Self-absorbed debut memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family ruled by a father adept at inflicting psychological pain.
Sontag presents this as a book on family dynamics, but its scope is actually much narrower. She focuses primarily on the controlling behavior of her father, a physician in a VA hospital who set and enforced his own unreasonable rules for what the author, her mother and sometimes her younger sister could and could not say and do. His wife, a school social worker, was singularly unable or unwilling to protect her daughters or herself from his bizarre strictures and harsh, tormenting harangues. In Sontag’s sharply reconstructed scenes, her father comes across as a name-calling monster, her mother as a cringing wimp. There was no physical abuse (unless being locked out of the house in winter counts), but at one point during her high-school years, the department of social services apparently recognized the psychological harm being done to Sontag and temporarily removed her from the family home. Her weak, fearful mother promised to get a divorce, but it became clear that she never would, that her ties with her husband were stronger than those with her children. When the author finally left home, her struggle to become independent became arduous. Family relations were strained, lies seemed necessary, apologies and reconciliations were not forthcoming. In the final chapters, almost as an afterthought, Sontag briefly explores her relationship with her younger sister, whom their father tended to ignore as they were growing up.
A depressing account, lacking the warmth and power of Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle (2005), to which it will inevitably be compared.