In the rooms of 12-Step programs like Al-Anon, you hear it all the time. When one person in the family is crazy, everyone goes crazy. No one escapes the touch of madness when one member is sick, whether that’s from alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse, or mental illness.
Lott starts her family story when they move to La Crescenta, CA in the 1950s. I lived in nearby Montrose from 2008 to the end of 2009. It’s a gorgeous, wooded area on the lip of the Angeles Forest above Los Angeles, packed with political and religious conservatives. A Jewish family would have stuck out in that homogenous community back then for sure. And that would have been hard enough. But Deborah’s father, Ira, is also literally insane. A man born with physical deformities, he suffers discrimination in the workforce, which means he has to start his own home-based business as an insurance agent to support his wife and three children. He uses his effusive charm and sense of humor to win clients and contacts over the phone. His wife helps him with the business, especially when his erratic behavior takes his eyes off the prize. (Which is constantly.) He’s an obsessive eater, a germaphobe, and “operatic” hypochondriac with no sense of boundaries, wearing only jockey shorts that let his sweaty, hairy balls roll into view of his young daughter. (That is, when he wasn’t dressing up as Little Lord Fauntleroy or in drag.)
Aching from lack of affection from her emotionally distant mother, Deborah clings to her loony-but-loving father. Very soon, Deborah starts having mini-breakdowns of her own, consumed with anxiety about death and overwhelmed by repetitive thoughts. She has few friends to model good family behavior to her. In fact, thanks to her father’s outrageous behavior, she has few friends period. I was afraid at times that the relationship between her and her father would become incestuous, but it only became so emotionally, not physically, as her parents weaponized the children’s love. Ira needed an ally to back up his increasingly bizarre paranoias. Deborah was his designated support. Meanwhile, Deborah’s mother sees this as Deborah always taking her father’s side, a betrayal that “justifies” her bitterness and distance. When his wife refuses to play into his ever-widening cyclone of chaos, Ira takes Deborah emotionally hostage on his descent into complete madness.
(It’s actually her cousin Joey who introduces the incestuous bit, but I digress.)
While Lott’s writing is brilliant and at times laugh-out-loud funny, this wasn’t always an easy book to read. I had to skim a couple of parts about her mother administering enemas one after another to both Deborah and her father, wielding the enema like some kind of tool for both torture and exorcism. The theme of body horror throughout the book induced winces and squirms by turns. But Lott’s storytelling weaves the cringe-worthy moments with the poignancy of her family’s dysfunction and love in a way that keeps you rooting for young Deborah to break away — which she does with grief, disappointment, and a profound sense of coming into her own. A lot of reviews spoil this moment, but I won’t. It was a surprise for me that I deeply appreciated.
Pub Date: April 7, 2020
Page Count: 256
Publisher: Red Hen Press