Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir by Ashley C. Ford
(New York: Flatiron Books, 2021)
“Surviving childhood is a highly underrated skill,” writes Sonia Faleiro in a recent review of a memoir by Nice Leng’ete, a Kenyan feminist. (Sonia Faleiro, “Her Whole Self: A Kenyan Memoirist Recalls Her Fight against Female Genital Mutilation,” New York Times Book Review, Nov. 7, 2021, p. 19.)
Ashley C. Ford might agree. Ford’s memoir promises a tale of “growing up a poor, Black girl in Indiana with a family fragmented by incarceration.” Although the book begins and ends with Ford’s father, the dominant parental presence is her mother.
Mama is difficult. When her husband, Ford’s father, goes to jail, she is left with two small children. Her subsequent romantic relationships culminate with Allen, who fathers her youngest child. Neither Ashley nor her grandmother like Allen, who is verbally and physically abusive, but Mama repeatedly sides with Allen, saying he helps pay her bills. Mama herself can be loving to her children one minute, hurtful and violent the next. When she’s young, Ashley calls the Mr. Hyde version of her maternal parent, “The Mother.” Although the Mother seems to appear less frequently over the years, she is a harrowing presence in Ashley’s early life.
Ford’s grandmother compensates for her daughter’s parenting shortcomings. Although she can be tactless and disapproves of some of her granddaughter’s choices, including natural hair, she provides love and a refuge. Twice, Ford lives with her grandmother rather than her mother.
Ford’s father is a shadowy presence. He is incarcerated, as the teen-aged Ashley’s grandmother blurts out during a shopping trip to the mall, for rape. This is all the reader learns of his crime. His letters affirm his love for Ashely, a love she badly needs in the face of Mama’s inconsistent behavior. Despite warnings about boys, Ashley’s first boyfriend rapes her and her high-school flame comes out as gay. Neither relationship helps her feel worthy of love.
Ford escapes her complicated family by going to Ball State University. That experience too brought complications. She changed majors, did not finish in four years, and found that college created a gulf with her family. But she learned that she loved to write, got a job in Indianapolis, and eventually achieved success in New York City. In fall of 2021, she has been a writer-in-residence at her alma mater.
Ford’s experiences are both particular to her, but shared by many: a difficult parent, an absent parent, an inability to feel genuinely loved, and psychological and physical trauma. As a Ball State professor, I loved not just Ford’s fond recollections of her college days and Muncie, but her affirmation that a university education can be an escape from a difficult home and a path forward to a better life.
Reviewed by Nicole Etcheson, a member of the Muncie-Delaware County League
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