Thursday, July 31, 2008

House Rules

Memoirs are strange; they are written first-hand accounts of a life, and at some point in reading one, I always wonder how the author remembers the exact dialog from incidents that are so far in the past. I just finished a memoir, House Rules: A Memoir by Rachel Sontag, found via a recommendation on Felicia C. Sullivan's site. (Sullivan's memoir, The Sky Isn't Visible from Here: Scenes from a Life, is a highly polished reflection on her life as the child of an addict, developing her own addictions, and freeing herself from both.)

Sontag's story is richly complex, the story of her controlling and manipulative father, and how he broke their family apart with his iron rule. The book lays out the life of a family, all women, held hostage by an emotional batterer. Rules were arbitrarily set, with steep punishments--family exclusion, silent treatment, isolation from friends--should those rules be broken.

House Rules describes how Sontag's father battered her as his victim of choice, dividing her from her mother, and completely ignoring her younger sister Jenny. According to her father, Sontag was the one driving the family apart; at one point he compares her to Saddam Hussein, trying to manipulate her mother as if her mother represented the Kurds in Iraq. This came along with an exercise in forcing his daughter to write down a list of "descriptors"--selfish, disgusting, revolting--that she was to read back as admission of her character flaws. I would compare Sontag's father to Robespierre: the only way to rule people that he saw as unworthy of autonomy within a democratic system was to keep everyone in terror, on edge, and unable to form working partnerships.

Sontag ultimately breaks free of her father, and takes ten years to unravel the web of control that her father wove around her. Her built up defense mechanisms against the emotional abuse that she suffered kept her from forming healthy relationships with friends, boyfriends, extended family. And yet, with careful resolve, she has risen from her tragedy to start a normal life, carry on a normal job, and even reform a bond with her sister, understanding how their father's neglect of Jenny was as destructive as his open offense against her.

The story is true, which makes it all the more frightening. I can't imagine what it would be like to live in a house where one's every move is under scrutiny, phone calls are recorded, arguments and "discussions" are recorded, and there is no place to escape to. I wonder what reading the father's account of the same time would describe. Would he sound paranoid? Would he reveal that, despite his disappointment in his children, that he really loved them? Or would he push the idea of writing it up aside defensively.

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