The memoir genre is flush with inspiring stories about children who overcame horrific abuse to become healthy, functioning adults. If Stephanie Thornton Plymale’s American Daughter were merely that type of memoir, it would still be impressive. Plymale spent her childhood fending for herself as one of five kids raised by a mentally ill and drug-addicted mother. At times, the children slept in a car and scavenged for their own food; other times they were wards of the state.
However, the memoir Plymale has written supersedes the journey of perseverance with an investigation into her family’s fascinating but tragic past. When Plymale’s mother announced that she was dying of lung cancer, the author decided to learn more about her family history while she still could. For starters, she had no idea who her father was. Her mom often claimed that she was related to George Washington—which everyone dismissed as either a delusion or an outright lie. And when ill, her mom had often taken on alternate personalities, including a sad 11-year-old girl who was always afraid of getting pregnant. What, Plymale had long wondered, was that really about?
The family history that Plymale discovers is wilder than anyone could have guessed. Readers will find themselves recalibrating their judgments about villains and victims and questioning how one family could fall so far down through the cracks. The title American Daughter is a reference both to the author’s determination to survive and succeed and to America’s failing social systems, like mental healthcare, child protective services and the justice system.
Tough topics like sexual abuse, kidnapping and miscarriage make this a heavy read at times. But for anyone looking for a moving tale of finding a way to give the love we don’t receive, American Daughter will resonate.