“Book Review: Family Legends, Family Lies“
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A candid, heartbreaking memoir of a mother-daughter bond lost over a refusal to acknowledge childhood sexual abuse
Wendy Hoke’s memoir Family Legends, Family Lies: A Daughter Speaks Truth About the Ultimate Betrayal is about how her life was profoundly affected by being sexually abused by her maternal grandfather. It is especially a story about how secrecy and shame destroyed her relationship with her mother; to this day, her mother will not acknowledge that the abuse occurred. A cautionary tale for families who might be inclined to sweep traumatic events under the rug, it shows how the trajectory of entire lives can be changed by denial. It’s also a frank tale of how one woman was able to build up her own self-awareness and self-assurance to come to terms with her past.
Drawing from the fabric of her family history, Hoke weaves a rich tapestry in this memoir, showing us the context for why she remained silent about her childhood abuse well into her adulthood. Without discussing exactly what her grandfather did to her, she reveals her own process of coming to terms with the abuse and her hope that she can shed light on “why anyone would keep these secrets.” This choice likely makes the book more accessible to readers who prefer to avoid details of violence or manipulation.
It’s truly an interesting and compelling way to tell a story; by discussing her abuse only in terms of its effects on her adult life, she proves how wide-ranging and long-lasting those effects are.
Hoke was adopted as a baby and grew up in a middle-class household in California in the 1960s and 70s. Her grandfather was a pastor in the American Lutheran Church and was, for a while, the regional bishop. At home, he was unquestionably the patriarch, setting “the rules and tone of the family.” The women in her family tended to take the role of serving the men. Unfortunately, “anything less than shining acclaim” for the patriarch “drew a sharp reprimand” from the man’s daughter, who was Hoke’s mother.
Her father, whom she loved, died in 1998. Unfortunately, she had visited him rarely in adulthood because she wanted to avoid her mother. In the several years following his death, a number of things changed for her, like her grandfather’s death in 2001 and learning that her long-distance love interest was also dying.
When the terrorist attack of September 11th occurred, she was working on a Navy base where she filed an internal complaint of sexual harassment against her boss. Her coworkers falsely accused her of not reporting to work on that day, and she later resigned.
Although she moved away from the area, a former coworker stalked and threatened her; authorities would not help. By telling the story in this way, Hoke implies that deaths within one’s inner circle (including the death of one’s abuser) can become emotionally linked to old memories. She also makes the reader feel her distress and outrage at not being believed about harassment, and thus she helps the reader understand why it seemed hopeless for her to take the risk of talking about what happened to her in childhood.
A door cracked open for her when the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal made high-profile national headlines in 2002. Meanwhile, her local news carried the story of a small girl who was kidnapped and murdered (a crime she does discuss in detail in this book). The story of the girl’s fate triggered Hoke’s own suppressed trauma: “I felt as if lightning had just ripped through me.” Since then, she has gradually claimed space to speak her truth.
In this book, she raises a few big questions. One is a major unknown detail—pointed out compassionately and curiously—about her mother: What was her childhood like? Hoke accepts that her mother might be hiding from a similar pain. As a child, Hoke, “filled with pain and terror,” never wondered who else her grandfather might have victimized in the same way; now, as an adult, she is able to raise the possibility. Maybe the same thing happened to her mother.
Another big question stems from her Christian faith. It is a theological question: How can faith in God, just by itself, be sufficient to forgive major sins? According to Hoke, it shouldn’t be. People who have committed wrongs should try to repair the damage and change their ways. Can an abuser, however, “even understand the depths of what he has done?” It is the nature of these questions to remain unanswered.
Eloquently invoking the metaphor of mountain climbing (she was a mountain climber herself when she was younger), and sharing the narrative of her personal maturation and growth, Hoke shows how she has slowly reclaimed her dignity and autonomy. She gently delivers a message for people who have been hurt: “Victims don’t shame the family,” she says; “it’s the perp who shames himself.”
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Nonfiction / Family
Print Length: 146 pages
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