American Daughter

American Daughter is a memoir by Stephanie Thornton Plymale.

I have a strange fascination with books about ‘bad’ mothers. I’m not sure if the author would agree, but I would undoubtedly place her mother in the ‘bad’ category. Plymale became a surprisingly normal, even successful woman, considering she grew up homeless, was in and out of foster homes, and suffered abuse at the hands of her caretakers. Her mother was mentally ill and often cruel and negligent to Stephanie and her many other children.

This memoir is strong almost entirely because of Thornton’s story. That is to say, it wasn’t the best writing I’ve seen in a memoir. The dialogue was often awkward and some of the historical background seemed unnecessary. This feels very much like a story Thornton was compelled to write, so it isn’t as finely crafted as The Glass Castle, for example, but it is a necessary story.

I think one’s own suffering is too often used as an excuse for inflicting pain on others, and this is precisely how Thornton winds up understanding her relationship with her mother. Ironically, Thornton’s suffering makes her stronger and more capable of forgiveness, while her mother’s resulted in untold collateral damage. Abuse — through no fault of the victim — can absolutely result in mental illness and/or unstable relationships. In this case, among other things, it meant Thornton had no stable parental figure. But I do think Thornton, and others like her, should be able to detach from these damaging relationships without feeling guilt for the decision. I’m not sure Thornton would agree, but it does seem that learning the reasons for her mother’s instability has helped her find closure and some measure of peace.

Thornton’s patience and perseverance throughout this ordeal is remarkable. Even as her mother’s presence in her life takes a staggering toll, Thornton continues her quest to learn why her mother is the way she is, who who family really was, and who of it remains.

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