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From 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
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
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
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.