In his 1950 novel, "Requiem for a Nun," William Faulkner famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Rita Zoey Chin, in the prologue to "Let the Tornado Come," her often devastating debut memoir, describes this idea in another way: "[A]s resounding and complete as any present moment is, one side of it is always touching, even in the gentlest of ways, the past, where there is always a story inside the story waiting to be told."
Chin's past, we soon learn, is one full of trauma. Born into a violent home, she was pelted with cans of Play-Doh, whipped with the buckle-end of a belt, and dragged down the hall by her hair. (Her younger sister is spared the abuse because of an early illness.)
After years of also attacking each other, her parents finally divorce. Chin is promised a "normal" life with her father and his pretty new wife, so is coached to go against her mother in divorce court. But back under her father's roof, the beatings begin again. "I remember feeling grateful that he hadn't hit me harder, as if that little bit of restraint was still a kind of love."
Chin tries returning to her mother, but she never gets over her sense of betrayal at her daughter's hands. So Chin starts running away at age 11 and doesn't stop until adulthood, along the way spending time in detention centers, drug rehabs, and in the beds of strange men who take advantage of her vulnerability by seducing her or by trying to pimp her out. "Who knows what parts of ourselves we must consume in order to survive?" she asks.
Many years later, after marrying a neurosurgeon and living the sort of stable country life she'd always longed for, Chin starts suffering daily debilitating panic attacks. She can't shop. She can't shower. She can barely leave the house. The past begins to paralyze her.
She looks to her husband for help. "I wanted him to make some gesture that would magically gather me up, like a basket of fallen fruit." But though he accompanies her on each of her "panic remed[ies]," he has his own practice to worry over and prefers not to know about her dark past. A friend urges Chin to take medication, but she shuns the suggestion, convinced that the panic has something to teach her.
"Let the Tornado Come" is written in a braided narrative, alternating between Chin's tumultuous youth, the search for an end to her panic attacks as an adult, and a budding relationship with horses, in particular a 1,400-pound horse named Claret whose skittishness matches her own and who might hold the key to her mental recovery. "I had the sense that it was in part, my relationship with panic — along with the residue of my young life — that enabled me to fully submerge myself in the freedom and joy of riding: it was only by holding on so tightly that I could begin learning how to let go."
Among the memoir's different elements, the stories about Chin's family and life on the street are by far the most gripping. Often told in present tense, and making use of a remarkable recall of detail, these are harrowing tales.
Throughout her difficult childhood, Chin leans on writing and a stubborn faith in beauty. "No matter what happened inside my home, the world outside wouldn't stop being beautiful." Waiting on the bench during her parents' acrimonious divorce hearing, she fills notebooks with poems and stories. In a decrepit detention center, she writes letters with pencils that she must return to supervisors, lest she, or another inmate, use it as a weapon. On the road, she writes whenever she can — on scraps of paper, the soles of her shoes, even on the insides of her arms.
After she reaches adulthood, she starts shooting drugs and stripping. Realizing she's hit rock bottom, she seeks help and eventually starts writing again. "I kept walking, kept looking, kept writing in notebooks about what I saw. And the pages added up — the days added up — to something." This dedication has served Chin well. Today she's an award-winning poet with an MFA who mentors teenagers and teaches writing at Grub Street in Boston. (She calls herself "one of the lucky ones.")
Although Rita Zoey Chin vividly describes a brutal and despairing life her writing is never consumed with despair. "Let the Tornado Come" is a clear-eyed book written with poetry and compassion. Chin may have had little control over her life, but she demonstrates a remarkable control over her story.
Alysia Abbott is the author of "Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father."