HomeEntertainmentReview | Channeling hope, a writer survives a harrowing childhood

Review | Channeling hope, a writer survives a harrowing childhood

“Time swoops in and fuses you back together. There is nothing special to see here, about me, about my mother, about our story,” writes Rachel Louise Snyder toward the beginning of her absorbing new memoir, “Women We Buried, Women We Burned.” Unlike many memoirists, she seems completely uninterested in self-mythologizing or reveling in her specialness. Though her childhood is unusually arduous, her writing is stripped of self-pity.

At 8, Snyder’s life unravels when her mother dies of breast cancer, and the whole world, as she knew it, disappears. After growing up in a Jewish, urban home with brie and hummus and passover seders with a big, warm family, she and her brother are suddenly transported to a strict, evangelical household where dinner is a casserole of eggs dotted with a few mini hot dogs. Within months her father remarries and demands that they call his new wife “mom.” As they struggle to adjust, her father beats the children with a wooden paddle and blocks them from any culture outside of the church. When they are teenagers he shows them a row of suitcases in their entryway and forces them to leave the house.

After struggling to support herself in various low-wage jobs, Snyder eventually manages to get her GED and goes to college. An uncle on her mother’s side pays half the expenses for a boat trip around the world, a floating educational program called “Semester at Sea” that exposes her to the ideas and travel that will inform her career as a journalist. For the first time, on the deck of that boat, she begins to sense possibility, which she calls “a wild whatever.”

Snyder’s harrowing descriptions of her childhood — such as a scene where her stepmother has her bite down on soap while reading the Bible — are precise, controlled, well-wrought. In the middle of these painful vignettes, I thought of William Wordsworth’s idea of “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Snyder seems to have obtained a kind of fruitful distance from childhood trauma, a serenity and perspective that few people achieve in their lifetime, which allows her to write very powerfully about these moments, to evoke them. Her restraint and pared-down prose allow the reader to enter the scene, to see, in a way that more obtrusive narration would not.

Violence and rupture have long been themes of Snyder’s work. As an international reporter, she chronicled the destruction of human tragedies and natural disasters in places like Cambodia, India, Africa and Tibet, and in 2019 she interrogated domestic violence with her book, “No Visible Bruises.” In her new memoir, Snyder brings a journalist’s eye to her own past, applying balance and precision to intimate family scenes, which is incredibly difficult to do. She says at one point, “I wrote the world, my world, to explain it to myself.” And the recording is primary here, getting it down on the page. Her writing is clear as a stream.

In college, she discovers writing as an “exercise in which to examine the complexities and seeming contradictions of people,” and she carries this method into her memoir. Her father and stepmother are both abusive and struggling, monstrous and appealing. She allows herself to examine the pathologies of her household without resolving her reactions or interpretations too neatly. When she has her own baby, she writes: “I want to say that my parents did the best they could under the circumstances and with the resources they had. But I don’t think this is true. I don’t think they did their best.”

There are moments when the reader may wish for more of a confrontation, a denouement, for more of her holding her father accountable. One imagines, behind the scenes, an editor pushing her to take a stronger stance, to condemn her father more straightforwardly, because the genre almost requires it, and Snyder resisting her editor’s advice. She seems to err always on the side of nuance, complexity, capaciousness. She manages to be both generous and penetrating, forgiving and unsentimental. She seems more interested in bearing witness, in high-level storytelling, than dividing the world into villains and victims.

When Snyder finds out that her father lost the college fund her mother had left her, she writes: “It tore me in half, both his own sorrow and his abject failure. Both her foresight and her absence. … I wanted to scratch his eyes out, punch him in the face as hard as I could, shake him till he passed out. But as much as I wanted to rage at him, I also couldn’t, not when he was showing so much vulnerability. Sympathy and anger tangled inside me.”

She is able to evoke the violence and rage and grief of the child through the quiet power of her descriptions. She never assumes the post-therapeutic mantle of having figured everything out, and yet the book feels like it reaches a satisfying peace and chronicles emotional progress. The memoir respects the idea that the past is not one thing but a story in motion, subject to shifts and changes within its narrator.

One tiny quibble I have is that I found myself disappointed in the last line, which I won’t give away. Too neat perhaps? Too redemptive? Too sentimental for such a sharp, clear-eyed book? And yet, overall, this is a superb memoir, a bracing piece of prose, a glittering testimony to endurance and the power of writing to offer a lifeline to the struggling.

Katie Roiphe is the director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University and the author, most recently, of “The Power Notebooks.”

Women We Buried, Women We Burned

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