Long Live the Tribe of Father­less Girls

  • Review
By – July 4, 2019

This stun­ning, com­pul­sive­ly read­able debut mem­oir tells the sto­ry of T Kira Madden’s com­ing-of-age in the swampy, sur­re­al world of wealthy Boca Raton, Flori­da. Despite her priv­i­lege wrought from her father’s shady deal­ings in gam­bling and stocks, young Mad­den faced crip­pling lone­li­ness and inse­cu­ri­ty. Her drug-addled par­ents were fre­quent­ly neglect­ful, strung out to what Mad­den calls the oth­er place.” Though wealthy enough to attend prepara­to­ry school and own four hors­es, Mad­den fed her­self lit­tle but canned soup as a child. Her father rarely spoke to her and called her son.” It’s no won­der that despite his phys­i­cal pres­ence for sub­stan­tial por­tions of her child­hood, Mad­den felt father­less. As a teenag­er, she fell into code­pen­dent friend­ships with oth­er losers” who lacked sol­id parental sup­port. They found a sense of con­trol in drugs, eat­ing dis­or­ders, and sex, both enabling each oth­er in tox­ic behav­ior and being a lov­ing family.

It sounds like an aver­age poor lit­tle rich girl” sto­ry. But Long Live the Tribe of Father­less Girls is much more than that, tak­ing tropes and ren­der­ing them with an undy­ing sense of com­pas­sion. The details of Madden’s ear­ly mem­o­ries are star­tling­ly vivid in a way that sug­gests she was in a per­sis­tent state of high alert, every pain etched in her brain for­ev­er. But for every men­tion of a ter­ri­fy­ing drug over­dose or her father leav­ing her at a base­ball game, there are sto­ries of her mother’s del­i­cate removal of lice from her daughter’s hair or her father’s ear­ly teach­ing of mag­ic tricks. Mad­den loves her fam­i­ly fierce­ly and in spite of it all, we nev­er doubt their deep-down love for her.

Mad­den deliv­ers this all in lyri­cal prose as glit­tery as the book’s whim­si­cal cov­er. More of a col­lec­tion of linked essays and vignettes that jump around in time than a chrono­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive, the book treads into the murky nature of, as Joan Did­ion put it, the sto­ries we tell our­selves in order to live.” Mad­den gropes through the shad­ows of mem­o­ry and research to uncov­er fam­i­ly secrets and deter­mine who she is as a bira­cial (her moth­er is Chi­nese-Hawai­ian and her father is white Jew­ish), queer girl. She tries to under­stand how it all fits togeth­er in order to, as she wrote in the acknowl­edge­ments, cre­ate a rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al text for oth­er chil­dren who rarely see them­selves reflect­ed in the media. But there are always loose strands. There’s invari­ably more — more secrets, more peo­ple, more joy and sor­row — to be uncov­ered. It’s a tes­ta­ment to Madden’s bril­liance that she can take that les­son, frus­trat­ing as it might be, and still ren­der a sense of nar­ra­tive com­plete­ness from it.

Madden’s father died when she was twen­ty-sev­en, which became the cat­a­lyst for this mem­oir. But what secu­ri­ty and com­plete­ness (both nar­ra­tive­ly and emo­tion­al­ly) she has, seem to rest most firm­ly on the women in her life. As good as the first two-thirds of the book are, it real­ly shines in the final third, when Mad­den steps back and, through fam­i­ly research, DNA test­ing, and inter­views, shows the full lives of the women in her fam­i­ly. These women and the ten­der con­nec­tions between them will enable the tribe to live for a long, long time.

Jessie Szalay’s writ­ing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Aspara­gus, The For­ward, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Trav­el­er, and as a notable in the Best Amer­i­can Essays of 2017. She lives in Salt Lake City where she teach­es writ­ing in a prison edu­ca­tion program.

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