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Posted on 24 Aug 2023 in Non-Fiction |

CYNTHIA DEARBORN The Year My Family Unravelled. Reviewed by Mary Garden

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Cynthia Dearborn’s memoir recounts a confrontation with painful memories and a chance at redemption.

This beautifully written memoir tells the story of one tumultuous year. It is 2007 and Cynthia Dearborn finds herself in the role of caregiver and advocate for her 75-year-old father. He has vascular dementia and lives in Seattle, across the world from Sydney, the city to which Cynthia escaped in the 1990s. She puts her life on hold and leaves her partner Tricia and her job behind. Much of the narrative is driven by her attempts to get her father into an aged care facility, which is not easy when he is a hoarder, in denial and in mental decline, and when she is dealing with a flawed medical system whose bureaucracy at times seems farcical.

As an expat myself, I related to the need to care for a parent, as I had made countless trips over to New Zealand to help my mother during her last years.

Cynthia’s father is a larger-than-life character, a ‘one-man jet of joy’, with a large library of poetry in his head. These poems, sprinkled throughout, lighten the story. When a specialist asks him if he has any questions, he ‘springs back into himself’ with ‘Home, from the city that snares and enthralls me; Home, from the bold light and bold weary crowd.’ Astonishingly, he remembers the poet, Fannie Stearns Davis, the book, Crack O’Dawn, and its date – 1915!

Also lightening the heavy subject matter are her father’s greetings, which to Cynthia are ‘a sonorous waterfall of love’:

‘Cynnn-thi-aa!’ My father makes my name a melody, an adoring decrescendo of delight. ‘You came all the way from Australia! How did you know I was here?’

Essentially, The Year My Family Unravelled is the story of a disappearing father and a daughter who longs to be seen and heard.

I fall quiet, an old grief catching me in the chest, a yearning to share something deeper with my dad, a man I long to know and long to know me in equal measure.

Actually, I know him pretty well. What I really want is to be known back. To be asked something about my life in Australia, beyond my TV, vitamins and dental care. Or even just: ‘How are you doing, kid?’ Then a pause so I can answer.

Like many of us, Cynthia moved to another country in an attempt to escape the ghosts of her childhood and to carve a happier, healthier life. Invariably, however, the past catches up, family ties tug at us and draw us back. When she is told that her stepmother has lung cancer and her father has been bullying her, Cynthia realises she will need to go to Seattle for an extended period of time.

The fingers of my phone-free hand form a fist, which hurls an imaginary glass at the wall, staining it with imaginary wine, which runs down the wall in ugly rivulets, which ruin my home, which shatters a hope that until this moment I didn’t know I had ‒ the hope that by moving to a continent where nobody knew my family, or the me I used to be with my family, the not-me, the emptied out shell, I could forge a happy life, invent myself anew.

Another story is threaded throughout The Year My Family Unravelled: that of Cynthia’s tumultuous upbringing and her relationship with her father, who has a violent streak. He has been abusive to her, her mother and his second wife.

‘See how he treats me?’ my stepmother says, narrowing her eyes. ‘It’s abuse. You saw it.’ … It’s a word she’s never uttered in my presence. It could split me open if I let it.

It bats about the room like an angry moth, trapped, confined.

And yet her father is not a monster. He may have done monstrous things – Cynthia still fears him – but he is also loveable. Towards the end of the book, Cynthia reflects on her father’s apology, many years before, when he told her he was not proud of some of the things he had done. ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t a better father.’

A vastness opened, a crater, across which memories paraded. Off-hand fragments, traumatic interactions, hazy ones, lucid ones, rages, spankings, all formed an instant chorus line, as if all those years they’d been waiting in the wings for that very moment to step on stage.

Cynthia thought of all her friends who’d never receive such a gift. (I never did from my flawed, damaged, tyrannical father.) She looked at her father and said, ‘Thank you for apologising. I forgive you, Dad.’ She forgave him for everything, but explains:

Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. Forgiving doesn’t mean condoning. Forgiving doesn’t even mean forgiving, not in the obliterating sense in which the word is often used. Past pains don’t fade away. They don’t disappear. That sense of being damaged lingers, that fear of being damaged beyond repair …

We learn that the person who needs our forgiveness is our own perpetually imperfect self. However needy, undeserving, or inept we’ve learned to see her as, our own Younger Me becomes ours to guard and cherish, ours to rescue from the wreckage we did not create.

When Cynthia was 23 years old, she came out as a lesbian, and when she told her biological mother, the response was, ‘You’ve stabbed me in the heart. I’m dead.’ Her mother refused to speak to her on the phone or to see her for 27 years. This cruelty, this disownment, is emotional abuse, and in my opinion far more damaging than her father’s treatment of her. He had always been there for her. Is it any wonder that he was so important to her?

And how lucky that Cynthia found Tricia ‒ ‘intrepid wife, poet of note, and bringer of daily bliss’. Along with the sprinkles of poetry and the scores of ‘Cynnn-thi-aa!’s, the love between Cynthia and Tricia is another braid that lifts and lightens this story.   

This is one of those rare books you don’t want to put down, not like a crime thriller where you race to the end to find out who done it, but you move slowly as you never want it to finish.

When I complimented her on the book on social media, Cynthia replied: I poured my heart and soul, and time, and truthfulness, and all the craft I could, into the telling of this story.

Indeed, she did. Although unravelled means to come apart, fall apart, according to Merriam Webster it also means ‘to resolve the intricacy, complexity, or obscurity of: clear up.’  Cynthia may have unravelled during this challenging year, but in many respects ‒ especially in the writing about it all and reflecting on her past ‒ she became free. As the publisher’s blurb points out, her book is ultimately a memoir of redemption and self-worth. It’s the best memoir I’ve read this year, and perhaps last year, too. I hope it sells widely and wins awards.

Cynthia Dearborn The Year My Family Unravelled Affirm Press 2023 PB 320pp $34.99

Mary Garden is an author and freelance journalist, with a PhD in journalism. Her book Sundowner of the Skies was shortlisted for the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Award and her memoir The Serpent Rising won the 2021 High Country Indie Book Award. Her writing has appeared in a range of publications including The Humanist, The Australian Financial Review, The Australian, The Guardian, Meanjin,and New Zealand Geographic. Recently she published the essay ‘Plagiarism, cobbling or accidental inclusion?’ in Meanjin, revealing how, over many years of reviewing for The Australian, Professor Ross Fitzgerald had resorted to cutting and pasting publishers’ promotional material into his reviews. In January 2022, after 45 years in Queensland, she moved to regional Victoria to be closer to her daughter and her family. You can find her on Twitter @marygarden   

You can buy The Year My Family Unravelled from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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