A daughter’s vibrant relationship with her father decays into warfare and abuse in this coming-of-age memoir.
As a young girl growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Garber (True Affections, 2011, etc.) thought that her architect father, Woodie, was the most charismatic man in the world; she even took up his interest in modernist design. With her mother, Jo, and two younger brothers, she helped him build his dream house in the Cincinnati suburb of Glendale, Ohio—a sleek, rectilinear structure that “shimmered like a white mirage...the crushed glass wall panels sparkling, while the Great Room blazed as if on fire, red, orange, and wood reflected and glowed inside the long glass walls.” In Garber’s warm evocation, the house, complete with Eames furniture, abstract sculptures, and Dave Brubeck records playing on the hi-fi, seems the perfect backdrop for avant-garde family togetherness, circa 1966. But slowly, a gradual accretion of disquieting detail spoils the gleaming facade as she reveals the dark side of her father’s world. Woodie’s ebullience, she writes, was an aspect of his bipolar disorder, which alternated with bouts of depression that kept him in bed for weeks. His compulsion to be the architect of every element of his surroundings extended to his family, whom he tormented with strict rules, constant demands to do heavy landscaping labor, and harangues about alleged laziness and lack of integrity, which grew more caustic as a difficult project frayed his nerves. He felt threatened by Jo’s desire to return to college and her turn toward prison-reform activism, Garber says, and when the white author brought home an African-American boyfriend, her father disapproved.
Garber gives a subtle, nerve-wracking account of a familiar generational conflict that tore apart countless families in the ’60s, as fathers found their paternal authority challenged by rebellious daughters, long-haired sons, and wives who wanted more fulfilling roles. In this case, the intensifying confrontation pitted Woodie’s tirades against his family’s muted but mounting defiance. But the author also tells of a far more disturbing aspect of Woodie’s domestic tyranny—his ongoing sexual abuse of the teenage Garber. As the household spirals toward dissolution, Garber paints an indelible portrait of the claustrophobic hell that a dysfunctional family can become and of her own anguish and confusion over Woodie’s abuse, to which she responded with denial. She’s cleareyed in her depiction of his monstrous behavior, but she also portrays the magnetic pull of his personality and his role in shaping her own sensibility. She also acknowledges the irony of an iconoclastic modernist's not being able to cope with modernity. In prose that’s simultaneously poetic and incisive, she even finds the frail humanity behind her father’s power plays and mood swings; “Crying out, he was small and pitiful, like a statue of a dictator pulled down by peasants,” she writes of Woodie's collapsing from a heart fibrillation. Many readers will see aspects of their own family histories in this powerful saga of trauma and healing.
An alternately wistful and searing exploration of a troubled legacy.