In this extraordinary and moving memoir, Jerri Diane Sueck recounts the 1964 death of her mother in a fire when Sueck, the second of five children, was 8 years old. With their father gone, the children enter the “shuffle madness” of the foster care system, desperately aching for a family to adopt them.
Remarkably, the author describes the emotional damage she endures as if she recorded it contemporaneously. In a voice of childlike wonder, tempered by the perspective of the healthy adult obviously writing the book, she tells her individual story while simultaneously asking big questions, like: “How is it possible for there to be so many different kinds of orphans in a world filled with so many families?”
Sueck describes her fate matter-of-factly: she is unattractive, with a speech impediment she overcomes by reading aloud. With no human touch, birthday celebrations, proper clothing, or even an adult to show her how to use a telephone, Sueck survives by repressing her feelings and losing herself in books.
She powerfully conveys the innocence, fear and loneliness of a motherless child. “I know my mother told me I should love everyone,” she writes, “but shouldn’t everyone also love us?” Eventually, Sueck realizes “it is healthier to struggle to come to terms with the unexplainable than to hover in a darkness of fear and isolation.”
Foreshadowing would have helped readers see that there is light at the end of this tunnel, and Sueck unfortunately doesn’t describe her therapeutic process. But her memoir surely achieves her goals to help others and to right the wrong her stepfather’s family committed by portraying her mother as “a loser.” It also gives us insight into and compassion for people fractured by a life of disconnectedness. Readers may be brought to tears seeing how neglect damages a child, but will be buoyed by the strength and spirit of one girl who overcame the odds and healed herself.
Available in hardcover.