Liz Reid’s childhood is a horror story. Her father, an alcoholic, spends more time drunk than sober, thinking nothing of getting behind the wheel, jeopardizing the lives of his two daughters. At home, he takes out his anger on Linda, his wife. Linda finally works up the courage to walk out, yet Liz’s life, and that of her younger sister Jaime will go from bad to worse. Linda marries Terrance, a sex offender. When the parole board rules that Terrance cannot live in a home with young children, Linda tells Liz she must leave. (Jaime has already gone back to live with her father).
As a novel, the story is shocking enough, more so when we learn that 80 percent of what happens in Hand Me Down is autobiographical. Author Melanie Thorne didn’t need to do research; she lived the life of a young teen who lost out to a sex offender, forced to bounce from one home to another. Hand Me Down celebrates the strength of the individual over adversity. We want to turn the pages to follow Liz’s journey. The novel is a must read for adolescents whose situations are similar to Liz’s, as well as for adults who work with young people. While the story is horrific in parts, Liz, like Melanie, ultimately triumphs, and that message is truly inspirational.
Even more remarkable than Melanie’s story is that she has begun to forgive her mother. “It was difficult; it was a process,” Melanie said during a phone interview from her home in California. “There had to be time for me to heal.” Writing the book allowed Melanie to look at the situation from her mother’s perspective. “I had to make the mother a sympathetic character, a complicated whole person. I tried to step back and figure out, based on her life and her history, what was going through her head. That allowed me to see her actions as something other than an attack on me.”
Melanie’s mother, Sue, and her sister, were very young when they lost their mother. Sue’s father remarried and was often absent from the home. “My mother had a very abusive childhood; their stepmother beat them,” Melanie said. “Her childhood traumas created a need to fix things and this codependency really showed with both my dad and my stepfather.” In the book, Linda first tries to fix her alcoholic husband and then Terrance, refusing at times to believe that he is once again exposing himself to women.
Sue has been supportive and even came to one of Melanie’s book readings. “She’s embarrassed and not super happy that this story is out in the world,” said Melanie. “But she knows that it’s my story; she knows that she made a mistake.” Sue divorced her sex offender husband several years ago.
Melanie chose to craft her story as a novel rather than a memoir. When she began writing, the controversy over James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was exploding, and Melanie knew she would be able to take more liberties with time, place, people, and events if she labeled the work as fiction. She was also influenced by her mentor, Pam Houston, one of her professors in a graduate program at the University of California at Davis, who often uses her life experiences as material for her novels.
Labels seem to make little difference to those who are deeply affected by Hand Me Down. Readers have praised Melanie’s courage and honesty. “It’s great to hear people say that the book made them think about their own childhood,” she said. One reader said the book encouraged a return to therapy to deal with issues that resulted from growing up in a dysfunctional family. “I don’t know if happy was the word, but the person was feeling good about finally dealing with some of those issues,” Melanie said. “That’s part of what I hoped would happen, that sharing this story and being so honest would encourage people to speak up about their own experiences.”
Like Liz in the book, Melanie as a teen was resilient and wise beyond her years.”I don’t want to sound too pretentious but yes, I was a pretty precocious child,” she said. “I had to be growing up. I think a lot of kids growing up in alcoholic families have to be aware of their surroundings all the time because it’s unsafe not to do so. I think I was generally more aware than kids my age.”
Melanie, like Liz, often functioned as the adult in the family, trying to keep other family members safe. “I think having a sister to look out for [made a difference],” she said. “I’m not sure I would have found that strength if not for that growing up. It was not only about protecting myself but about protecting my little sister. Trying to keep the people you love safe brings out that inner strength. Also I had this example from my parents of how I did not want my life to be. I really worked very hard to make my life something different from what I saw my parents living.”
Hand Me Down