An Unsparing Memoir of Hardship Transmuted Into Possibility

WOMEN WE BURIED, WOMEN WE BURNED: A Memoir, by Rachel Louise Snyder

Before Rachel Louise Snyder settled on the subject of her previous book, “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us” (2019), she says she believed “all the common assumptions” about domestic violence: that such harm was private, separable from the harm done to strangers; that shelters usually offered an adequate solution for victims; and that if the brutality became unbearable, a victim could just leave.

After all, Snyder had left. As she recalls in her new memoir, “Women We Buried, Women We Burned,” she was 16 when her father and stepmother lined up four suitcases by the front door and informed Snyder, her older brother and her two older stepsiblings that they were no longer welcome in their suburban Chicago home. For half a dozen years in the 1980s, Snyder and her siblings had been expected to submit to a strict evangelical upbringing on pain of physical punishment. Discipline involved long conversations and lectures on proper behavior, as her father read passages from the Bible. Then the children would assume their positions, leaning over and waiting for the hard smack of the paddle, as if they were objects on “an assembly line.”

Getting kicked out brought Snyder a reprieve while also introducing new troubles. She remembers “careening between terror and elation.” She had already been expelled from the high school she had barely attended, obtaining a G.P.A. of 0.467. What followed were years when she slept on couches and in her car while working multiple jobs, a couple of them at the same time. Her memoir recounts a premature coming-of-age, when necessity forced her to gain independence while knowing nothing about actual freedom.

She would eventually get her G.E.D., go to college and then to graduate school; a generous uncle helped her spend a semester at sea, where she could see that the world was much bigger than the confines of an evangelical childhood. For a stretch of six years she was a journalist based in Cambodia. She fell in love and had a daughter while living abroad, finding support in an intentional family of friends she has known now for 30 years.

This is in many ways an inspirational book, but I wouldn’t call it a comforting one. Snyder would never succumb to the pretty idea that suffering makes a person stronger. What she does describe — vividly and powerfully — is how, instead of responding to relentless hardship by building a protective carapace against the world, she was determined to open herself up to possibility. As a journalist, she wrote about atrocities and disasters, refugees and child brides: “Slowly, I was learning of the bottomless capacity for both human cruelty and human survival.” She wanted to understand what people do in order to get by.

Her memoir is bookended by death — and also by life, since Snyder observes the world with both an unsparing eye and a generous spirit. Losing her mother is the event she remembers as setting a long catastrophe in motion. Her mother was beautiful, sophisticated, loving and Jewish; she died of breast cancer when Rachel was 8, after which all the bad things — her father’s remarriage; his rigid evangelicalism; the routine and ritualized violence — began.

Almost four decades later, Snyder’s stepmother, Barbara, was dying of colorectal cancer. “I’m sorry it’s happening to both of you again,” she said to Snyder and her father. Snyder was moved and struck by this. “What kind of grace was it to have someone apologize for her possible death?”

By that time, Snyder had reconciled with her father and Barbara, deciding not to foreclose the possibility of her daughter having a relationship with them. Although the reconciliation was real, it wasn’t the same as exoneration. “I want to say that my parents did the best they could under the circumstances and with the resources they had,” Snyder writes. “But I don’t think this is true. I don’t think they did their best.”

Still, she understands that her love for her daughter entails relinquishing some control. “Didn’t love ultimately mean you let go, let a person decide for herself, even if you disagreed?” Snyder writes this in a passage about how fearful and controlling her father was. But over time she has learned to see him whole — evidence that is humanizing, even if it isn’t exculpatory. Her father “was authoritarian and loving, inflexible and hilarious,” she writes. “Far from being paradoxical, I eventually understood that we all embody these extremes.”

Instead of getting trapped in the familiar impasse of either/or, Snyder thinks in terms of ands. This expansiveness is of a piece with her writing on domestic violence, which points out how the tendency to reach for simplistic binaries — punishment versus rehabilitation; mental health treatment versus gun laws — ends up endangering victims. Addressing a problem that is so tangled and entrenched requires more than the easy presumption that a single solution (that happens to dovetail with one’s political preferences) is obviously the right one, to the exclusion of others. As Snyder put it in a 2022 essay, “We need to have not merely one answer but many.”

Her memoir can be read as the story of how she came to a parallel realization in her own life. As Snyder tended to her dying stepmother, she learned that Barbara’s first husband had abused her. “My father, in comparison, was saintly,” Snyder writes. She witnesses up close her father’s endless patience with Barbara’s needs, how “exhaustive” he is “in his care.” But he is also somebody who subscribes to asinine (and dangerous) ideas about medicine, insisting that Barbara be “treated” by an “alternative oncologist” (a former pediatrician with multiple malpractice suits on his record) and sneaking vitamin C and sugar water into her IV line.

All of this is hard to reconcile, but Snyder’s memoir shows how one might — must — live amid multiple truths. During her time in Phnom Penh, she lived not far from Tuol Sleng, the horrific prison at the center of the Cambodian genocide. During the day, tourists visited the prison’s museum. At night, the place turned into a parking garage. “There was the horror and the memory, there were the ghosts and the darkness,” she says, “but there was also the absolute utilitarian need to go on.”

WOMEN WE BURIED, WOMEN WE BURNED: A Memoir | By Rachel Louise Snyder | Illustrated | 256 pp. | Bloomsbury Publishing | $29

Jennifer Szalai is the nonfiction book critic for The Times. @jenszalai

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