There’s something particularly mysterious about the ‘90s for those of us who grew up in that decade. JonBenét Ramsey is a perfect example. So is O.J., or Lorena Bobbitt, or chat room killers. These enigmas still pervade in pop culture today because we can’t quite let go of mysteries; even when solved, the answers don’t provide an explanation to why people do the things they do.
For many American girls, the ‘90s consisted of ponies. Braces. Middle school dances. Tongue rings. Drew Barrymore. T Kira Madden weaves these familiar flecks into her stunning debut memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. These are objects and experiences that perhaps any girl growing up with a particular privilege, in this particular time period in America, associates with childhood, with their own coming-of-age story.
But Madden’s childhood in Boca Raton, Florida, wasn’t all Tiger Beat and horse-back riding. She began her life as the child of a single Chinese-Hawaiian mother. Eventually, her white, wealthy father (brother of shoe designer Steve Madden) left his family to marry her mother and create a new family of three. While there was plenty of money, Madden’s childhood consisted of taking care of drug-addicted parents and dealing with the ups and downs of an alcoholic father who is there one minute and gone the next.
She was called derogatory names by schoolmates, left out for her otherness, even though her father looked like their fathers, her big home looked like their big homes. “I don’t understand why other people can see something I can’t,” she writes.
Madden obsessed over JonBenét Ramsey, as many across the country did. She thought her lucky, a rare beauty that the world wasn’t quite ready to understand. She thought about her own desire to disappear from her unsteady family life, her disparity from her peers. She writes, “Did I want to die? Not really, no. I wanted the beauty of the doomed. Missing girls are never forgotten, I thought, so long as they don’t show up dead. So long as they stay missing.”
As she aged into a young woman, Madden finally “found pretty” while bonding with other fatherless girls. She found a place to be a teenager, away from parents who were almost always in their Other Place. She tried to figure out what they love so much about being high by trying new vices herself, and meanwhile made important discoveries about her identity and sexuality.
Madden boldly relays her experiences with abuse, how young girls are too trusting of older men who make promises, or of teenage boys who claim they will provide upward social mobility, a relationship. These experiences skew perceptions of sex, dating, and power, and need to be talked about.
T Kira Madden says she was named so because her mother thought: “F. Scott Fitzgerald. I like the sound of that. The letter in front. Powerful, yeah? I want a powerful child.”
Like the greats, Madden writes with devastating clarity and lyricism, becomes a storyteller trustworthy enough to tell even the ugliest of truths. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls will make you want to remember, to want more. It takes unexpected turns, as Madden ends up with even more emotional discoveries about her family and herself, and as she navigates being truly fatherless after his death.
This story takes lots of glittery guts to tell. Like the ‘90s, this world is often more surprising than fiction.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
By T Kira Madden
Published March 5, 2019
Meredith Boe is a Pushcart Prize–nominated writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passengers Journal, Newfound, Another Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, Mud Season Review, After Hours, and elsewhere, and her chapbook What City won the 2018 Debut Series Chapbook Contest from Paper Nautilus.