The debut memoir about a woman’s lifelong struggle against the repercussions of her repressive upbringing, 99 Girdles on the Wall follows author Elena Louise Richmond on her pilgrimage to escape the suffocating fundamentalism that has affected the larger part of her life. From childhood until mid-adulthood, Richmond attempts to outgrow a series of metaphorical girdles in religion, womanhood, and family. 99 Girdles on the Wall is an honest appeal to the vulnerabilities, painful recounts, and darkly comic instances of a life led in constraints.
Richmond is both defenseless and naïve as a child with innocence drowned in the company of Mary, her fundamentalist and rigid mother; Arthur, an alcoholic father who uses Richmond to sustain a relationship that his wife cannot; and Alec, Richmond’s detached older brother who becomes an artist completely indifferent to his family. In a home where “religious books evangelize the bookcases,” Richmond views God as a mental fusion of her parents and deals with the guilt of being the ‘kid at fault’ – relying on Good Housekeeping Magazine to self-diagnose herself as depressed at age ten – beginning a tug-of-war of sentimental self-loathing which lasts until her later adult life manifested through an on-again off-again relationship with Christianity and sexual angst.
Richmond identifies herself as a projected extension of Mary and consequently withstands a range of maternal insecurities. With a despotic approach to upbringing, Mary warns Richmond of the sins of weight gain and sexuality including “come hither” glances and the privacy of menstruation. Rather than empowering a daughter with womanhood, Mary endows shame with all things that define femaleness. The mother-daughter relationship between Mary and Richmond seems demonstrative of the disconnect between generational views of a woman’s role – beyond feminine expectations, the recurrence of the mother-daughter disparity is heightened with religious obligation.
Richmond finds solace from depression in a relationship with music that parallels her desire to be appreciated and loved by her parents. But what begins as a filling becomes a form of divine intervention as singing and teaching eventually save Richmond from depression and the rigidity of the metaphorical girdles left by her mother. With singing she can breathe again, “You bring everything you’ve got into the breath. In one phrase, you can use up all your own air, think your life is over and find out that there’s more where that came from; more breath that you dreamed possible.” This breath is what Richmond refers to her ‘pilot light’, an added dimension in singing and life that exists in her darkest hours. This light is brought to the surface through teaching music and with the help of her Aunt Frances and her psychoanalyst, Doug. The polar opposite to Mother Mary (no coincidence with Richmond’s choice to rename her ‘Mother Mary’ in the memoir), Aunt Frances is a respite and comfort for Richmond throughout her life as a woman who is free and happy to live as she desires. Richmond’s psychoanalyst Doug works with Richmond for most of her adult life, utilizing different therapies in a kinship that allows both Doug and Richmond to become reassuringly human.
Richmond’s tone is revealing and weighty as language moves and grows through a desperate and hopeless narration and at times it is difficult to stay with Richmond through her depression as she searches for relief. 99 Girdles on the Wall focuses on dependence, whether Mary’s co-dependence on fundamentalism to raise her child, or Richmond’s dependence on music as familial escape. The memoir revolves around Richmond’s relationship with Christianity from pre-teen skepticism of fundamentalist tenants to joining a college church group. In each instance Richmond looks for answers – why she struggles with co-dependence, why she seeks out a constant that is lacking in her parents, and why she creates such a tumultuous relationship within herself. Dependency is not uncommon and the reader associates with ease; Richmond deals with old-school parenting coupled with pious tutelage and is bravely honest in her telling.
“Look at your legacy as a burden, and that burden will become heavier,” quotes Arun Ghandi in regard to his recent book, Legacy of Love*. Look at your legacy in favor, and that “light will illuminate and guide you.” 99 Girdles on the Wall comes full circle when Richmond revisits her own legacy through the estate sale of Mary’s belongings. While clearing out the victims of her mother’s hoarder tendencies, Richmond realizes that “bad memories began to mean something different,” tacking all twenty-seven of her mother’s homemade girdles to the bedroom wall alongside pictures of Jesus – tangible residue – the stark visual impressions left behind by a mother for a daughter through a legacy of parenting and faith.
* This quote was taken from the NPR radio broadcast interview with Arun Ghandi, 3/5/12 as a reference to Ghandi’s novel, “Legacy of Love: My Education in the Path of Nonviolence”