Books are love.
Memoirs are a particular kind of love. The best memoirs lead us deeply into unexpected love as if into a previously unappreciated room in a mansion. We have stood here before, in this familiar doorway, over this same threshold, and never experienced the view quite this way. Now the scales have fallen from our eyes. We see, with wonder and a shock of joy, a beauty and a grandeur that have eluded us.
Some memoirs lead us into this fresh seeing by showing us great accomplishment. Others show us courage in the face of impossible odds. Some chronicle hardship and the soul’s refusal to capitulate to merciless grinding down from outside, to a mechanistic depersonalization whose endgame is to strip us of our precious, vulnerable human core.
There are many other good reasons to write memoirs, such as to awaken readers to institutionalized abuses or to a wrong that anyone might be tempted to inflict—to appeal to readers who are passionate about human rights and social justice. Michelle Darné’s Parent Deleted (Berkley, CA: She Writes Press, 2017) embodies all of these, taking us down the most primal pathway of a parent’s fight for the right to parent her children.
From the outset, Darné’s story is both fraught and fallible. She was one of seven children born to a gutsy, life-affirming Puerto Rican woman who had the courage to leave an abusive first husband to whom she was married when she was only 14 years old. Darné calls herself a “brown person” and occasionally notes, with frank and disarming lack of self pity, the special challenges that accompany that identity in a primarily white ethnic culture.
Darné radiates a warmhearted personality that brims over in her story. She demonstrated a flair for working, negotiating, and entrepreneurship from early on; she fell into drug and alcohol dependency at a tender age. She writes honestly of her frailties and her commitment to stay sober. She was out as a Lesbian early in her life and was blessed to retain the caring support of her family, most especially the mother who told her, “You can become anything you want.”
Her personal journey took her into media, beginning with magazine publishing. There’s a wonderful anecdote about Darné’s engagement with Vogue. She didn’t work there but found her apprenticeship and career path in other magazines. And Baby, a magazine for alternative parenting, was her own creation. I remember leafing through it in a pediatrician’s office. The articles were good enough, universally appealing enough, to draw in a straight mom.
Along the way, Darné met X, the attractive woman who would become her wife and the biological parent of their twin daughters. Reading Parent Deleted, I spied the obvious signs of a fraying relationship nearly from the start. One passage stood out:
“In the beginning, when we came to the Pennsylvania house, we would lie around, watch TV, and rest together. But even those experiences dissipated over time. We got things done, took care of bills, and appeared all buttoned up externally. But our relationship wasn’t warm; it felt respectful, polite, functional, and lonely.”
Darné’s mother tried to warn her that X wasn’t the woman Darné thought she was. It seems to be the only time Darné ever rebuked her mother.
But Mom’s observations were prescient. The relationship foundered and Darné chose to leave it, writing, “…I couldn’t push our issues under the rug anymore. I aimed to raise our daughters with a sense of agency, a trust in their power to create their reality.”
As Darné and X dissolved their union, X showed increasing signs of wanting to separate their daughters from Darné, to completely erase Darné from their lives. She took the girls to another state without informing Darné. Months later, when Darné located them, X embarked on a course of expensive legal dodges, increasing financial demands, and cunningly-crafted narratives that depicted Darné to anyone who would listen, including their children, as everything other than a devoted, loving mother.
Parental alienation, the deliberate sabotaging of a child’s relationship with a parent by the other parent, is a serious problem in our culture. It’s often misidentified as estrangement, which is when a child doesn’t want anything to do with a parent for good reasons such as abuse. Over the last decade, an increasing number of researchers have studied the phenomenon; it’s slowly becoming more widely recognized as the vengeful manipulation that it is.
Still, too often the target parent is treated with cruel denigration: ‘You must have done something to deserve this.’ In fact, an alienating parent employs a number of devastating strategies, some subtle and some blatant, to effect a parentectomy. Cultural stereotypes and gender expectations, such as the ‘crazy ex-wife,’ ‘abusive dad,’ and, in Darné’s case, ‘unhinged addict Latina,’ factor in. These ingrained stereotypes are used by alienating parents with great skill to invalidate the target parents.
Note: no parent is a perfect parent, and some parents actually are crazy or abusive. Somehow alienating parents often manage to promote the appearance of their own perfection, their own “better than” inviolability as a parent.
In Darné’s case, the legal system itself was set up to disenfranchise her because she was the nonbiological mother, a Lesbian ex-spouse. Her very being as a Latina from an effusive family culture seemed designed to work against her. Reading the events of her years’ long battle to be a continuous, integral part of her beloved children’s lives is shocking. One injustice after another excoriates a sensitive reader.
Through it all, Darné never loses her faith in the essential goodness of humanity. She never, ever yields in her fight to be her daughters’ mother. Her love for her two girls remains palpable, the beating heart of this book. Sometimes I shook my head and laid the book in my lap and wondered where she found her strength.
And this is the special splendor of this kind of memoir. It transcends its specific narrative and becomes a universal story of human mettle. Darné’s book has heart, it has guts, it has pain, and it has the clear light of our essential human condition. Our ordeals demand everything from us; they shatter us; if we remain true to who we are, “spiritual beings having a human experience,” in Teilhard de Chardin’s words, they transform and exalt us. They illuminate a difficult path for others walking it.
“It is always our own self that we find at the end of the journey,” wrote Ella Maillart. In reading Darné’s Parent Deleted, we find our unquenchable love for our children and our ability to bear anything. We see our own better selves.
Traci L. Slatton is the author of the novels Immortal, Broken, The Year of Loving, and several other books.