“Sometimes life can pull a lot out of you, Althea. Just squeeze you dry. And if you don’t have a way to get back whatever’s good and precious to you, it’s like losing your soul.” Mama
I finished reading The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray at 1:45 AM on a cold wintry night. To say I couldn’t stop reading and turn out my light is an understatement. Family epic- three generations. The first generation consists of a mother of four children, who dies very young leaving behind a husband who is a neglectful traveling evangelist, who leaves for months at a time saving souls. So who cares for these children? The oldest daughter Althea becomes the substitute mother which makes her into a family control freak in later years. Althea cares for brother Joe, who is abused by the father when he does return home- as in beats him with an extension cord. She cares for two little sisters, Viola who is very bright and tries to be a perfect student so she can escape the family via college and career which she does, and little Lillian who ends up left at home with brother Joe when teenage Althea marries and leaves home. Lillian suffers at the hands of brother Joe who keeps her locked in a closet under the stairs, Harry Potter style, except Lillian stays locked in for several days at a time with no food, water or bathroom. Hence it’s a story of how these traumatized kids grow into adults. There is a plot twist when Althea and her husband Proctor are arrested for white collar crimes relating to their restaurant. So as the family reconciles itself to their incarceration, the question is who is to raise their twin teenage daughters, Baby Vi and Kim. And how do these adults still coping with their own trauma help these girls through their trauma?
The family trauma shows up in various ways with the characters. Viola is a therapist who struggles for decades with bulimia and suffers a terrible relapse which prevents her from responding appropriately when Lillian calls her for help with the nieces. Lillian, who has inherited and remodeled the family home, suffers from obsessive compulsiveness in which she makes numerous “rounds” at night locking and relocking doors, always touching the door frame while saying “Safe.” Brother Joe becomes a minister and wants his wife and him to take the girls to live with them. At the time of this suggestion, Lillian begins to tell Viola about the abuse and neglect she suffered at the hands of Joe and confronts him in the presence of Viola. And the twin girls? One is suffering silently and developing symptoms of an eating disorder, while the other is acting out at school and running away. So how will these hurting souls reconcile all the evils and ills of their life as a family? Fortunately, Gray doesn’t sugar coat the characters or the plot. Does the story end happily? Not particularly, but I was left satisfied and hopeful at 1:45 when I turned out the light.
One of the aspects that is most striking to me is the manner in which Gray writes about Viola’s bulimia. It is not with an academic understanding. It is visceral and experiential. Some of the most poignant quotes are about Viola’s experiences. Viola says”…like that fuzzy, soothing white noise, that sense of peace and calm I feel when I’ve fed to the point of bursting, purged until I’m flat bellied and empty. Doing it again and again even though I’m dying a little more each time….As I head to the bathroom again, I touch my drum-tight belly like it holds life. But in my mind, what I see is a wasted little girl with the empty, distended gut of the malnourished. I’ll feel better soon, though. There will be at least a moment’s peace and calm before the crashing to self-loathing, which is another hole entirely.” In her acknowledgements, Gray thanks the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders for saving her life. Thus, the possible explanation for these vivid sections of this book.
There are some strong women in this story, who in spite of terrible things keep this extended family in one piece. It’s not always a pretty picture, but thus is life.