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Lit "Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls" made me feel seen

Nov. 26, 2019
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The summer after I graduated from high school in 2017, I read Mara Wilson’s autobiography Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame. The book chronicles Wilson’s teenage years away from the limelight after her career as a child actor. While starring as Matilda in the 1996 film Matilda, Wilson’s mom passed away from breast cancer. Wilson writes about how later, reading Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelstein greatly helped her with grieving. 

I was going through a particularly rough bout of depression that summer, and the only things that mollified my symptoms were reading endless poetry books or memoirs in the children’s lounge at Barnes and Noble or listening to Melodrama by Lorde. Even though I had graduated from high school—which in turn, made me believe I had graduated from teenage angst and depressive phases—that summer was one of my lowest points. 

My dad had been dead for two years, I wasn’t excited for college because I had no idea what exactly I wanted to do, and the small nuances of my sterile suburban town were starting to suffocate me. I didn’t know anyone in high school who had a dead father, or a dead parent for that matter, which always caused me to feel a looming sense of otherness from everyone at my school. So after reading about Motherless Daughters, I set out on a quest to find the book’s fatherless daughters counterpart, but to no avail. 

Fast forward two years to 2019, the summer going into my junior year of college. I was walking around a small indie bookstore I frequented in the Bay Area when I saw Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden, in all its teal and orange gradient and sequin-y and glittery-covered glory.

The title itself felt like a succinct version of the representation I’d been craving. I couldn’t help but think, “Where the hell has this book been my entire life?”

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is the debut memoir of writer T Kira Madden. Published in March, the book has been praised by NPR, The New York Times, and writers like Mary Gaitskill and Claire Vaye Watkins. The memoir details Madden’s upbringing and coming of age as a queer and biracial teenager in the somewhat idyllic Florida town of Boca Raton, and proceeds to follow her all the way into her adulthood in New York City.

Madden is the niece of famed shoe designer Steve Madden and the only daughter of parents who battled drug and alcohol addiction throughout her adolescence. Growing up, Madden attended the best private schools, rode horses, and wore some of the best brand-name shoes. She writes of growing up as one of the few biracial kids in her predominantly white town; she writes with unflinching bravery about topics like sexual assault and harassment. 

I read this book throughout the summer when I was nineteen, sitting cross-legged in my car parked at a grocery store while listening to Alanis Morrisette on my stereo (who I somehow had just discovered that summer), on the ferry going into San Francisco, at random coffee shops, or anywhere else that could allow me to sit down and read. I remember one day in August, I was sitting in my car listening to “Hands Clean” by Alanis Morrisette when I arrived at “The Feels of Love”—an essay central to Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls set in a mall parking lot. 

“The Feels of Love” felt like such a sardonic, mocking title for an essay about sexual assault. The essay tells the story of a 12-year-old Madden whose friends tell her that a senior in high school named Chad finds her attractive, which sparks an IM-flirtationship between the two. Between Chad’s bravado and the privileges that come with being a seventeen-year-old (such as having a license), Madden is smitten, and agrees to meet Chad in person. Her parents drop her off at the mall in the morning, under the pretense that she’s shopping for gifts with her friend Beth. She meets Chad in his car, where she finds that his friend Gil is there too. Madden quickly realizes that this situation is not the romantic, safe experience they’d discussed over instant message. It turns forceful, and when it’s over, Chad and Gil drive off, leaving Madden alone at the mall. 

Madden wanders around the mall aimlessly until her parents pick her up, drinking orange soda in the hopes that Sunkist will help conceal her bruised lips. Madden tries to rationalize the situation: “This is what adults do when they feel the feels of love; maybe it’s quick, forceful; maybe it happens like that.” 

The emotional gut punch comes when her parents pick her up from the mall, and they question her stained lips and whether she got into a fight with Beth. For a quick moment, twelve-year-old Madden contemplates telling her parents—but quickly decides against it. Madden’s father had told her that “It’s a father’s job to protect his daughter,” but the fear of getting in trouble made her decide otherwise.

Adult Madden, shortly after her father’s death, questions how her life trajectory and her relationship with her father would have differed had she told him the truth about that day fifteen years ago. 

Reading “The Feels of Love” and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls when I was older—and not when I was seventeen and so desperately needed validation and representation—was much more impactful. I probably wouldn’t have understood any of the ‘90s pop culture references, namely the Alanis Morissette “going down on someone in a movie theater” mention. But even deeper, it’s about the fissure of time and growth between my seventeen-year-old self who felt “othered” for having a dead father and my present-day 2019 self. That divide greatly impacted the lens through which I read this book. 

When I read Fatherless Girls, I’d just wrapped up my second year of college as a liberal arts student and freelance writer in New York City. In the two years since then, I’ve built my own support system of fatherless girls—all of whom I met in unexpected ways that spanned different states across America. There’s a certain type of bond that I have with my own tribe of fatherless girls that is meaningful and special in a way that I can’t really describe. Madden mentions multiple times throughout the book that “no one ever desires to love a fatherless girl,” which hit me right in the gut. Fatherless girls are portrayed in movies and TV shows as riddled with daddy issues and incapable of sustaining long-term relationships. I’ve been able to learn in the past few years that love transcends just romantic relationships; it’s having mutual empathy, respect, care, and admiration for the people in your life that are the most important. I’ve been friends with my friend Sarah since I was fifteen, and she’s the first person I ever talked to about how badly I needed a tribe of fatherless girls. I mainly voiced this out of a place of frustration because I was tired of this otherness I always felt at school when people would talk about their fathers. This past summer, Sarah was the one who bought me a copy of Fatherless Girls the day before I went back to New York for school. I like to think that the world is working in full circle. 

Madden dedicates an entire essay to her own tribe of fatherless girls: her two friends Harley and Nelle. She writes about their tales of debauchery, of throwing sex toy-themed parties and smoking, of infrequent intimate moments of recounting the tough truths about their fathers. They affectionately (and questionably) call Madden “Kinky Chinky,” and though their friendship isn’t always healthy, there’s a certain unspeakable bond between the three of them. The girls ultimately fall out of touch, but Madden ends the essay letting them know she’s still there. 

In the preface of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Madden writes that her memory is the driving force behind this memoir, despite all the research that went into delving deeper into her family history. Her descriptive, powerful writing style reminds me why I’m so passionate about storytelling, journalism, and creative nonfiction in the first place. 

So upon finishing Fatherless Girls, I felt unexpectedly inspired and motivated. I felt utterly grateful for my own tribe of fatherless girls, and I even felt grateful for my tribe of people that have fathers and who have helped me. 

But most clearly, I knew the reason why I felt so stunned by this book: I finally felt genuinely represented and truly seen. Madden completely changes the narrative and uplifts fatherless girls; she highlights them for the strong and courageous individuals they are, with their never-ending resilience. And for that, I thank T Kira Madden for absolutely everything.