Dog Flowers is a relentlessly unsparing and depressing account of a dysfunctional family grappling with addiction, trauma, mental illness, and abuse. This memoir opens with Danielle Geller’s mothers’ death. Geller’s mother was homeless when she died of withdrawal from alcohol, and Geller is forced to return to Florida to sift through her mother’s possessions. Using her archivist skills she ends up reaching out to her mother’s side of the family, aside she’s been estranged from, and visits them in their home in the Navajo Nation, where she learns more about her mother’s history and her Navajo heritage.
Alongside these sections that follow Geller as an adult, there are chapters delving into her disrupted childhood, which often honed in on a particular episode.
After her parents, both addicts split up, Geller and her sister go on to stay with their father. Their father, who is white, is an alcoholic whose emotional abuse of his children goes on to become physical when he assaults Geller’s sister. Geller recounts with disturbing clarity his erratic behaviour, for example of the way he would harangue them, telling them the same tired stories from his own childhood and adulthood, fixating on the wrongdoings he’s been subjected to. Although it’s been years since I’ve shared a roof with my father, reading Dog Flowers was an uncomfortable reminder of just how overwhelming it can be to have (and live with) a parent with substance abuse issues. And boy, does Danielle Geller capture how devastating it is on a young person to be exposed to this kind of chaotic and vitriolic presence. It was distressing just how much of my father I recognised in Geller’s own one so reading these sections was by no means an easy activity. Geller and her sister eventually end up in the custody of their grandmother but things take a downward turn as Geller’s sister begins to ‘act out’.
Geller’s prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when discussing traumatic episodes. In many ways, this memoir reads like a long list of tragedies. Geller’s mother, father, and sister all struggle with addiction and mental illness. Geller is exposed from an early age to emotional, physical, and self-abuse. Neither of her parents is capable or willing to look after her and her sister, and their attempts at sobriety and lucidity are short-lived. If anything, their attempts at a ‘normal’, or at least ‘stable’, life just give Geller (and us the readers) false hopes as they inevitably fall off the wagon. Time and again Geller has to look after them, often with little choice on her part as they emotionally manipulate her into helping them out. All of this sadly hit too close to home. When I saw some reviewers expressing surprise or shock that Geller would not cut ties with her ‘toxic’ family, well, I can’t help but think that their family situation may not be as dysfunctional as Geller’s. There are people out there who are able to cut off ties with their abusive parents or siblings. But, more often than not, you are unable or unwilling to cut someone off. Especially if you start questioning whether many of their ‘vices’ stem from trauma or mental illness. And again, hope. You hope that they will get clean, get a steady job, or lead a ‘normal’ life. And, in Geller’s case, well, all of her closest relatives have struggled with addiction. Is she going to cut them all off?!
It was saddening to see that Geller’s relationship with her Navajo side of the family is far from idyllic or rosy. While her connection to her cousin struck me as moving, her relationship with her aunt was saddening indeed as she is revealed to be a woman who is full of anger and sadly seems to turn this anger towards her relatives.
There is a lot of pain in this memoir. Geller captures with gut-wrenching clarity the realities and aftermath of a childhood marred by neglect, abuse, addiction, and trauma. Geller’s forays into her own past are brutally honest and are not accompanied by ‘moral’ lessons or ‘wise’ insights into human nature. I appreciated Geller’s honest depiction of her family and, more importantly, herself.
While Dog Flowers deeply resonated with me, I did find its execution early on a bit clumsy. The author introduces too much too soon, and I wasn’t sure what had happened when. The ending too seemed a bit abrupt, and I would have appreciated more insight into Geller’s life (her friends, partners, work, etc..).
Nevertheless, I found this a powerful and piercing read. It is by no means an easy read and I did find much of what Geller recounted to be extremely distressing, then again, I was also able to relate to many of her experiences. I appreciated that she neither villainizes nor condone her parents nor her sister and that in delving into her past she tries to understand their motivations or states of mind, even if ultimately, much about their identities remains a mystery or incomprehensible to her.
Geller’s memoir is a haunting account of a family mired in pain. If you are looking for a challenging read, well, buckle up because Dog Flowers is it. Geller’s portrayal of her family disrupts the myth of the happy family and the widely held belief that parents love their children. While there is love in this memoir it is often obfuscated by years of self-destructing behaviour and or by hatred, sadness, and weakness.
my rating: ★★★½