Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Strength from Hardship

Throughout the memoir, Mom and Dad claim that their hands-off parenting style will contribute to the ultimate betterment of their children because danger and hardship build character and resilience. While nothing can justify their parents’ neglect, the children’s hard fight for survival doubtlessly helps them later in life, making it frustratingly difficult to entirely dismiss Mom and Dad’s assertion. We see this philosophy play out when Dad throws Jeannette in the Hot Pot over and over until she figures out how to swim. While Jeannette reacts with fear and anger immediately after this swimming lesson, Dad points out that she did, in fact, learn how to swim, implying that a positive result justifies the short-term trauma. Ultimately, the suffering caused by their parents’ recklessness produces the very qualities Jeannette and Lori need to move to New York City and create thriving careers out of nothing. For example, Jeannette’s experiences fighting bullies on the streets of Welch prepare her to face muggers in the South Bronx. John’s admiration of Jeannette’s scar also evokes this philosophy because he believes that this physical proof of suffering signifies her strength. In this way, the hardship Jeannette went through also helps her find love and acceptance.

Read more about the theme of gaining strength through hardship in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

Compassion versus Boundaries

According to Mom’s philosophy, extending compassion to a person who has been through trauma requires allowing them to take their anger out on you without consequence. As it relates to her marriage, Mom’s her way of showing compassionate acceptance of Dad’s alcoholism means accepting the life of poverty, instability, physical danger, and starvation he inflicts upon the family. Mom encourages similar behavior when she reminds Jeannette that Billy Deel comes from a broken home and deserves kindness. Accordingly, Jeannette tries to show compassion by accepting Billy’s affection, which leads to him shooting a BB gun at her and her siblings. Jeannette begins to reject this conditioning when she refuses to forgive Erma for her racist opinions and abuse. When Uncle Stanley molests Jeannette, she doesn’t take Mom’s advice to allow his attacks simply because he’s lonely, but prioritizes her safety and avoids him. By the end of the memoir, Jeannette has learned to extend empathy without putting herself in danger, as evidenced by her continued relationship with her parents. While she continues to see them, she doesn’t allow them to live with her, both accepting them for who they are and protecting herself.


Jeannette explores the way abusive relationships create a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse across generations. For example, Mom points out that many of the frightening people they meet, such as Billy Deel, come from broken households and abusive situations, meaning that their bad home lives contributed to their violent characters. Dad’s family in particular demonstrates the way abuse gets passed on through generations. Erma drinks constantly, suggesting that alcoholism runs in the family. When Dad takes Erma’s side after she molests Brian, the children deduce that Erma likely sexually abused Dad. Uncle Stanley also demonstrates sexually predatory behavior, implying that he also may have been a victim. However, Mom reveals that the chain of abuse did not begin with Erma. Orphaned as a young child, Erma lived with a string of aunt and uncles who mistreated her for the rest of her childhood, and she took her pent-up rage out on her own children. This tragic pattern of abusers begetting abusers demonstrates the cyclical nature of abuse. When Jeannette and Lori protect Brian from Erma and refuse to ignore what happened, they offer us hope that the cycle can be broken.

Read more about generational trauma in August Wilson’s Fences.