The memoir opens with a scene from Jeannette’s adulthood in New York City, rather than with her first memory. What effect does this structure have on the narrative? What effect does this have on your interpretations of the characters?
The opening scene removes some of the tension from the memoir by promising a somewhat happy ending for Jeannette. While we read about Jeannette’s turbulent and impoverished childhood, we don’t have to wonder whether or not these experiences will stunt her later in life. We know, from the beginning, that Jeannette will eventually live in a nice apartment in New York City and have enough money to help Mom and Dad. By removing the question of her ultimate comfort and safety, Jeannette allows the memoir to focus on the family’s interpersonal dynamics, how their relationships changed over time, and how these changes led to the family living such vastly different lives in New York City. Furthermore, Jeannette’s conversation with Mom in the restaurant, however frustrating, casts Mom in a somewhat sympathetic light. No matter how egregious Mom’s negligence becomes, we read each scene with the image of her picking through the dumpster.
After Erma molests Brian, Lori and Jeannette confront and physically attack Erma. What is the significance of this event?
When Jeannette and Lori attack Erma for molesting Brian, they reveal both a source of their generational trauma and the limits to their parents’ protection. In their defense of Brian, Jeannette and Lori make use of the lessons their parents taught them. Jeannette calls Erma a pervert, evoking Dad’s “Pervert Hunting” expedition from Phoenix, and identifying her as a threat. She and Lori respond to Erma’s threat with aggression, showing Erma they’re not afraid, exactly as Dad always taught them to do in the face of a predator. By both taking Erma’s side and condemning his children for following his teachings, Dad reveals himself to be a hypocrite. Dad clearly has not grown past his trauma, as evidenced by his unwillingness to listen to Jeannette’s explanations and by blaming Brian’s weakness. Jeannette notes that Dad’s trauma makes his behavior make sense, but at Lori’s suggestion she drops the subject from her mind. Her willingness not to explore further or talk to Dad demonstrates a rift between them, meaning that she realizes she cannot rely on him to protect the family from Erma.
What is the significance of Mom and Dad’s home with the squatters on the Lower East Side of Manhattan?
Jeannette’s visit to her parents’ apartment causes her to reassess what home means to her. When she first visits Mom and Dad in their squatters’ apartment, she finds a building filled with other people who have lived according to extreme, nonconformist values, often running from authority and structure. These people are kindred spirits to Mom and Dad and embrace them in their community. Jeannette then realizes that Mom and Dad have found their true home in a way that she has not. Though she has in many ways established the comfortable, structured life she always wanted, it doesn’t yet provide her with the sense of belonging that Mom and Dad have found as squatters. When she moves into her boyfriend Eric’s apartment, she has to remind herself she belongs there because she finds the opulence overwhelming. She often lies to the people she meets at parties about her upbringing because she fears their disdain if they knew the truth. Mom and Dad’s apartment demonstrates to Jeannette that home involves not just stability but also an honest acceptance of who you are.