Rachel Louise Snyder’s two most recent books are like pendant portraits, each complementing and illuminating the other, a literary matched set.
In “No Visible Bruises,” Snyder probed the pathology and sociology of intimate partner violence, including programs aimed at healing male abusers. Most surprising about her 2019 book, which received the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and other prizes, was Snyder’s empathy and belief in the possibility of redemption for these damaged men.
“Women We Buried, Women We Burned,” an engrossing memoir of her own troubled, motherless early life, helps explain both her attraction to that dark subject and her appreciation of its complexity.
The memoir reveals that Snyder, a professor of creative writing and journalism at American University, was herself an abused child, subject to slaps, punches, and brutal paddling by her father. Incidents of corporal punishment are searingly described and impossible to forget. (Snyder’s bruises from her father’s unhinged discipline, unlike some referenced in the earlier book, were highly visible.)
Arguably as damaging, in Snyder’s view, was the stern evangelical religiosity of her household: the compulsory worship and imposition of strict rules meant to govern every aspect of her behavior (and seemingly leach any possible joy from adolescence).
A fiery spirit, Snyder rebelled, skipping school, running away, smoking, drinking, doing drugs, breaking curfew, brawling with her stepmother. The paddling was one result, provoked but unjustifiable. “Physical violence is always a shock, even if it only lasts a second, even if it happens often,” Snyder writes. Sexual violence intruded, too; an assault by her stepsister’s boyfriend shook her sense of agency, leading to more random and sometimes unwanted sexual encounters.
When she was 16, Snyder was expelled from high school, and her family fractured. Her father evicted her, along with her brother and two stepsiblings, from the house. The inciting incident, her stepsister’s car accident, was not her fault, making the ejection seem recklessly cruel. Working at a restaurant and other low-wage jobs, Snyder struggled to find places to live, sometimes sleeping in her car.
The aftermath proved complicated. Despite their estrangement, Snyder occasionally reached out to her father for help, and sometimes he responded kindly. Even without being asked, he pressed money on her. There was love there, however obscured or distorted.
The memoir chronicles Snyder’s gradual emergence from an awful adolescence into a more stable, and ultimately successful, adulthood, propelled by her passion and gift for writing. The route she takes is circuitous. She trains as a model, does bookings for a rock group called White Lie, endures misbegotten romances. Then she obtains her G.E.D and graduates from a small local college, where she finds mentors and purpose.
Her difficult past, with all its emotional complexities, becomes an asset. It renders her unafraid to explore the grittier aspects of human nature, powering a freelance reporting career that takes her to Asia and Africa. She spends six years writing from Cambodia, a bruised country still recovering from the disaster of the Khmer Rouge genocide. “Slowly,” she says, “I was learning of the bottomless capacity for both human cruelty and human survival.”
Snyder recounts her eventful life, hovering on the brink of tragedy, in vigorous prose. But the memoir, perhaps inevitably, has its share of lacunae, including a vagueness about the breakup of her marriage. (It produced a daughter, to whom the book is dedicated.) Also omitted are her father’s death early in the pandemic, no doubt a prerequisite for the memoir’s candor, and her own diagnosis of breast cancer, the same disease that felled her mother.
The narrative of “Women We Buried, Women We Burned” is at once unruly and unpredictable. It is informed by the metaphor of a night sky split dramatically between light and dark and framed by the loss of two maternal figures to cancer.
The first death, of Snyder’s biological mother, sends 8-year-old Snyder spiraling. “Her death simmered inside me, an eternal gloaming,” she writes. She initially finds mother surrogates in her widowed father’s girlfriends. Then, to marry another born-again Christian, her father abruptly moves the family from a Pittsburgh suburb to Illinois. He and Barb, with two children from her previous marriage, create an awkwardly blended, authoritarian family that never coheres. “Cancer took my mother,” Snyder writes. “But religion would take my life.”
It is Barb’s colorectal cancer decades later that leads to a family reconciliation. Snyder’s father’s faults, including his susceptibility to get-rich-quick schemes and inadequacy as both a parent and provider, are impossible to ignore. But they recede before his obvious patience and devotion to his wife, his unremitting dedication to caregiving.
The twist is that Barb herself is a refugee from a physically abusive marriage. Her second husband, the man the memoir portrays as a brute, is, by comparison, almost a saint. It’s an odd perspectival shift. “I got so lucky with him,” Barb tells her stepdaughter.
As she promises, Snyder later dedicates “No Visible Bruises” to the stepmother she once hated but grew to love. Their deepening bond makes the memoir’s final chapters especially moving. Barb’s graciousness and Snyder’s own emotional generosity demonstrate the power and possibility of transformation, “the dark side eventually giving way to the light.”
WOMEN WE BURIED, WOMEN WE BURNED: A Memoir
By Rachel Louise Snyder
Bloomsbury, 272 pp., $29
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.