Tilting: A Memoir
by Nicole Harkin
Black Rose Writing, 2017, $18.95 [Paper]
It’s hard to be a kid. It’s hard to figure out where to stand or what to do when the world is constantly shifting under your feet.
A dysfunctional family as described by Wikipedia:
“A family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse on the part of individual parents occur continually and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions.”
A dysfunctional family as described by my childhood therapist:
“A family functioning in pain.”
Harkin grew up watching her parents navigate a dysfunctional relationship, but unlike many families, addiction wasn’t at the heart of it. As a child, the narrator knew some things were off in her family, but she didn’t know how far off they were until her father had a stroke and went into a coma—then the secrets refused to stay hidden from the light.
Harkin’s candor is refreshing as she examines her childhood and early adulthood—she doesn’t shirk at revealing her own immaturity as she details the complicated family in which she was raised. We see the narrator mature as she reflects back on her childhood, a place where the ground was always tilting beneath her—Harkin’s parents moved states while she was away at summer camp, and bought large screen projection TVs but didn’t have enough money for dinner. The family was constantly off-kilter, and the children uncertain of who to side with in their parents’ acrimonious ballet.
I particularly loved the sibling relationships. The narrator is sometimes bratty in that typical big sister way, sometimes jealous, sometimes down right mean, and she never tries to justify her behavior. The best she can do—which is all any of us can do—is to explain where she was coming from at the time, and how she has grown since then.
Harkin’s tone is warm, and often funny as she describes her own brattiness:
“We lined up, always oldest to youngest because I had to assert my superiority over Erica and John.” (Kindle loc. 198)
”In the way that only siblings can try to demonstrate to one another that they’re correct, I attempted to change gears at fifty-five miles an hour.” (kindle loc. 4671)
These moments make her final attainment of maturity that much more rewarding (condensed to prevent spoilers):
“Erica, I’m so sorry. I was so wrong. I was so horrible to you…I just didn’t know. I thought I knew. I didn’t, though.” (Kindle loc.4,689)
It’s also a story of yearning. Harkin writes about her father,
“However, fundamentally I always only wanted one thing: for him to love me as much as I loved him.” (Kindle loc. 434)
My heart ached for the narrator—I had said nearly the exact same thing about my own father at that age.
Again though, she balances the sadness with humor,
“Don’t all parents forget their children in stores sometimes? No. Oh. Interesting.”
(Kindle loc. 3520)
Copyright © 2020 Lara Lillibridge
Public domain imagery courtesy of Snappygoat.com