Reading Deborah Lott’s memoir of her dysfunctional upbringing feels like the literary equivalent of rubbernecking: her childhood was a series of trainwrecks, but somehow you can’t stop turning around to watch. Lott was the youngest of three children; her mother was stable, but her father, Ira, was excessive. A hypochondriac, a fantasist, a narcissist – the man knew no boundaries, neither physical nor mental. And he made Deborah his sidekick, his confidante, his ally against his wife’s attempts to normalize him.
When her story starts, Deborah is four and the counterman at the post office has just died, and Ira is insisting that since this is her “first death,” she should try to remember it forever. Then she’s in bed with her parents, feeling cozy with her daddy’s hairy chest and his big belly and his “funny” poke-his-moles games, and yes, you feel an instinctive “eeeuw” rising up. But not only is young Deborah not bothered by her father’s casual undress, she is intrigued by problematic aspects of his physique — his deformed fingers and his uneven legs. Before long, you’re in the kitchen with this man, who has decided to create a buffet from canned spaghetti, Hormel tamales, and tinned sardines, which brings up his botulism theories, and before long he’s throwing out one can after another because it doesn’t make a little “pffft” sound when it’s pierced. Even worse, he’s roped Deborah’s older brother into inspecting all the cans, and soon you wonder if they will ever get anything to eat. Actually, not only does Ira eat continually, there’s a terrifying scene in a Las Vegas restaurant, when the rest of the family wants to leave after breakfast so they can explore the casinos, but Ira talks his daughter into eating a second full breakfast with him, just to forestall the family’s foray.
All this mishegoss is set in a mid-twentieth century WASPy California town, which only refracts Ira’s strangeness. So when he ruins Deborah’s birthday party by sashaying out in his Little Lord Fauntleroy costume and harassing the kids with his shtick, it’s grotesque, but it’s not as if anyone was going to find her family acceptable anyway. If things were tenuously hanging together, they collapse when Ira’s mother dies. Eventually, his paranoid calls to the FBI and his all-night rants land him in a psychiatric hospital, giving Deborah and everyone else a breather. It’s unclear if she will be able to right herself or if she’ll go for “matching straightjackets” with Ira, as her mother dryly suggests.
All these bizarre tales, while entertaining, are not the point. The deeper story, of Lott taking control of her body and thoughts and finding her voice, is what makes this memoir important. Anyone can have a peculiar childhood, and many can even tell amusing stories about it, but how many find their voices, and “write” themselves?
Try it, you won’t put it down.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.