There are exhausting books. Not exhausting convoluted writing, not familiar books that force you to drag your own life out of the shadows and compare it by book-light beside the text. But the story. A story that permeates you, and occasionally leeches all your faith in humanity. Makes you run through the spectrum of emotions, often violent. And then, a few days after you close the book, the phantoms of those feelings are still there.
How Could She?, by Dana Fowley, was an extremely harrowing read. Fowley recounts her life—a childhood of abuse at the hands of her family and strangers, physical and sexual abuse sanctioned and participated in by her mother. It’s a tell-all, Dana’s side of the story. Although I knew nothing of Fowley and her case before reading this book, I did my research, looking up articles on the high-profile case that uncovered one of the largest pedophilia rings. Even the belated second-hand knowledge I brought with me in the reading of this memoir, it is undeniable that the Fowley sisters went through difficult lives.
It was heartbreaking, learning of the monstrosities she and her sister Heather had to endure. It made me extremely angry at the people, the circumstances. I was outraged, I wanted to reach in the novel, and whisk Dana and Heather away. There are horrible people slinking around this world, and the Fowley sisters have unfortunately taken the brunt of their cold, sadistic actions.
I, too, kept asking, “How could she?” I tried to understand Caroline Dunsmore, how a mother could imbibe so much negligence and coldness and evil in herself that she would draw pedophiles to her, could subject her own daughters to so many horrors. And there’s a lot of conflict within Dana as well—although she doesn’t turn a blind eye to the pain inflicted to her, she loves her mother, and it’s a love that’s a given instinct. As Dana herself says, the book is not an attempt to justify the actions of Caroline, and not even to offer up an explanation as to why she was the way she’d been. There’s so much contrast between Dana and Caroline. Although Caroline was a victim of abuse, she couldn’t rise above it—not like Dana, who managed to find in herself so much love, so much compassion—even to those who’ve hurt her, even to Caroline.
Dana tried to keep the details as un-graphic as possible: she’d said that she didn’t want a book that would titillate more abusers, that it wouldn’t be a manual. But the details were still there, unadorned and as-is. The storytelling was linear, the language plain and simplistic. That, and the matter-of-fact tone, makes it all the more chilling: there is no need to sensationalize, this is the truth she is recounting—her past, how she tried to make a life for herself and for her sister. The last thing she wants is pity.
I think that’s the bravest part of this memoir—not the ability to recount a childhood of pain and terror, not the ability to say things matter-of-factly, not the desire to become a vehicle to fight pedophilia and abuse. It’s that Fowley recounted how she tried to move on, how she made a life of love and compassion despite of her past—and her present. Instead of focusing on the pain she went through, and her subsequent fight to put the offenders—and her mother—in jail, Fowley made a point to tell us of her family, her children, her partner, her sister. It’s a life marked by the past, yes, but the past isn’t the only part of who Dana Fowley is.
Dana Fowley gets my awe and admiration. A slow clap. And a virtual hug. How Could She? was, yes, an exhausting read: it’s a memoir that grips you and doesn’t let you go. Fowley’s life—it doesn’t seek to be an inspiration, I never got that vibe, Fowley doesn’t set herself up as a martyr—but it was brave nonetheless. My heart goes out to her, and I wish her all the very best. She certainly deserves it.
*** A note that might interest a handful of people: You know when a book so emotionally wringing can’t seem to let you go, well, won’t let you go? And there’s a need to attack your bookshelf to up your moods, to look for something that’ll get a majority of your psyche off that last book, even for a little while? Well, I nobly took Chekhov from said bookshelf, flipped to a short story, read a paragraph, and thought, Who the hell am I kidding? I ended up removing the plastic wrapper off PS, I Love You, by Cecelia Ahern—a book that’s been with me for, say, about a year. Told myself I’d just read a few chapters to get rid of the bad juju. But who ended up staying up all night reading a not-very-well-written book? This chick did. Huh.