Some memoirs recount riveting stories. Others are notable for their masterful storytelling. Debora Harding’s Dancing With the Octopus: A Memoir of a Crime accomplishes both. She has not one but two mesmerizing stories to tell, and the emotional honesty of her razor-sharp prose will hook readers on page one.
In 1978, when Harding was 14, she was abducted at knifepoint from her church parking lot in Omaha, Nebraska, raped, held for ransom and left to die during an ice storm. The young teenager displayed astonishing resilience in the face of such a brutal assault. Ironically, her calm, measured reaction may have been bolstered by the ongoing physical and emotional abuse she and her sisters endured at home from their mother. Harding had already developed strong survival instincts in the face of violence.
Decades after her assault, Harding decided to visit the prison where her attacker, Charles Goodwin, a repeat violent offender, was incarcerated. “I wanted to rid my brain of the image of that ski mask and see the human with the eyes,” she writes. In the years leading up to this face-to-face moment, she also tried to reconcile her relationship with her parents—her own forgiving, intellectual nature aided by a supportive husband, therapists and medicine. Ultimately, however, “trying to emotionally connect with Mom . . . was like trying to fix a broken cup with an empty glue stick.” Meanwhile, she wrestled with how much she adored her father but couldn’t ignore the fact that he had buried his head in the sand while his wife abused Harding and her siblings.
With remarkable perception, Dancing With the Octopus shows how, day by day, year by year, both her criminal assault and family dysfunction left Harding with a lifetime of consequences, including seizures, PTSD and depression. One of the book’s great strengths is how artfully Harding lays out the details of her multifaceted story, weaving in and out of time rather than relying on a chronological timetable.
Dancing With the Octopus begs to be compared to other exemplary bad-mother books, such as Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. It’s completely different from Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance but is equally compelling. Ultimately, though, Harding’s memoir is unique and unforgettable, offering a multitude of insights that are as harrowing as they are uplifting and wise.