“Somebody’s Daughter” left me struggling to breathe — I found that holding my breath held back the tears that kept coming and coming and coming. In reading Ashley C. Ford’s first memoir, one feels an overwhelming desire to hold her and hold her tight. To cradle her and love her the way she wanted to be loved, to remind her how to breathe when she starts gasping for air.
Ford has been writing for over a decade. She is a journalist, editor, podcast host, and teacher. Over the years, the Indiana native has given the public pieces of her life story through essays and interviews — but “Somebody’s Daughter” lays it all out there. Ford’s memoir does not shy away from pain or confusion; instead it holds an echo of memories, guiding readers head first through her life lessons. The memoir acts as a mosaic of moments and images that altered Ford’s ever-changing perception.
The book begins with a letter from Ford’s incarcerated father. It’s a response to the first letter Ford had sent him in 20 years. His letter conveys loneliness and a deep love only parents can communicate with such certainty: “I’m going to show you and your brother R.C. how much I love you with every breath I take. Ashley, your father is coming home. I cannot promise you when that will be, but I can give you my word that I’m coming.”
And immediately we’re thrust into the crux of their relationship. The longing for fatherhood is the main tension of the book. When Ford feels like no one loves her, she has the letters from her father, the memories of her one visit, and the endless assurances of unconditional love.
Once her father’s incarceration is introduced, Ford immediately tells readers he’s been released. She’s 25 and confused — so deeply confused. Then the story starts again from the beginning, with her first memories.
There’s the burn of relaxer on her scalp, the feeling of guilt then relief when she gets away with a lie, love for her mother’s pregnant belly, staying up to watch the sunset huddled in her mother’s bed, the smell of her grandmother’s perfume. It’s the moments a child notices, written with the poise of a lyrical-minded adult.
Family is important to Ford because she was told over and over again that family is all she has. It’s not always straightforward — on one hand, the love she has for her siblings haunts her at night. Her younger brother, R.C. was her first love and friend. But when her mother would hit her, taunt her, call her names, make her fear the sanctity of her household, it felt like the only thing tethering her to her mother is that family must love — and if you are to put up with anything, it has to be your blood.
Ford’s relationship with her mother is complicated. We learn that in the first few pages of the book, and then again when the story travels back to childhood. She hits and punishes and instills fear in Ford and her younger brother — which, of course, leads to Ford longing for a relationship with the father she’s never really met and forging one with her discerning grandmother.
The desire for her father’s love relies on a level of abstraction. She doesn’t find out why her father went to prison until she’s 14, over lo mein in a mall food court. By then, her trust in most men has been shattered — she’s been treated like a woman since her breasts grew in at nine. When she was 12, she was raped by her boyfriend. Finding out what her father did shattered her perceived perceptions. It’s heartbreaking to read as she attempts to pick up the pieces and keeps failing.
Ford’s story is anything but boring — but the plot tension isn’t what had me glued to the page. It was her words, the way she described her thoughts and thought process, the desperation to her tone and her endless desire to be loved and good, even when her mother put her through hell. “I craved seeing her happy,” said Ford. “It was easier to laugh at the jokes after you’d forgotten the pain. That smile sometimes made me forget the pain, and I would laugh too. Over time, forgetting the pain to make the best joke got easier and easier and easier.”
And while you want nothing more than to hold her, take her away from that pain and into warm, always loving arms, you find yourself rooting for the small victories and the ways she’s been able to survive. Time and time again.
Natachi Onwuamaegbu is an arts and culture writer. Follow her on Twitter @natachio.
Ashley C. Ford
Flatiron Books, 224 pages, $27.99
Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at email@example.com.