The Fifth Sister by Laura Landgraf

The Fifth Sister

From Victim to Victor Overcoming Child Abuse
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A young woman grapples with her parents’ abusive actions in an activist’s debut memoir.

At age 10, Landgraf recalls, she overheard a conversation she did not fully understand: her mother, Elaine, chastising her father, Mont (an Oregon preacher and elementary school principal), for impregnating 15-year-old Michelle. Michelle and her two younger sisters, Katie and Elsie, were the adopted siblings of Landgraf and her baby sister, Carly. Instead of leaving her husband, Elaine punished Michelle, treating her, according to Landgraf, “like Cinderella. Clean this, wash that, set the table, iron clothes.” In addition to his predilection for young girls, the author writes, Mont harbored a fierce temper: when Landgraf performed a cheerleading routine during a school assembly, he violently dragged her from the stage and rebuked her for acting “loose.” These incidents invited unwanted scrutiny; eventually the family (minus Michelle, who was sent to live with different folks) moved to Ethiopia for missionary work. Though Landgraf––17 by then––loved living in Africa, the molestation (this time of Katie) and violence (the author recalls “being beaten with a poker until I could not walk”) continued. With every act of misconduct, Landgraf writes, life slid “back into our normal, without discussion or comment.” The book’s final third jumps ahead to Landgraf’s marriage and a brutal custody battle. Written in the present tense, this harrowing memoir conjures the immediacy of the horrors the author faced. At its best, her work lets simple, startling details speak for themselves, as when her husband commits a violent act and then “hands me my favorite comfort food, a hot caramel sundae, and begs forgiveness.” Landgraf is likewise unflinching when it comes to her own misdeeds––some of the book’s most moving passages concern her guilt about ignoring the abuse in her family. At times her writing lapses into sentimentality––“I bend over my legs and cry with the intensity of emotional pain”––but Landgraf maintains admirable control over her narrative until an abrupt ending that may leave some readers unsatisfied.

Candid prose anchors a gripping account of familial obligation and complicity.

Publisher: Empower Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:


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