Review of "Daddy's Girls"

By Suzanne Gold
Xlibris, 2000
Review by Fran Gillespie on Dec 24th 2001
Daddy's GirlsFrom the first word it is obvious that the writer has an intimate knowledge of the depths and heights, the bewilderment and fear caused by 'a distorted family dynamic with a chemical imbalance in (the) brain.' (p12) We first meet Allison's sister Cherie, thirty pounds overweight with aluminum foil in her poorly bleached hair in Egg Harbor state hospital. The aluminum strips are for warding off spying black helicopters. Cherie's delusions are stereotypical of a person with schizophrenia - indeed it transpires that she has heard God speaking to her for most of her life.

While the descriptions of the hospitals and their rituals and of the psychotics and their keepers are very vivid, there is still an almost clinical distance at times between the writer and her characters. This sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to maintain that total immersion in the story - the suspension of disbelief - necessary for complete participation. As the actors in this intricate drama become more and more familiar it seems that Cherie and Allison are much more the product of their mother's bitterness than their father's neglect.

Indeed Ruth (their mother) was trapped in her own home and not strong enough to rebel and take up life as a singer. When she reaches adolescence her father states she can no longer be Daddy's girl but her mother continues to exert inappropriate power over her. These women - Allison, Cherie and their mother Ruth - all then seem to be more "Mummy's" girls than Daddy's girls.

The structure of this novel is fascinating. It moves between the voices of the three women and through time itself. A very difficult technique to use successfully, this shifts the narrative back and forth through time and space and differing realities to create a layered dimensional understanding of the complexities of character and plot. At one level, Allison can be seen, simplistically, as a 'good' Cherie. Acknowledging that she has the same hypersensitivity as her sister, Allison, like her, also marries to escape her home. Their lives diverge with Cherie's increasing rebelliousness and Allison's discovery of psychology and her increasing understanding of herself and her limits. Because of her awareness of their deep similarity, Allison finds it very hard to visit her sister in hospital.

Ruth, for me, is the most exasperating, though interesting, of all the characters. She seems to be almost a parody of the person once seen as central to the development of schizophrenia - the mother who is controlling, insensitive and emotionally abusive. The society that Ruth has to come to terms with, that shapes her and limits her choices, is a patriarchal one and in this sense all three women are 'Daddy's Girls'. Thus Ruth settles for seeking collectibles and soon after Warren's death again tries to solve her problems by a marriage that inevitably leads divorce. As she behaves as her daughters do, the layering of meaning becomes apparent. Marriage in this book is seen for the many things it can be - dissatisfying, (Ruth), despairing (Cherie}, transitional (Allison) and for them all, an escape.

Another subject deftly and fleetingly handled is that of sexual abuse. Ruth's father's desire for her frightens him and excites her. In the next generation a financial arrangement brings Uncle Zuzu into Allison and Cherie's lives with shadowy consequences. He becomes their babysitter and the girls are always uneasy in his presence. A half-forgotten early memory floats into the book and as quickly, out of it.

Throughout the book, the role that nominal Jewishness plays in the characters' lives is skillfully portrayed. Ruth's mother had been a devout Jew, but her husband Warren is not and it is to him that the children turn when they want to cease practicing a ritual, or learning Hebrew. This is just one more thing that isolates Ruth from her family.

The male characters in this book are backdrops to the behavior of Ruth, Allison and Cherie. One of the most chilling is the doctor who prescribes dieting medication for Cherie and Alison at Ruth's instigation. The casual way both he and their mother place the girls on 'uppers' is frightening. The bewildered description of their symptoms is a prelude to a later, more cynical view taken by Cherie of both drugs and alcohol

Psychology is almost a character by itself in this book. The Kranzy family participate in family counseling, and the descriptions of how each of them believe they can turn it to their advantage are very funny. More seriously there is the slow mental disintegration of Cherie, written so powerfully that it forces the reader to see her with compassion rather than repugnance. Allison, the timid one, finally finds empowerment as she trains and practices as a psychologist. The jargon she uses to justify her ambivalence towards Cherie grates a little, but then it is just as a psychologist would speak. It is fitting, too, that of the three women, Alison remains an enigma. There is no explanation of why she should become an upright, honorable member of a still patriarchal community, while her sister gradually chooses madness. It is clear that Allison is aware that her sanity is precarious and that she is, perhaps, only acceptable in her society because of the role she plays. Naturally unanswerable is how much of Cherie's madness is choice, how much is genetic and how much is the anguished result of a dysfunctional family.

This book is skillfully written and cleverly constructed and it easily held my attention. However, Daddy's Girls came properly alive for me in its ending. Until then I felt distanced, at times, from both character and narrative. I read as one familiar with the scenario, even a little angry about just how bad the home was, just how stereotypical the behavior of Cherie was, and just how typically Allison overcame all odds. But I take it all back now. You really must read this book to find a new way of looking at a patriarchal society, at families, at women, at death and life and hope and especially madness.

© 2001 Frances Gillespie

Link: Author Web Site

Fran Gillespie writes about herself:

I am a mental health consumer of forty years standing. My family is steeped in this experience as we have traced it through four generations I therefore have also a personal understanding of caring in this difficult area. In the last five years I have moved from hiding under the blankets to giving evidence to an enquiry into the human rights of the mentally ill in Australia to spearheading an understanding of the mental health consumer as a resource in our community in Hobart, Tasmania. With the support of like-minded people a system of paid consumer consultants arose from this activism. I am at present on leave from studying for a research Masters in Medicine that centres on an analysis of the development of mental health consumerism in Tasmania. I believe that it is necessary to set aside anger generated from personal experience in this area in order to achieve lasting solutions. Thus I also work as a consumer advocate.


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