Ashley C. Ford
Manilla Press, £16.99, 212pp.)
When Ashley Ford was a child, her grandmother led her out into one of the wilder parts of her family’s Missouri farm and dug a hole. She emptied a sack into the hole then told her granddaughter to come closer. Peering down, little Ashley saw “a lot of garden snakes. They were in some sort of knot, though not stuck together. They moved quickly and deliberately over and around each other.” She asked what the snakes were doing and was told: “They’re loving each other, baby.” Then her grandmother poured lighter fluid into the hole and lit a match.
Ford was startled to see that “the snakes did not slither away or thrash around as they burned. They held each other tighter. Even as the scales melted from their bodies, their inclination was to squeeze closer to the other snakes. Their green lengths blackened and bubbled causing the flesh that simmered underneath each metallic hood to ooze. They did not panic. They did not run.” And as Ford’s tears fell her grandmother hammered home the lesson. “These things catch fire without letting each other go. We don’t give up on our people. We don’t stop loving them. Not even when we’re burning alive.”
In her extraordinary memoir – Somebody’s Daughter – Ford describes a childhood that often left her feeling like those snakes. As a poor, Black girl, she felt trapped in a hole that society had dug for her. But, as an adult, she has been able to untangle herself from the intense layers of anger, sadness and frustration that held her down. Despite her grandmother’s insistence that she live her life in fear of how “other people” might judge her, she has written frankly about what it was like to grow up with a father in prison and a violent, unpredictable single mother. She has written about being hit by her mother’s boyfriend, being sexually assaulted as a young teenager and about her struggle with depression.
“People tell me it would be hard for them to share some of the experiences I shared,” she tells me over the phone from Indiana, where she lives with her husband (writer Kelly Stacey) and their chocolate Labrador. “But I don’t have those fears about being honest. There are a lot of things that society has coded for us to be ashamed of, but I am not ashamed. These things happened.”
Now 34, Ford has been writing blogs and articles about her personal life since she was at college. Her essay “My Father Spent 30 Years in Prison. Now He’s Out” was named on Longread’s Best of 2017 list and was included in Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30 in Media” the same year. In the rich, warm tone that will be familiar to fans of her podcasts – The Chronicles of Now and HBO companion podcast Lovecraft Country Radio – she tells me that although her memoir attracted “real interest from agents and publishers from as early as 2012”, it has definitely “had a softer landing” in the wake of the #MeToo and #Black Lives Matter movements.
“I expected it to be published in soft covers, with a print run of about 2,000 copies,” she says. “And that would have been great – way beyond my childhood expectations! But being published by Oprah books, having a FaceTime conversation with Oprah Winfrey? That really got a reaction from my family!”
Ford is an astute chronicler of the contradictory expectations placed on black Americans. On the one hand, she says, “all the cartoons I watched on TV taught me to have limitless dreams – that anything was possible”. But that “at my underfunded, majority Black school there was little support for those dreams. The athletes were encouraged and pushed towards athletic scholarships. But the rest of us were not encouraged to dream big about our potential in the world. My husband – who’s white – was at a well-funded school where the teachers were so supportive. They would have thought of the kids at my school as ‘the cool ones’. We lived under a different pressure that required us to present ourselves in a certain, commodified way. It wasn’t self-loving.”
Though a bright kid and an avid reader, Ford says she struggled at school because of her issues with authority. She earned herself a reputation for fighting boys. Her mother had raised her to feel she was “bad”. In the opening pages of her memoir she describes being dragged from her bed and beaten by her mother, aged four, for binning a packet of cigarettes because she thought they were harmful for her parent.
“I went to sleep sore, but grateful once again that the Mother had not lost control,” she writes. “I was hurt, but I would not die. I did not blame Mother for hurting me. It didn’t feel like it wasn’t my fault. Sometimes I was bad and sometimes people were bad to me. Either way the badness belonged where it landed.”
Despite the violence, Ford doesn’t paint her mother as a monster. She tells me that: “I still don’t understand her choices and I will probably spend the rest of my life ruminating on why she treated me the way she did, why she couldn’t see me as I wanted to be seen. She thought I was good when I was quiet. But being a single parent is an impossible job. I wanted to convey the fact that, even as a child, I saw her as a young woman doing her best. Without letting her off the hook, it was also a failure of society. Nothing was set up to help her figure out what to do when her life changed through no fault of her own.”
Ashley C Ford – Photo: Sylvie Rosokof
Ford wishes her mother could have been more honest with her about what she was going through. “I believe it’s wrong to keep pain from your kids,” she says. “I think it’s your job to show them how to deal with it, how to process your feelings. When things aren’t spoken about, kids learn to hold things down. Just because you’re being quiet doesn’t mean you’re not telling a lie.”
The lack of communication between mother and daughter meant that when Ford was raped as a young teenager, she did not tell her mother what had happened. She couldn’t even tell herself. It was her boyfriend, Bradley, who ripped down her jeans in her mother’s dark shed. She was trying to break up with him and he was angry. “We were kids and he was mean and I just wanted to be good,” she writes in the book. Bradley’s friend watched from a corner as he pushed her to the floor. Afterwards, she described the dissociation: “My body, and whoever lived in it now, walked back into my house. I met her there. She tried to tell me what had happened, but I wouldn’t let her inside.”
Shortly after this, Ford discovered that her father’s crime had also been rape. “I’d had a long time to build up a fantasy version of him,” she tells me, “and a fantasy version of what would happen when he got out: that we would be a family again, that my mother would be less angry and I would be happy. Once my grandmother told me he had raped two women, I had to let go of that dream.”
Against the odds, something “defiant” in Ford enabled her to maintain her self-esteem. She applied to college and won a place. At Ball State she began to write in earnest. She also reclaimed pride in her body by taking naked photographs of herself. “I pored over the pictures using editing software to change tints, highlighting and shadows. I fell in love with my body. I loved it the way it was meant to be loved: ferociously and compassionately. I did not like the way I looked every day, but I loved myself.”
She also managed to surround herself with good friends and enjoyed a supportive long-term relationship before meeting her husband. She tells me: “I was lucky in who I chose to trust, because they turned out to be good people who actually loved me and wanted the best for me.”
Today, Ford has managed to build a surprisingly strong and open relationship with her father, who became something of a scholar in prison, drawing pictures of his children every day. “I wrote him a letter and asked him about his crime,” she says. “He wrote me back and told me that he was a boy pretending to be a man. He grew up in an area dominated by gangs. His idea of being a man at that time was to take what he saw. He didn’t think of himself as human. He didn’t think of other people as human. But he did know he felt awful. He felt like he wanted to be caught. And when the cops showed up he asked them to take him quickly. He wanted to be held accountable because it was eating him up inside.”
Her mother asks her why she doesn’t write “more about the happy times”. But, as Ford says, “it’s not the good memories you need to make sense of. People are too quick to file memories under happy or sad. But when you really look back, all of these complex emotions existed and overlapped and it’s OK to feel that. You don’t have to pick and judge.”
When I ask Ford if she can explain how she’s been able to rise above so much trauma she pauses. “MMM. Hmmm. Mmmmm.” We laugh. “People who are scared are easy to control,” she says. “And there’s stuff I’m scared of. But my curiosity tank has always been more full than my fear tank. I think that explains it. And with every question about my past I’m able to answer I find I have more freedom and control of my life.”
Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail