First, there's the name of the book: "MILK OF AMNESIA", a malapropism I've always loved that's recently been applied to Propofol, the drug that killed Michael Jackson. Secondly, and more importantly, the book. It's great! Donna Lethal's 2011 memoir of her misbegotten childhood and teenage years in Lowell, MA has enough pathos and humor for several lifetimes, and it reminds me that I need to be scouring the small presses a little bit more in search of gems like this one. Her book came out on New Texture, and it's not simply her first book, it's her only. I powered through it in two sittings and was supremely bummed as it was wrapping up.
Memoir is a tricky game. Go too deep into navel-gazing detail, and you'll lose your audience in esoterica that matters greatly to you but won't resonate in the slightest with them. Skim too high, and you'll run the risk that your themes and stories aren't relatable or interesting enough. Donna Lethal hits dead-on, right where it counts, though woe be to you if you actually relate to her wacked-out family stories closely. Her 70s and early 80s youth in blue-collar Lowell provide many lessons in bad parenting, quite simpatico for me in that I'm of a similar age bracket, and familiar with hands-off style so prevalent in the 70s in my and all my friends' houses (TV-as-babysitter, go wherever you want as long as you're home by 6, etc.). Her parents took it to a more, uh, "elevated" place:
I prefer to call my parents' style with us laissez-faire because it sounds so much better than the other words people – like therapists and 12-step groups and social workers and guidance counselors and police – use. Besides, everything sounds better in French, doesn't it?
Her brother is a miscreant ne'er-do-well who beats her up, steals, lies and ends up in jail, with a brain-damaged girlfriend and another on the side. Her mother is purportedly a good Catholic, suffering under a heavy anvil of guilt and disgust, and drinking herself to sleep every night. Her father, whom it's clear she then and now adores and relates the most to, is an adulterous, thieving bookmaker who also served some time in the pokey. Yet he also shares a devil-may-care attitude to life's travails with his daughter, and they have a similar retro-cultural aesthetic which bonds them fairly tightly. Circling their orbit are a variety of hustlers, drug abusers, religious goofballs and 70s archetypes whom we only recognize in the rear view mirror as being somewhat typical of their age – though grotesque and strange now.
Donna Lethal was one of those kids – you might have been one of them – who are desperately counting the weeks until they're able to move away from home and out of their hometowns. The only punk rocker in her school, she fled for Boston and a community of other misfits with whom she could not simply relate but commiserate and celebrate with. You get the sense that she successfully avoided many if not most of the excesses of her upbringing – the drugs and alcoholism especially, one horrific get-rid-of-my-brother's-cocaine-by-snorting-it-all story notwithstanding. Clear-eyed and grown up a little too early, she does a great job of relating those moments in childhood when you realize that the adults that surround you are not infallible, and that they may in fact be hoodwinking you across the board.
Her stories are told in overlapping chunks, sometimes in as little as a page and half, never exceeding 6 or 7 pages. She does it to great effect, and wastes very few words. Much as I loved Dan Fante's memoir romp through similar terrain, "FANTE: A FAMILY'S LEGACY OF DRINKING, WRITING & SURVIVING", this one's even better. Support the small press arts and the pre-ebook world and grab a paper copy of "Milk of Amnesia" here.