book club: ‘long live the tribe of fatherless girls’.

by Michael King

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls jumped out to my eyes immediately, a book cover shining spectacularly among the Strand’s new releases. I cracked it open, sighing to myself a reminder of all the books waiting for me back home, and read a page at random. In it, the writer recalls the time her friend Clarissa helped her staple her skirt back together, reflecting on the strange rescue of friendship.

I bought it, and –– once I cracked it open –– I devoured it.

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A memoir, Fatherless Girls tells the story of author T Kira Madden’s journey to today. Summoning her memories, she seamlessly paints a portrait of her shifting relationship with family, drugs, identity, friendship, and love. Early on, she introduces the reader to Uncle Nuke, a mannequin her mother purchases to convince observers that there is, indeed, a man among them. Young and imaginative, she attaches herself to Uncle Nuke, telling him her secrets and removing his limbs at will. As she unfurls elements of her story, the pieces to the puzzle come together –– a mother addicted to drugs, a father flawed and reckless, cousins and distant brothers, fair-weather friends –– all painted with honesty and empathy alike.

Clarissa can be cruel, a real bitch. She lies and taunts and can’t be trusted, not yet, but here’s the thing: she loves me more than any other friend I’ve ever known. There is a tenderness between two people who desire so much more than what they can have, who reach for the cards they have not been dealt, two girls who will soon be ridiculed for exposing their hairy backs at a bar mitzvah service––Did you goats escape from the petting zoo?––who will spend the next few years quietly shaving each other down the spine in an empty bathtub, bleaching each other’s mustaches, helping each other vomit up cheese fries and pastries; these little tasks that seem, to us, to so many young girls, like the very membrane between a life of being seen and no life at all. My love for Clarissa is so strong it changes the temperature of the air around us––that’s how it feels––which is precisely the thing about losers, the thing that binds us here on the floor, and the thing that will bind us even after we grow up, become new people, meet other former and current losers: losers stick together.

Madden’s writing is gorgeous and sincere. She writes poignant reflections and tough descriptions with equal commitment –– in one moment, she tells the story of wiping her mother’s blood from the pantry shelves, and, in another, she pauses to consider the way in which her friend’s presence seems to change the temperature of the room. As a reader, I found the experience deeply endearing. The specificity of Madden’s story is well documented, but –– in some way –– we find our own stories in the specifics of other people’s stories. Perhaps my father didn’t have the same favorite song she describes him playing en route to a baseball game, but I do remember the songs he did love.

Here’s what happens after death: Every object changes shape. All the little objects of hope, innocuous, gentle things: the bottles of Diet Coke saved for when he would get better, the stacks of New York Posts, the wedges of pineapple, the warmer socks, the protein powders, the Chinese herbs, the electro-acupuncture pens, the pictures–– all the pictures, removed and naked of their frames, brighter in the corners, the pictures, gum-tacked to the hospital bed for when he would remember, he would, he would–– these objects, every last one of them, become the most unbearable of all, the most acutely garish, the splintered underside of the table on which you have tried to smoothly splay out the map of your new life without this person, whom you just so happen to love most.

The story isn’t shared in a linear manner, reading much more akin to the way we interact with our memories. Several times throughout the text, after having just shared a story from her college experience or young adult like, Madden will introduce a section regarding her eight-year-old self, shedding light onto the way her past interacts with her present. It’s a stunning reminder of the way we carry truths from our early years into our todays, to the way we’re always modifying our understanding of all our stories at once.

Sometimes it feels like we are only this: moments of knowing and unknowing one another. A sound that is foreign until it’s familiar. A drill that’s a scream until it’s a drill. Sometimes it’s nothing more than piecing together the ways in which our hearts have all broken over the same moments, but in different places. But that’s romantic. Sometimes it’s realer than that.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is a raw and gentle rumination on womanhood, on the families we create and the ones we inherit, on forgiveness and forward movement. T Kira Madden is unflinching in her honesty, and –– in her acknowledgments –– she thanks her family members for allowing her to tell the story with so much truth. There is heartbreak in her story, devastation and euphoria and building and breaking and beginning again, and isn’t that right? Isn’t it refreshing, friends, to tell our stories without sanding off the hard edges?