Required Reading: Childhood, Messy Childhood

Penguin Random House / Flatiron Books / Simon & Schuster

Three authors capture their complicated familial pasts in captivating new memoirs.

Ask a parent why they coddle their kid and you’re apt to get an answer that boils down to this: We don’t want our child to get hurt. But is it their kid’s pain they’re scared of, or their own? Maybe we’re all still in kid-mode ourselves, tearing away from the hell-mouth of our own pasts, too scared to look back with adult eyes.

Fortunately, we have the all-grown-up genre of memoir to inspire clearer reflection.  This spring, three adult children of messy childhoods drag themselves back into the fray of their pasts and see a whole lot more than scars and monsters. Mining ideological tyranny for humor and inspiration, spotlighting connection within dissolution, charting the journey in what looks like flailing—this is how these authors transform their pasts into something constructive for the present and future. After all, we can’t outrun our pain, so why not use it?

“Indie-poet” Patricia Lockwood didn’t choose to revisit her girlhood under the thumb of a Limbaugh-loving, electric-guitar-thrashing, underwear-around-the-house-lounging Catholic priest father. Rather, twelve years after she’d run away to get married, medico-financial ruin forced her to move back home and there was Dad, as larger-than-life as ever. In Priestdaddy (Riverhead Books, May 2) Lockwood animates with honed prose shot through with a filthy wit the dark absurdity of her religious Rust Belt upbringing, and celebrates how that warped patriarchy actually sparked the raging wildfire that is her own writer’s voice.

In Man of the Year (Flatiron Books, May 9), 13 year-old Lou Cove has much to brood about: He’s a peripatetic New York Jew marooned in small-minded 1978 Salem, Massachusetts; his giant old house is falling apart and so is his parents’ marriage; he sucks at his paper-route, and at girls. Then, straight out of sun-kissed California swaggers an unlikely, but much-needed father figure: Howie, a buff, free-loving, freeloading family friend looking to parlay his recent nude Playgirl centerfold into a career as the next Burt Reynolds… with young Lou as his “campaign manager.” Adult Cove’s bawdy, warm-hearted recollection is anything but a mope. Not only do Lou and Howie turn Salem on its ear, but Howie gives Lou fodder for a breakthrough with his own Dad, too.

If any childhood upheaval warrants retrospective rage, it’s that of political scientist Peter Andreas, whose Mennonite-housewife-turned-radical-Marxist mother kidnapped and dragged him across South America for years in the 1970s—slum to slum, bad to worse romance—on a slowly-fizzling quest for revolution. And yet, because Andreas draws on his mother’s journals and letters, and so honestly accesses his own boyhood self, his memoir Rebel Mother (Simon & Schuster, April 4) is still a story in and of the moment. Bursting with adventure, it depicts a mother-son bond that neither could fully understand at the time, but that has, in very essential ways, shaped the rest of their lives.