A debut memoir examines narcissism and women’s rights.
McKneally grew up in New York state during the 1940s and ’50s, the eldest of a large Roman Catholic family. She opens her book with a line from her father: “No daughter of mine is going to college!” The author does attend college, however, with her father’s signature on the application. This dynamic repeats many times: her father and then her husband, Dan, telling her she can’t study, work, parent—do anything—and McKneally proving them wrong. She met Dan in college. He drank too much and survived cancer but was also a rising star in the business world. She believed that “God had intended” them to be together. Signs of Dan’s controlling personality surfaced early. He insisted she quit her job, move to Chicago (his hometown), and prepare to have 10 children. When Dan was invited to the Aspen Institute, McKneally followed as “wife of.” Although not officially allowed to speak in sessions, she did indeed provide valuable input. The couple eventually had five children, and the author was offered jobs, but Dan refused to let her work: “What could you ever do?” Dan became physically abusive at home, and McKneally descended deep into depression. In therapy, she realized Dan was the problem but felt blocked from divorce by Catholicism, the return of Dan’s cancer, and his crumbling career. In the mid-’70s, she finally secured a divorce and recovered in part through art. McKneally’s voice is assured and intelligent. Even when conveying her confusion and depression, her writing is convincing. She tells her story in vivid scenes and dialogue that draw readers into her home, the Aspen Institute, the therapist’s office, and other settings. In addition, she deftly conveys the social atmosphere and expectations of the ’60s and ’70s (“ ‘Equal rights’ was merely a murmur, and feminism in my world poked its head through the status quo only to be stepped on and shoved back down”). To appeal to a broader audience, her book might have expanded on the issues of women, work, abuse, and mental illness during these decades and trimmed some personal events and details. Nonetheless, her story remains engaging and inspiring.
A strong, important account of self-preservation.