I’m Down by Mishna Wolff

Friday, Aug 20, 2010

The publishers tout this book as a funny memoir about a white girl who is raised in a poor, predominately African-American inner-city by her divorced dad who acts like a black man. I thought I would love it since I was the kind of white girl raised in a predominantly affluent, white suburb who felt stifled by mainstream culture and fantasized about living in a more diverse world. But after reading it, I was just plain sad.

I don’t think this book is about racial differences as much as it’s about class inequities. And bad parenting. It would have worked for me if Wolff hadn’t tried to be so funny. Sure I laughed in a few parts of the book, but mostly I just felt sorry for the girl. Her narcissistic father neglects her unless he’s pushing her to excel in things he’s interested in, mainly athletics. Her African-American step-mother accuses her of being snotty and racist while calling her “Duck Butt” and buying McDonald’s for everyone but her. She’s treated like an outsider by both the poor, predominately African-American kids in her neighborhood and the rich, predominately white kids at her school for the gifted.

Her mom, the non-resident parent after the divorce, treats her a tad better than the other parents. Wolff would have picked to live with her mother after the divorce, “Not because I liked her better, but because I knew I was cool enough for Mom. And I felt that not being quite good enough for Dad might cause problems down the road—like I’d cramp his style and maybe he’d decide to leave me at a party.” So it’s agreed upon that Wolff and her sister will live with their father because, “Dad really wanted us with him. And Mom apparently had some ‘work’ to do on herself—which meant she needed to cut her hair and cry a lot. She started dating a Jewish guy in Mensa, who also drove a bus and had ‘depression’. And, since she worked full-time, and Dad had always taken care of us during the day, they decided Mom should be the weekend dad with the apartment.” But Wolff’s mother is too weak to confront her ex-husband about the home life he provides their daughters during the week.

There’s a scene at the beginning of the book where Wolff has learned the art of capping, also known as “playing the dozens,” to defend herself against the neighborhood bullies. While visiting her new-agey, Buddhist mom one weekend, Wolff tries to cap her. Wolff writes, “that was when Mom bent over, looked me right in the eye, and said, in a very sincere voice, ‘I really don’t like being capped on. It hurts my feelings.’ Hippies have a way of sucking the fun out of everything.” I’m with her mom. Call me an un-fun hippie, but I just don’t think abuse is funny.

Becky C.

Written by Becky C.

Fun fact: I like to read and write about things you're not supposed to talk about.