This is the kind of true story that you sort of wish was fiction. But then, a lot of the power is in the fact that it is a ‘true’ story. It’s not a misery memoir but a close observation of one woman’s childhood experiences in a seriously dysfunctional family. For those who have read Ingrid Rick’s powerful tale of the loss of her sight, Focus, this work gives a lot of backstory and in many ways comes to explain, if not the condition she suffers from, then perhaps the significance of childhood trauma in adult health.
Yet in many ways it is an uplifting story of surviving against the odds. The life is ‘ordinary’ in so many ways and yet it’s an extraordinary story that comes out of it. It’s not written with any sense of vitriol to the parents who, it has to be said, must bear most of the responsibility for the outcomes. And Ricks portrays herself not as a victim or even a heroine, but as a witness to her life.
What is saddening is to see so clearly expressed the love and need of the child and how that is subverted when the parents actually use (or need) the child to play the parental role. The responsibility heaped on the young ‘hippie boy’ from both parents is all too familiar and all too tragic. And it’s something of a taboo in our society. Something adults don’t like to think about. But Ricks, while never letting her parents fully off the hook, does not dwell on their inadequacies and instead tries to understand them and their perspectives. It’s a very noble thing to do and I’m not sure I would be as forgiving. Her mother ‘suffers’ from what I’d call religious fanaticism and her interactions with the Mormon church bring a lot of unnecessary grief to the young Ricks and her siblings. Her father is clearly a drifter, a dreamer and a man for whom the ‘reality’ of the world of responsible parenthood is just too hard to deal with. But Ricks always sees the good side of her father, her love for him shines through and she does not cast her mother as the wicked witch, instead without sugaring the pill she tries to explore and explain the reasons behind her weaknesses. Thus we see a realistic picture of a family – and one I’m sure that is replicated (to some degree) much more than we would care to admit. And it is to Ricks’ credit (and to her family for accepting her story) that she tells this story, allowing us into a very personal space.
It took a long time and immense bravery and commitment for Ricks to finally shape and tell her ‘story’ and in fact it was the impetus of her own children which helped her achieve her dream. Which at least gives me some hope that cycles do not have to be repeated, that there can be progress even from the most dysfunctional of family situations. The work is titled a ‘memoir’ and there is plenty of misery, but it’s not a misery memoir, nor is it just writing as therapy. It is by turns a road movie, an insight into the ‘reality’ of the smalltown American working class experience (think Wonder Years but REAL) and a painful reminder of the inadequacies of adults to parent their children – that love can mean many things and that sometimes love is not enough.
At times some truly grim things happen and some incredibly disturbing ones. But at all times Ricks telling of the story through descriptive prose is clear and compelling without being overwritten. There is a truth which can only be achieved by one who has carried the stories as life experiences And the inspiration Ricks offers others to ‘tell their stories’ is palpable. For her, the memoir style of writing is not about moaning about how bad your childhood was to mitigate one’s adult failings. It’s about taking back the power which has been stripped from you by having to conceal the truth of one’s life. It is giving an identity to a person. By being brave enough to tell their own life from their own perspective. Ingrid Ricks achieves this admirably in Hippie Boy – and she now works with others to help them do the same thing. This is a very moving story and at the same time both an easy and an uncomfortable read. But read it you should. You’ll learn about more than just the life of Ingrid Ricks, trust me, it’ll make you think about family dysfunction in a whole new, and more mature, way.
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