The other day my squirts and I were wandering the halls of the Little Library after playing at the adjacent park. After my oldest collected a pile of American Girl magazines and my youngest discovered Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, I found my way to the memoirs as I often do. Running my finger along the spines of the hardcovers, Rachel Sontag’s House Rules caught my attention. Pulling the book in question from the shelf and flipping to the back cover, I discovered the author is a fellow Illinoisan, so I was sold. Leaving the library juggling thirteen items, we were all ready to return home and snuggle in for some quality read time.
In House Rules, Sontag retells her abusive childhood with vivid imagery and heart wrenching dialogue, words no child should ever have to hear from the mouths of her parents. Her parents, a medical doctor for a father and a social worker for a mother, chose to emotionally and physically abuse Sontag while abusing Sontag’s sibling via neglect. Sontag herself has a hard time remembering if her sister was with the family on various outings or instances of abuse, but she verifies the sister’s existence by noting her presence in pictures; thus concluding, she must have been present, too.
On numerous occasions, she looks to her mother for rescuing from her father’s verbal abuse, but her mother is mostly a mute presence. One time late at night, her mother wakes Sontag in the middle of the night telling of her plans to escape having researched a small community in Wisconsin in which to flee. Repeated late night talks with her mother fill Sontag with hope that a reprieve from the paternal abuse is right around the corner. Yet, when divorce papers arrive in the mail and Sontag’s mother is berated by Sontag’s father, her mother takes out her frustration on Sontag by climbing on top of her and repeatedly banging her daughter’s head against the kitchen floor. Further empty promises to divorce her father continue for years until Sontag, after much therapy realizes:
I wanted her. I wanted Mom to be someone she wasn’t, to take on a strength she never possessed, to do what I hoped I would have done in her situation. I thought that mothers were naturally inclined to protect their children, and she was failing.. . . I remember the aching way in which I knew wanting her would ruin my life. . . . In the years that followed I cut myself off from her completely. . . . I didn’t owe her anything because I’d escaped and she hadn’t. That was her choice . . .. (176, 231, 243)
Thus, when Sontag’s mother calls and pleads with Sontag to write a general apology letter to her father so that she would be allowed to attend Sontag’s college graduation, Sontag refuses. Enough was enough for her.
Sontag’s prose is honest and insightful, and as reader, I find myself cheering her on for her survival and ultimate discovery of happiness with friends and loved ones whom she now considers her family:
The versions of ourselves we present to the world are perhaps the versions of ourselves we most want others to know. We split and divide at the core, recreating ourselves, until we determine the perception we best like. . . . I was sad knowing that I could never go back . . . . That returning would not be reconciling with Mom and Dad but arriving in a place where I was creating ways to live, not just trying to survive. (258-259).