuse by outsiders, children being fought over by adults with different visions of what is best for them or what they deserve, and children growing up impoverished with various unmet needs. This book was both an individual tale and one that is unfortunately all too common, and it even ends in a fairly traditional fashion with an optimistic ending in a happy marriage (spoiler alert).
This book of about 300 pages is divided into four unequal parts. The first part of the book, after a prologue, gives a discussion of the early childhood of the author and some context of her own family background. We see her mother involved in a series of unhappy marriages with various deadbeat men, the protectiveness of the author’s older sister Gale/Sissy, the author’s childhood isolation and her development of a friendship with the slightly older Martha. The second part of the book explores the author’s experience with a loving and idealistic pastor’s family (Martha’s family) involved in the social gospel in an age where family reunification was of the utmost importance in cases of abuse and neglect, and where the court decided in this case (as per usual) to reunify. The third part of the book explored a descent into an increasingly troubled preteen and teen period where the author’s attempts at educational ambition in the face of continuing abuse led her to live for a prolonged period at a youth center were she was more or less imprisoned while the juvenile delinquents were able to roam free(er) and where she struggled to have appropriate understsanding of the boys and men in her life in the face of her disastrously abusive childhood. The fourth part of the book is the shortest and it shows the death of the author’s birth mother and the author’s wedding.
There are at least a few elements that separate this book from the majority of other books of its kind, although there are a lot of similarities. Unlike many such books, this book openly credits and acknowledgements its co-author and guest editing. Likewise, there is a strong undercurrent of divine providence in this story as well. Even though the author’s tale is harrowing, it could have been vastly worse as the author credits a voice with giving her encouragement and insight at key moments of her childhood. The author also gives a moving and deeply insightful look at the way that children in dysfunctional families often grow up very able to spot the difference between fake and real aspects of the people around them, if somewhat unable to trust and relate to people in a trusting and intimate way. By the author’s account, at least, she was able with a lot of help and a lot of work to overcome the multi-generational disaster of her childhood and break the cycle and establish a new pattern for the future generations of her own family, and that is something to celebrate.
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