Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. Consider the cover image for Deborah A. Lott’s memoir Don’t Go Crazy Without Me (Red Hen Press): a chubby adult male dressed in blue velvet shorts and jacket, ruffled cream shirt, black leather doll shoes and white socks, carrying a teddy bear. The peculiar image is of Ira, Lott’s father, and the impish grin on his face while wearing what he calls his “little boy suit” foretells of the dark humor—and family dysfunction—that unfolds in the pages that follow. Near Ira stands a dark-haired little girl, a young Lott, her presence symbolically overshadowed by his outlandish appearance. Lott’s coming-of-age memoir recounts her growing-up years with her Jewish family in La Cresenta, California, and her lasting love for a sometimes charming, other times wildly inappropriate, and, as the years pass, tragically mentally ill father.
The only daughter in a family of five, a young Lott is “a tuning fork resonating to my father’s pitch.” She champions her father, no matter how zany his early antics get, which include exhibitionism; wearing drag to a Purim carnival (a Jewish holiday); pontificating to his young children about shtupping (sex); histrionic displays of hypochondria; obsessing about death; and struggling to get out of bed each morning to begin his work as an insurance agent, the family’s only source of income. Some days, because of his wife’s gentle prodding or coddling, the sort usually reserved for a sullen child, Ira gets the job done. On others, he doesn’t. Among Ira’s more disturbing neuroses, he insists on enemas for himself and his daughter, administered by his wife in each of their bedrooms. In one of but many examples of the tragicomedic nature of the memoir, Lott writes, “There was something vaguely vampirish about our nocturnal activities, something incestuous about fluid flowing from the conduit of my mother, first up my father’s ass, and then up my own.” The enemas soon turn into a nighttime ritual and a source of preoccupation for Lott, who develops her father’s hypochondria and obsessive thinking.
In addition to her dark humor, seductive and rhythmic prose is one of Lott’s strengths as a writer. For example, remembering a Friday night Sabbath, her father officiating, Lott writes:
All the energy in the atmosphere converged in the lush cadences of my father’s voice. He made love to each word, intoning, gesticulating, swaying forward and back. I slipped under its sweet seductive trance. By the time I heard him pronounce, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God,’ any distinction between him and the God he spoke for was lost.
Plenty of little girls view their fathers as gods and, as they grow up, come to recognize their fathers’ flawed and human hearts, but Lott’s blind allegiance to Ira starts to endanger her sanity.
Don’t Go Crazy Without Me is a study in fraught family dynamics and love that endures despite it all, with Lott a keen observer of human behavior and motivation. She understands that Ira favors her, too, much to the irritation of her mother, who views the relationship as Oedipal and withholds the affection Lott badly desires. Recalling the mornings her mother dropped her off for elementary school, Lott writes, “She kept trying to wean me, coaxing me to say goodbye and let go of her sooner, as if there were some virtue I could not perceive in my needing her less, in increasing the distance between us.” Many of Lott’s sentences open wide with meaning and double-entendre like this one does. Brother Paul allies with his mother, becoming the target of Ira’s ire. (Brother Ben, who doesn’t ally with either parent, appears to fare the best, mentally, as an adult). Where Lott’s mother is cold and distant, Ira is warm and always nearby, calling his daughter extraordinary and praising her “overactive imagination.”
The family shares deep affection for one another, yet disagreements routinely escalate into screaming, slapping, pushing, and crying—a mad-cap dynamic that is reminiscent of Augusten Burroughs’s memoir Running With Scissors, except told with a warmer narrative persona. Lott writes, “I always took my father’s side, and he always took mine. I needed a show of loyalty, a confirmation that we shared the same reality, even if no one in the family saw what we saw.” Whole chapters illustrate the reverberating effect Ira’s eccentricities and self-absorbed nature has on the family, but Lott also remembers the moments when he fathered her quietly and insightfully, as when he says about grief, “It’s okay to feel two things at the same time. You never have to feel bad just for being human.”
Unfortunately, a family death cuts the final cord tethering Ira to reality. As Ira’s mental health declines, he abandons his job all together, hallucinating or sleeping the day away on the prescription pills he’s become addicted to, threatening his family’s financial security. Through it all, Lott remains devoted, and so a compelling question drives the book’s narrative arc: Will Lott manage to disentangle herself from her father’s psychological embrace before she loses herself, too? Lott writes, “For good and bad, my father’s love—if you can call it that—knew no bounds.” A vivid, compelling, and highly provocative read, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me truly showcases the memoir as an art form. Dense scene after dense scene fill the pages. Lott’s pacing of information and big reveals feel spot-on. Because of masterful characterization and tender insight—especially within the chapters where the adult narrative voice enters—I grew to love the characters, even as I feared for Lott and her father’s increasingly erratic behavior.