Stray by Stephanie Danler

There are no earth-shattering revelations in Stephanie Danler’s memoir, Stray, but what it does highlight is how the patterns of our formative relationships reverberate into adult years.

The memoir is ostensibly about Danler’s parents – her mother, who is disabled by years of alcoholism and further handicapped by a brain aneurysm; and her father, who abandoned the family when Danler was three-years-old, and battled drug addiction since.

I was either hiding from her rage or trying to get her attention – there was no safe middle ground while she was drinking.

The story of her parents plays out in parallel with the story of Danler’s relationships – predominantly with a man she refers to as Monster (he’s married, and pulls Danler back into his orbit at regular intervals).

Loving liars, addicts, or people who abuse your love is a common affliction, and we are all mostly the same… No one taught us how to trust the world, or that we could, so we trust no one.

Danler acknowledges that her way of loving ‘…doesn’t rest on platitudes or convenience but thrives on its obstacles.’  When she meets a new man, referred to as the Love Interest, she is initially wary of his openness and honesty. Their relationship is the opposite of everything she’d experienced up until that point.

I am always impressed by Danler’s turn of phrase, and Stray did not disappoint. She’s a beautiful writer, and in the retelling of events, manages to include details that elevate the plain to striking.

I don’t know many single mothers who are able to hide their pain from their children. There isn’t enough space.

It’s the pain experienced in childhood that becomes Danler’s reference point. She states that burying the ‘good’ memories of her childhood, was not to punish her parents, but to protect herself –

Forgetting, for me, was the equivalent of loving.

Everyone loves a happy ending, particularly in a misery-memoir. Does Danler get that? In some ways, yes, but more importantly she settles on some truths about her experiences –

What is shocking isn’t that we have lived through the traumas of our lives. The miracle is that we are still remotely permeable.

It circles back to erasing the good and the bad to self-protect. We remain permeable not to keep the damaging influences out, but to let love in. And Danler achieves this.

4/5 Compelling.

Danler’s mother takes her and her sister for a surprise visit to Disneyland one evening – Danler ordered a French Dip sandwich (never heard of these but sounds delicious) at the Blue Bayou restaurant –

I remember telling my elementary school friends about this dinner at the Blue Bayou as proof against our household’s brokenness.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 14): Belfast 11°-22° and Melbourne 10°-14°

6 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. Your reviews arising driven by your interest in (passion for?) understanding therapy always give rise to thought. I’ve benefitted from therapy, everyone around me has. It certainly makes you more aware that everyone is dealing with stuff. My childhood, for all I complain about my father, was very ordinary and yet I’m astonished to find I ended up him, and my daughter – who is far more thoughtful – still manged to end up me. Formative years indeed. I discuss with the kids sometimes how they dealt with me leaving Milly but they insist nothing changed (but within a couple of years they had all dropped out of school).

    • The challenge always is that there is no perfect experiment – who knows if the way your relationship ended contributed to the kids leaving school? We are hardwired to see the negative in ourselves – from a ‘positive’ perspective, I might wonder if your amicable relationship now is perhaps the most valuable gift you could have ever given your children (on the basis that we learn more from ‘rupture and repair’ than ‘rupture and walk away’!).

      • Yes, I’m sure that it is. Milly and I never fought (not more than any other couple) we just had/have stuff to deal with and I’m sure it gives the kids security to see us working away at our relationship, still, 20 years after the last time we tried living together.

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