In 1978 Debora Harding, then 14, was kidnapped in Omaha, Nebraska, as she tried to get home during an ice storm after a cancelled choir practice; she was driven to a phone booth, held at knifepoint and told to ask her father for a $10,000 ransom. Her masked attacker tied her up and put a sack over her head, raped her and left her, freezing, by a railway siding, while he drove to a nearby mall hoping to collect the money from her father. Harding wasted some time praying until she realised that she was going to have to save herself before she died of exposure. Somehow she managed to escape, removing the sack from her head by scraping her forehead against a wall. Her attacker was later arrested, confessed to everything and spent 25 years in prison.
Her mother had a peculiar response to the attack. Decades later she told her daughter’s husband, quite matter-of-factly, that the kidnap had never happened. Harding was so unsettled by her mother’s belief that the abduction was just a fantasy, she began to question her own memory. Could she have concocted such an event in her mind? She and her husband begin an investigation into the assault, scouring FBI records and newspaper reports to uncover the details of what took place. Records confirmed her memories were entirely correct.
What kind of a parent chooses not to believe their daughter’s account of being kidnapped? We soon learn that the real villain of Harding’s brave and beautifully written memoir is not her rapist but her dysfunctional mother. Although the narrative of the kidnap and its fallout provides the pretext for the book, the drama of that violent assault is quickly overshadowed by Harding’s reflections on the quiet violence of her mother and the shattering impact this had on family life.
The drama of that violent assault is quickly overshadowed by Harding’s reflections on the quiet violence of her mother
The first remembered act of cruelty – the odd decision to lock six-year-old Harding and two of her sisters in an unheated garage for several hours during a snowstorm – is excused as the consequence of postnatal depression. It is more difficult for Harding to explain away later behaviour, when her mother beats her around the head for a failure to sort and fold the laundry, or flays her sisters’ legs with a belt for drinking her Coke (something they hadn’t done).
Gradually Harding realises she cannot rely on her mother, and notes: “When Dad was home Mum was as different as a blackbird to a vampire.” She observes the happiness of other families growing up around her in Omaha with fascination, registering with curiosity the warmth that a neighbour’s mother exudes.
Things do not improve when Harding and her sisters reach adolescence. Local police officers are startled when Harding’s mother calls demanding they arrest her daughter because she has smoked a joint. They decline to come out to the family home, so she asks: “What if I brought her down to the station? Is there an officer who speaks to young criminals?” Privately, the officer tells Harding: “Your mother’s behaviour is a little odd.”
These fragments of childhood pain are seen through the shifting lens of Harding’s own, less extreme, struggles with parenting, but her book is more than a heartbreakingly disturbing account of childhood abuse in the US, in the vein of Tara Westover’s Educated. A third, parallel strand explores her love for her kind, devoted father and carefully extracts moments of real happiness from the chaos of her early life. Having braced myself for misery, I found these sections the most impressive part of the book. A road trip to New York where they watch Rocky together, a wise conversation about how best to deal with ghosts hiding beneath the bed, running sessions together in the school gym – Harding’s father helps her to become “fierce” in her love of life.
All of which makes his reluctance to believe her memories of her mother’s behaviour another painful betrayal. “I honestly still have a problem imagining it was as bad as you are saying. I’m not denying it, I’m just saying I never saw it,” he tells her.
There is of course no simple or happy resolution to any of this. Harding doesn’t present herself as a triumphant victim who has successfully shaken off her trauma. Her husband, who comes across as a beacon of sanity and calm compassion, encourages her to write to give her “control over her thoughts” but she concludes that far from being therapeutic, the process of writing has often felt like an act of self-harm. She manages (just about) to hold on to her sense of humour. She describes a not entirely successful exercise in restorative justice, where she talks to her attacker in prison 25 years after the rape, and comes away underwhelmed by his apologies. There is no Hollywood gush of redemption, but Harding leaves, her head held high, “wanting to thank him for proving that he was an asshole”.
• Dancing With the Octopus is published by Profile (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.