One of our recommended books is American Daughter by Stephanie Thornton Plymale

AMERICAN DAUGHTER

A Memoir


For 50 years, Stephanie Plymale kept her past a fiercely guarded secret.

No one outside her immediate family would have guessed that her childhood was fraught with every imaginable hardship: a mentally ill mother who was in and out of jails and psych wards throughout Stephanie’s formative years, neglect, hunger, poverty, homelessness, truancy, foster homes, a harrowing lack of medical care, and ongoing sexual abuse.

Stephanie, in turn, knew very little about the past of her mother, from whom she remained estranged during most of her adult life. All this changed with a phone call that set a journey of discovery in motion,

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For 50 years, Stephanie Plymale kept her past a fiercely guarded secret.

No one outside her immediate family would have guessed that her childhood was fraught with every imaginable hardship: a mentally ill mother who was in and out of jails and psych wards throughout Stephanie’s formative years, neglect, hunger, poverty, homelessness, truancy, foster homes, a harrowing lack of medical care, and ongoing sexual abuse.

Stephanie, in turn, knew very little about the past of her mother, from whom she remained estranged during most of her adult life. All this changed with a phone call that set a journey of discovery in motion, leading to a series of shocking revelations that forced Stephanie to revise the meaning of almost every aspect of her very compromised childhood.

American Daughter is at once the deeply moving memoir of a troubled mother-daughter relationship and a meditation on trauma, resilience, transcendence, and redemption. Stephanie’s story is unique but its messages are universal, offering insight into what it means to survive, to rise above, to heal, and to forgive.

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  • HarperOne
  • Hardcover
  • January 2021
  • 288 Pages
  • 9780063054332

Buy the Book

$27.99

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About Stephanie Thornton Plymale

Stephanie Thornton Plymale is the CEO of Heritage School of Interior Design and the founder of the Heritage Home Foundation, a nonprofit serving families transitioning from homelessness. She lives with her husband and three children in Portland, Oregon.

Praise

“A story of redemption and forgiveness” New York Times Book Review

 

Discussion Questions

READER-FOCUSED

1. What feelings did this book evoke for you?

2. How did the book change you?

3. What was your initial reaction to the book? Did it hook you immediately, or take you some time to get into?

4. Did the book change your opinion or perspective about anything? Do you feel different now than you did before you read it?

5. Were there people that you most related to in the book? What was it about them that you connected with?

6. Share a favorite quote from the book. Why did this quote stand out?

7. Can you relate to any instances or relationships in the book? Parent-daughter, familial, marital, professional, etc., and did the book help you to gain greater perspective on these things for yourself?

8. Which person in the book would you most like to meet?

9. Which places in the book would you most like to visit? New York City, San Francisco, Mendocino, Oregon, Oregon Hospital for the Insane, The CA Dependent Unit, or any of Stephanie’s Foster Homes

10. What most surprised you as you read this book?

MEMOIR-SPECIFIC / AUTHOR BASED

1. Why do you think the author chose to tell this story? What ideas was she trying to get across?

2. What aspects of the author’s story could you most relate to?

3. How honest do you think the author was being?

4. What gaps do you wish the author had filled?

5. Think about the other people in the book besides the author. How would you feel to have been depicted in this way?

6. What is your impression of the author?

7. If you got the chance to ask the author of this book one question, what would it be?

STRUCTURE

1. How did the structure of the book affect the story? There was a lot of movement from one timeline to another. Was that distracting or did it hold you in suspense and helped you better understand how past influenced current day?

2. Did any aspects of the book feel unresolved or missing?

3. How did you feel about the ending? What emotions were brought up for you if at all?

4. Do you feel like you want to know more about this story? If so, what sections?

5. If you could hear this same story from another person’s point of view, who would you choose?

THEMES

1. Did you pick out any themes throughout the book?

2. What do you think of the book’s title? How does it relate to the context?

3. What do you think of the book’s cover? How well does it convey what the book is about?

PERSONAS

1. Consider Florence’s different personas; Agnes and Flow. How did these personas impact your experience with the book?
• Why did Florence create Flow who was an Indian?
• Why did she create Agnes?

2. Why do you think Florence saw an Indian in the room with her during the rape? Was this a delusion, an angel or any other thoughts?

3. Florence, while running down the street naked, yells, ‘You can’t kill me because I’m already dead!’ This has haunted Stephanie her entire life. What do you think is the meaning behind Florence’s words?

SYSTEMIC TOPICS; ADDICTION, MENTAL HEALTH, FOSTER CARE, ABUSE

4. Now with the #metoo movement and an overt emphasis placed on equal rights and opportunities, what do you feel would be different had this crime played out in current day?

5. Florence clearly never received addiction and mental health support and today, not much has improved. There are so many lives that never have an opportunity to heal. How do you feel our addiction and mental healthcare system could improve?

6. Florence experienced Dissociative Disorder (Multiple Personalities), Bipolar and Schizophrenia, which all developed after her trauma. Does her story change your perception of mental illness?

7. Do you see Florence’s behavior as a cry for help or purely as her emotional reaction to her past?

8. We’re currently still in a place where foster abuse takes place, just as Stephanie experienced years ago. No one asked her at the time what her experience was in any of the homes. She felt she had fallen through the cracks at every level. What do you feel needs to change in the foster care system to keep this from happening?

CHARACTER-SPECIFIC

1. If the book were being adapted into a movie, who would you cast?

2. How did the people change throughout the story? How did your opinion of them change?

3. Provide commentary and discussion on the following people’s character:
• Florence
• Stephanie
• Jim
• Allan
• Mama Mae
• Rick

 

 

Excerpt

Prologue

On that January morning, I woke up in a car. Isabella and the baby were beside me in the back of our station wagon, still asleep. Allan and Pablo were outside, lying on the ground in their sleeping bags. Our mother was gone.

The year was 1974. I was six years old. We were in Mendocino Headlands State Park on a bluff overlooking the ocean. The car had been our home for many months, and it would be our home for many months to come. It was the car of someone who had come to the end of the line—the car of a driver who’d driven as far as she could go.

I was warm beneath the wool blanket, pressed against my sister with the sun slanting through the back windshield. Every morning I lingered in the shelter of the station wagon for as long as I could, until hunger and the need to relieve myself drove me up and out of our makeshift bed.

It was always cold outside the car. A bitter wind came hard off the water, whipping my hair in every direction and making the bones of my face ache. Each morning began with the same ritual: First I crouched to urinate in the brush, and then I went to the cardboard box in the back of the car in the hope of having some semblance of breakfast. Whatever was inside that box was what we had to eat that day.

On a good day there might be hempseed bread and fresh-ground peanut butter, Tiger’s Milk bars, or apricot granola. On other days, there might be nothing but bran cereal. The bran pellets were hard and dry and tasted like dust, and they made my stomach hurt.

Or there might be nothing but brown sugar, which I’d eat straight from the container. My mother said brown sugar was good for us because it had molasses in it.

Or there might be nothing at all.

On the nothing-at-all days, the empty days, my brothers collected seaweed for us to eat. They climbed down the cliffs to the cove where the kelp was most abundant, and they would gather armfuls of it—as much as they could carry. Allan, who at ten was the oldest of us, went first, with nine-year-old Pablo following close behind. Each time they descended into that canyon of rock and moss and pounding surf, I felt afraid that they’d be swept away to sea or dashed against the jagged black boulders.

The ocean was a fury; to live beside it was to know this well. Evidence of its violence was everywhere we turned. The sand was littered with broken things: dismembered claws, gutted shells, the shards of clams dropped from the sky and eviscerated by gulls.

But Allan and Pablo always reappeared beside the car with the seaweed. They spread it on a blanket to dry in the sun, a process that took several hours. Even then, the seaweed was nearly impossible to swallow—slick and oily, hard to chew, with a lingering aftertaste like dead fish. I held my breath while forcing it down, and gulped water after each bite.

Our mother worked as a maid at a motel several miles away. She left the car before first light to hitchhike to her job and didn’t come back until early evening. For months on end—for most of that year—we were on our own every day, fending for ourselves, aimless and feral and free.

We didn’t go to school that year, and this drew no notice from anyone. Mendocino was a hippie refuge where a passel of half-wild children wandering around unattended struck no one as unusual and aroused no concern. Every afternoon we ran and capered and played on the beach like a pack of stray puppies.

Each morning brought the same set of difficulties: the hunger and the cold, the relative lack of shelter, the long stretch of unstructured hours. And yet each morning the world was new. The sky was pink like the inside of a shell. The shoreline was studded with treasure: sea glass, shards of abalone, intricate sticks of driftwood, and the occasional fisherman’s float.

I loved just to look at all the marvels of the ocean. I would crouch down to peer for long minutes at the skeletal underside of a horseshoe crab, the elegant twist of a whelk, the clear blue bodies of jellyfish washed up on the sand. The beach was as much our home as the station wagon. Years later I would hear the phrase “sea urchins,” and although the reference was to a marine creature, my first thought was: That was us.

We spent our days roaming the same two-mile stretch again and again. On any given afternoon, we could be found beside the bluffs, on the outskirts of the village, on the winding trails along the cliffs, or down by the water.

It was a relief to see our mother each time she returned in her pale blue uniform dress, and to trail her to the neighborhood store. We never had more than a few dollars to spend on dinner for the six of us. My mother’s scant pay had to cover diapers for the baby, the cost of washing our clothes at the laundromat, soap and shampoo, cigarettes by the carton, the little squares of paper she ate every morning, and the pungent green clusters of buds she called herbs. At the local grocery, we picked out random items: grapes or tangerines, carob bars, halvah, dried slices of persimmon or papaya.

Sometimes a kind cashier gave us hot water in cardboard cups. On these blessed evenings, we would divide the contents of a Top Ramen package among the cups and sit on the curb outside the store to eat it. That soup was the best dinner I’d ever had, the best dinner I could imagine having.

After this, we would go to the public showers at Fort Bragg, an event that rivaled dinner as the best of the day. Hot water was a benediction, however it came.

That January day began like any other: shivering, driftless, dreaming of heat, wandering the headlands with my sister and baby brother. Allan and Pablo were back at the car, drying seaweed. On a distant bluff was a bus—one we had never seen before—like a school bus but bleached white on the outside with blue-green trim. The novelty of it pulled us near and somehow, though we moved through the world with a kind of wary insularity (we did not talk to strangers; we tended not to even go near them), I found myself knocking at its door.

I’ll never know what led me to knock, and I’ll never know why the man inside swung open the door to admit us. I only know that I climbed the steps that day and beheld a sight that seared itself into my mind, an image that never dimmed, that carried me through the weeks and months and years ahead. It’s an image that’s still with me now: a vision of sanctuary, of a haven, ensconced within the metal shell of a battered old vehicle. It was a home on the road just as ours was, but inside it was as enchanted and exquisite as a Fabergé egg.

It was warm inside the bus. There were cream-colored café curtains on all the windows, and each pane of glass was clouded with steam. There was a stove with a cooking pot and a red teakettle. There was bench seating built in along the sides, covered with brightly colored pillows and a batik throw. A macramé owl hung on one wall.

The air was fragrant with cooking spices. The man stirred whatever was in the pot with a wooden spoon. I had never imagined a space like this: orderly, cheerful, cozy and snug, a world unto itself. It was like a cottage in a fairy tale.

I looked at Isabella in wonder, and she looked back at me with nothing in her face. The indifference in her eyes filled me with bewilderment. She doesn’t see it, I thought.

I would think about that bus every single day for years and years. I’d conjure the memory of it just before falling asleep at night. I would draw pictures of it, embellish it in my mind, and add whimsical touches like a jeweled curtain, woven rugs, and paper flowers. I’d imagine it with different drapes and fixtures and furniture. I would hold it close to me.

But at the moment, I could only stand as if rooted in the middle of the room, overwhelmed by a desire so fierce it was like a revelation.

This, I thought. I want this. And one day I’ll have it.