Don Noble
3:56 pm
Mon November 1, 2004

Fierce: A Memoir

Barbara Robinette Moss's memoir Change Me into Zeus's Daughter (2000) was compared by critics to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and I must admit that for sheer misery, it can compete. Moss, raised mainly in Calhoun County, Alabama, was one of eight children of a violent, alcoholic father, S. K. Moss, and his thoroughly traumatized wife, Barbara's mother, Dorris. S. K. spent most of his pay, week after week, in the bars.

Fierce: A Memoir

Barbara Robinette Moss's memoir Change Me into Zeus's Daughter (2000) was compared by critics to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and I must admit that for sheer misery, it can compete. Moss, raised mainly in Calhoun County, Alabama, was one of eight children of a violent, alcoholic father, S. K. Moss, and his thoroughly traumatized wife, Barbara's mother, Dorris. S. K. spent most of his pay, week after week, in the bars.

The children were reared in the most humiliating poverty. Barbara was neglected and abused, and grew up with a deformed face, possibly due to malnutrition, in America, in the 1960s and 1970s. In the lunch line at school, boys tormented her with the names "Bucktooth Beaver" and "Dogface."

Unlike the McCourts, the Mosses did, all but one of them, survive, and so the question arises--what kind of lives do the children of alcoholics manage to make for themselves?

S. K.'s boy Stewart became an alcoholic and, although he was not mean and abusive like his dad, his marriage failed, his health failed, his heart failed, and he died young. Barbara tells us a good deal about Stewart in this sequel memoir, Fierce, the story of her life from high school to the present.

Otherwise, this is her story, and although she is today a successful artist, a painter, and is happily married, we are told, and has a grown son, Jason, of whom she is very, rightly, proud--she raised him alone--this is not on the whole a happy story, and that's all right. But what a tormented, painful story it is. One is uncomfortable just to read it.

It seems clear that, raised with low self-esteem and modeling their own lives after their parents', girls especially go out and find husbands who will make them just as miserable as their dads made their mothers.

Barbara, at 18, marries Rudy, who actually locks her in their apartment all day while he is at work. His theory is that all men are dogs and all women whores, so Barbara must never go into public alone. This is happening in Anniston, Alabama, not Kabul under the Taliban. Rudy also physically abuses Barbara and, with her infant son, she finally leaves him but must move back home with mom and dad.

In a chapter that only lasts two pages--two--Barbara reports on her second marriage to Clayton, a devout Baptist who demands total submission, abuses Barbara, and of whom she says, "Clayton had such a special relationship with God that he was exempt from the strict code of moral behavior he imposed on the rest of us."

In between times Barbara dates Philip, who thinks art is stupid, Lewis, who is controlling and violent, and finally Patrick, a paranoid schizophrenic who doesn't like taking his anti-psychotic medication. But just as her mom was addicted to S. K., Barbara becomes addicted to Patrick and has a very tough time getting loose. Finally Barbara finds compassionate, competent therapy and that makes all the difference.

Of course, this is ultimately a tale of survival and triumph. Barbara earned a BFA and an MFA in painting, lives in New York City, has a show on right now at a gallery, has published this, her second book, and is happily married to Duane, a good man. (Duane must be the great comparison-gainer of all time.) Every reader will be really happy for her and wish her all the best.

There was something about reading this book, though, that was aggravating, that made me want to say, over and over again, "Watch out! That stove is hot!", the way we shout out to a horror movie heroine, "Don't go into that dark room!" But my warnings went unheeded.

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