A chilling childhood
Agony and trauma of early years profoundly shaped Plymale's own experience as a mother
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/01/2021 (743 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
American Daughter is a difficult book to read and must have been unimaginably painful to write. It is also impossible to put down.
The memoir focuses on author Stephanie Thornton Plymale’s horrific childhood in 1970s California, her fraught relationship with her severely mentally ill, drug-addicted mother Florence and her obsessive search to comprehend the source of her mother’s neglect, abuse and illness.
Plymale, who wrote the book with the assistance of Elissa Wald, is a first-time author. She is better known as a much-in-demand interior designer and the founder and CEO of the Heritage School for Interior Design in Portland, Ore., where she resides.
But shortly after her mother’s recent death, Plymale felt compelled to put pen to paper. She wanted to make sense of her childhood suffering, demonstrate that it is possible to move past trauma and to better understand — and, perhaps, forgive — her mother for all the hurt and grief that she caused.
Plymale’s prose is unembellished, honest and direct. It is also dignified and deferential. She is careful to respect the privacy of her five siblings, who suffered with her every step of the way, and generally resists oversharing just for the sake of oversharing, as so many memoirists do. And yet there is so much wrenching agony and injury entrenched in the details that she does choose to share.
When Plymale was six years old, her family lived in a car parked along the ocean in Mendocino Headlands State Park. When her mother found temporary work at a nearby motel, she left her young children alone on the beach each day to fend for themselves.
Breakfast and lunch was usually seaweed plucked from the ocean coves, and no one went to school. In fact, Plymale was truant so often that she didn’t learn to read until she was almost 10.
Shortly after moving to Mendocino, Florence had kicked out her husband Louie, the father of three of her five children, and replaced him with a heroin-addicted grifter named Rick. When Louie died by suicide, Florence had a major psychotic breakdown. She was institutionalized and her children were split up and taken into state care, for the first of many times. Each time that they were returned to her — often from abusive foster situations — Florence reverted to the same patterns of neglect and violence.
On one occasion, Florence refused to take Plymale to the hospital after she shattered her arm in a fall from a jungle gym. On another occasion she instructed Plymale, who was covered head to foot with infected poison oak, to bathe in laundry detergent. And yet no matter what Florence did, and no matter the consequences, Plymale writes, her mother never showed remorse.
“She did not take stock of how far she had fallen. She did not seek to make amends to anyone. She didn’t try to get clean. She never recognized the harm she inflicted on her children. She never despaired and she never apologized.”
Plymale eventually distanced herself from her mother, married young and had her own children. But years later she was drawn back into her mother’s destructive orbit; it was only then that she started to ask questions and started to look into her mother’s background. She made significant and shocking discoveries, and writes with forthrightness and unsentimentality about them, including the reason why her mother’s fall from grace was so profound and irreversible.
If there is any misstep in this narrative, it is in Plymale devoting too many pages to a near dalliance she had with a client during a difficult few months she and her husband Jim were going through, while she was in the midst of researching her mother’s life. The sharing of that marriage hiccup comes across as gratuitous, and does nothing to enhance the mesmerizing story that Plymale is telling. In fact, it is a distraction.
It is inevitable that readers will compare this memoir to Jeanette Wells’ The Glass Castle or Tara Westover’s Educated. But it is also likely that they will be shocked to learn that Wells and Westover’s childhood experiences paled in comparison to what Plymale endured.
Suffering, of course, should not be a contest, and trauma, as has been well documented, affects everyone differently. Florence’s own trauma made it impossible for her to parent, to love, to think clearly, to show compassion, or to take care of herself or anyone else.
Plymale’s childhood trauma did the opposite. It inflicted in her a deep desire to succeed, to parent well, to love thoroughly, to be supportive and to forgive — even the mother who caused her so much pain.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.