House Rules: A Memoir

House Rules: A Memoir

3.7 27
by Rachel Sontag
     
 

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A compelling, at times horrifying work that is impossible to put down, House Rules will stand beside Running With Scissors and The Glass Castle as a memoir that cracks open the shell of a desperately dysfunctional family with impressive grace and humour.

Rachel Sontag grew up the daughter of a well-liked doctor in an upper middle class suburb

Overview

A compelling, at times horrifying work that is impossible to put down, House Rules will stand beside Running With Scissors and The Glass Castle as a memoir that cracks open the shell of a desperately dysfunctional family with impressive grace and humour.

Rachel Sontag grew up the daughter of a well-liked doctor in an upper middle class suburb of Chicago. The view from outside couldn’t have been more perfect. But within the walls of the family home, Rachel’s life was controlled and indeed terrorized by her father’s serious depression. In prose that is both precise and rich, Rachel’s childhood experience unfolds in a chronological recounting that shows how her father became more and more disturbed as Rachel grew up.

A visceral and wrenching exploration of the impact of a damaged psyche on those nearest to him, House Rules will keep you reading even when you most wish you could look away.

In the middle of the night, Dad sent Mom to wake me. In my pajamas, I sat across from them in the living room.

I was sure Grandma had died and I remember deciding to stay strong when Dad told me.

“What did you say to her?” he asked. His elbows rested in his lap.

“What do you mean?”

“You spent a good half hour alone in that hospital room. What did you talk about?”

“I don’t know, Dad”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? You know. You know exactly what you talked to her about.”

“You talked about me, Rachel.”

“No. I didn’t.”

“To my own mother?”

. . . .

I wondered how he’d been with Mom, how she’d missed the signs. He couldn’t have just turned crazy all of a sudden. I wondered if his own father had infected him with anger. But mostly, I wanted to know what he saw in me that caused him to break up inside. Was it in my being born or in my growing up?
—from House Rules

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Sontag's lean writing captures the tension — the feeling of family as prison. Each time an outside observer recognizes her father's manipulative cruelty, the reader feels a little surge of hope. Get out of there, Rachel! Get out!" —Los Angeles Times

"As Sontag makes clear in her searing memoir, emotional abuse can be as devastating, as cruel, as the most severe physical and sexual maltreatment....What is remarkable and inspiring is that Sontag emerged from the situation a stronger person." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Sontag's is a brave account, not only of what it's like to take the brunt of an abusive parent's wrath, but of what it means to have the courage to leave." —Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly

Sontag, a doctor's daughter, grew up in a family that seemed every bit the normal, suburban ideal. She and her sister were raised to value book smarts as well as worldly experience. What those outside of the family didn't know was that the reason Sontag was so accomplished and committed to her extracurricular activities was that she would've done anything to get away from her father, Stephen. By enforcing a peculiar system of rules and consequences, he micromanaged every moment of her life, tape-recording her conversations, measuring the length of her fingernails and locking all the phones in a safe when he left the house. When Sontag broke the rules, regardless of circumstance, he would verbally abuse her for hours, dictating letters of apology from her to him ("I am a selfish, rotten, worthless brat," etc.). Sontag's mother, Ellen, reneged on plans to divorce him for years, perhaps partly because Stephen prescribed her into complacency with lithium. In adulthood, Sontag found herself caught in self-defeating patterns that smacked of her father's thrall. Struggling to break free, she even resorted to homelessness before finally severing her relationship with Stephen. Sontag's is a brave account, not only of what it's like to take the brunt of an abusive parent's wrath, but of what it means to have the courage to leave. (Apr.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Self-absorbed debut memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family ruled by a father adept at inflicting psychological pain. Sontag presents this as a book on family dynamics, but its scope is actually much narrower. She focuses primarily on the controlling behavior of her father, a physician in a VA hospital who set and enforced his own unreasonable rules for what the author, her mother and sometimes her younger sister could and could not say and do. His wife, a school social worker, was singularly unable or unwilling to protect her daughters or herself from his bizarre strictures and harsh, tormenting harangues. In Sontag's sharply reconstructed scenes, her father comes across as a name-calling monster, her mother as a cringing wimp. There was no physical abuse (unless being locked out of the house in winter counts), but at one point during her high-school years, the department of social services apparently recognized the psychological harm being done to Sontag and temporarily removed her from the family home. Her weak, fearful mother promised to get a divorce, but it became clear that she never would, that her ties with her husband were stronger than those with her children. When the author finally left home, her struggle to become independent became arduous. Family relations were strained, lies seemed necessary, apologies and reconciliations were not forthcoming. In the final chapters, almost as an afterthought, Sontag briefly explores her relationship with her younger sister, whom their father tended to ignore as they were growing up. A depressing account, lacking the warmth and power of Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle (2005), to which it will inevitably be compared. Agent:Amanda Urban/ICM
Gotham
“[Sontag’s] story shows just how resilient the human spirit can be.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“As Rachel Sontag makes clear in her searing memoir, “House Rules,” emotional abuse can be as devastating, as cruel, as the most severe physical and sexual maltreatment….What is remarkable and inspiring is that Sontag emerged from the situation a stronger person.”
Los Angeles Times
“Sontag’s lean writing captures the tension -- the feeling of family as prison. Each time an outside observer recognizes her father’s manipulative cruelty, the reader feels a little surge of hope. Get out of there, Rachel! Get out!”
Phillip Lopate
“As riveting, passionate and powerful a memoir as any I have read in recent years, it is also noteworthy for the balance and scrupulous self-scrutiny the writer brings to her younger self. The result--harrowing as the story may be--is a literary delight.”
Dani Shapiro
“In this brave, hard-won, and gorgeously written memoir, Rachel Sontag lays out the story of her family in prose as tautly strung and delicate as a high-wire. . . . A remarkable book.”
Danielle Trussoni
“...a fresh and utterly engrossing memoir...a father/daughter story full of candor, truth, betrayal and, ultimately, love.”
Alicia Erian
“Sontag recollects in vivid detail what it is to die a slow emotional death then somehow manage to resuscitate herself.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385664752
Publisher:
Doubleday Canada
Publication date:
03/24/2009
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
5.57(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.71(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

There was a time before. There is always a time before. It was a time we can all look back on with a certain nostalgic affection. Not because things were easy, but because we all knew our place in relation to Dad.

It was before I turned ten. Jenny was seven. We slept in the same bed. We bathed together. Dad referred to us as "the children," and because we were "the children," because there was nothing distinguishing us from each other, we fought on the same team.

Dad appeared to us as stubborn and erratic, but he was our dad and each of us was desperately trying to feel our way to his heart. Mom was her own person. She had a laugh that filled a room. She set up watercolor paints on the kitchen table, clay on the floor, mixed newspaper with water and paste so we could make papier-mâché masks.

We lived in a house with a yard. We had a dog. We traveled frequently. We saw our parents above us, our protectors, the people who turned our lights on in the morning and off again at night so we could sleep. Jenny and I hurt to hear them fighting, to think there might be something wrong with the foundation upon which we built our images. It was normal stuff that concerned us all back then. But things were beginning to change. Mom was losing her footing.

When I was eleven and Jenny was eight, we attempted to smuggle our Barbie dolls across the Mexican border, to vacation with us in Cancún, where they could sunbathe and swim in the bathtub.

Jenny's Barbies were in better condition. She didn't stick their heads in bowls of blue food coloring like I did. She didn't chew theirfeet off. We married some, divorced others, baptized their babies and threw bat mitzvahs. We traded their clothing and the high-heeled plastic shoes that never quite fit their overly arched feet. We pulled their arms off and taped them back on with Dad's duct tape. We broke their legs so we could build wheelchairs. We gave them names that we'd wanted for ourselves: Brigitte, Kimberly, Tina.

The dolls got as far as O'Hare. In the baggage-check line, Dad caught sight of the circular cookie tin under Jenny's arm. His face soured.

"Ellen. What's in the tin?"

Mom looked at it as if it was an alien object she'd never seen before.

We were standing behind a family of four with a boy and a girl around our age. Bratty-looking, I thought. The girl's fingers were wrapped around the neck of a pink stuffed animal. The boy wore a Hard Rock Cafe shirt that came down to his knees. The dad toted golf clubs. The mom wore heels.

The ticket agent motioned us toward the counter. "How y'all doing?" she asked. No one answered.

"How many bags y'all checking today?" she asked, smiling at Dad.

I watched her thin, frosted lips move automatically. Not very good at reading people, I decided. She didn't seem to realize that something was the matter.

"Sir, how many bags y'all have?"

Probably she wasn't from the South but had flown there several times and enjoyed the sound of the accent.

Dad gestured for the ticket agent to hold on as he waved the three of us out of line. We moved off to the side. Mom stood with her mouth agape, hands on her hips.

Dad examined her as if she were a piece of art he found only slightly interesting.

"What's in the tin, Ellen?"

Mom fumbled with her purse.

The next family stepped up. Kids with yellow headphones stuck on their ears. "The girls' stuff," Mom said.

"Stuff?" he said. "What kind of stuff?"

Jenny and I knew when it was going to get bad. We could always feel it. Dad was about to launch an attack that Mom could not deflect, and we waited, anxious and excited that it was Mom he was mad at and not us.

"What's in the tin?" he asked.

Mom looked hard at it, as if meditating on the matter could turn the dolls into a stack of National Geographic magazines.

"Barbies," Mom said.

"Barbies?" Dad took a step back. "Are you kidding me, Ellen?"

His face went white. His lips curled upward, and if one didn't know his many degrees of anger, it would be easy to mistake his face for amused, which he was not.

The ticket agent looked at us. "Sir, you guys ready for check-in?"

"No," Dad said.

We each took a few more steps away from the counter. Jenny sat down on her duffel.

"I can't believe you've done this. We've talked about this, Ellen."

His words hung heavy in the air, like the powerful stench of a skunk's spray.

Mom dropped her head, defeated, as if she, too, could not believe what she'd done.

No one was actually sure what she'd done, but Dad wasn't going to let it go. Whatever storm was rolling in would knock out at least the next two days of our vacation.

"Steve, this is ridiculous," Mom said.

Ridiculous was something Mom often accused Dad of being, but it was exactly the ridiculousness that kept Mom intrinsically connected to Dad. It made her, momentarily, the object of his attention, albeit through anger, at a time when he was losing interest in her. She got used to Dad's ridiculousness. This was just the way her husband was. And we got used to Dad pulling us out of lines and making scenes.

"Jenny? Rachel? Which one of you couldn't leave the house without your dolls?"

We got nervous. We looked at each other, silently blamed the other.

"We're locking them up," he said, staring at the tin.

"Steve, it's going to cost a lot more money to lock the dolls up at the airport for ten days."

"I don't care. It's the principle."

He looked at his watch and raised his eyebrows. "We've got half an hour. You better find a place to lock those things up."

Meet the Author

Rachel Sontag was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois. She received her MFA in creative writing from The New School. She lives in New York City. This is her first book.

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House Rules 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very depressing.What I learned through reading this book: I couldn't imagine having a father like that. I like more uplifting stories. I can't really write anything positive about it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
samibawami More than 1 year ago
good book i kiked it but parts of it were eh
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jhoopstar1221 More than 1 year ago
this book was hard to get through. i felt bad for the situations the author had to go through with her father however i didnt see where she was going the whole book. the ending didnt satisfy me enough. but this is her first book so i will give her a little credit.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found the book easy reading and fairly engrossing. I got a little weary towards the end with the author trying to deal with her mother and father issues, but overall it was a good book and would recommend to others. I hope she's in therapy. With parents like that, she'll need it for the rest of her life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story is heartbreaking and emotionally raw. The author's childhood was filled with unreachable parental expectations that, while extreme, I think many of us can relate to. Her writing style is free-flowing and hooks the reader from the first page. I highly recommend 'House Rules' for it's content and for the wonderful way in which the story is written. As with the other reviewers, I could not put this book down and rooted for the author in her journey of self-discovery.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a haunting tale, yet the manner in which Sontag tells her story brings the reader close and personal. It compels the reader to make it through each chapter, and become an actor in Sontag¿s life through the witnessing of her story. Just as the author managed to temper the horror of her circumstances through humor, so too does the reader ¿ and the hilarity that it evokes is as fierce at times as the anger. This makes the book enlivening even in its most tragic moments. Her account of her life is unique in its purity and honesty - not only with the reader, but with herself. Sontag beautifully manages the delicate balance between concrete, visceral descriptions and reflective analysis on her situation. For those who can identify closely with the harsh details of her life, it brings on a difficult yet cathartic moment of truth. For everyone else, it remains entirely relevant in its inspiring message of strength and bravery in the face of mistreatment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Like many others who have reviewed here, I couldn't put this book down. A beautifully written account of one family's hidden darkness that manages to transcend into the universal by virtue of the author's vivid descriptions and emotional honesty. This isn't a book that looks to place blame or analyze the actions of the people in it until they fit into a neat little box -- it's a living, breathing account of what it means not only to survive, but to live, with grace and tenacity. Ms. Sontag's memoir, while at times painful to read, is also one full of humor and hope. I recommend this book to everyone!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sontag takes us on a sometimes brutally painful, sometimes awe-inspiring journey of psychological abuse, perseverance and finally self-acceptance and reliance. In that journey we see an uncanny ability of the author to weather the storm of her parents mental problems, to use (most hysterically) the use of humor to deflect the pain of her parents attacks and dysfunction, and finally to find honesty as the real means to move on. Sontag never takes the role of a victim in a family full of victims and defies her father¿s insults and her mother¿s ineptitude to become a success despite them. She also clearly illustrates the complexity of her relationship with her parents and spends much time talking about instances of joy and accomplishment where she felt close to her father and sought out his approval. The pain in this seesaw of emotions is highly palpable to the reader. The book is written simply and takes you right into the author's life without pretexts or dogma. A highly recommended read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm not normally a reader of memoirs but a friend gave me this book and I have to say that once I started, it was very hard to put down. With grace, humor and courage the author vividly sweeps you up and into her rather harrowing and heartbreaking childhood. I found it to be moving and inspiring.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought the book was incredible. It was such an intament picture into the life of a family where seemingly everything was normal. I think most people can relate to one degree or another how dysfunctional family interaction can be. She really brings the characters to life. Also the way it is written is very free flowing and easy to read. I really love this author and can't wait for what she does next. A real joy! Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully written. You really are transported into the mind of the author. Tragic yet beautiful,and ultimately uplifting. I highly recommend this read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a book I could not put down till I was finished with it. Reading Rachel's account makes you feel as though you have known her all your life. Her story is intense and reflects the complicated relationship between father and daughter. My heart was striving with her and her strength is truly encouragement to others. Thank you, Rachel, for sharing the deepest part of yourself with the world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. I could not put it down. Im sure come years end, it will populate many best of 2008. So far it is on the top of my 2008 and would have made my 2007 list as well. Its a moving account of one young lady's childhood, and how she overcomes what would cripple most of us. I wanted to re read it as soon as I was done. I agree with the previous poster, I could not put it down. I would recommend everyone to pick up the book read it. Sontag writes just enough never filling any pages with unwanted fluff, but enough of the details to make you feel like you are there living with it with her. Again this is one of the top books I have read in the last year.