Reviewed by Meghan Phillips
In the acknowledgements of her memoir, Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home (Skyhorse Publishing, April 2018), Lara Lillibridge notes that she has changed names of people appearing in her book, and that she’s also left people out as a means of protecting their privacy. She assures her readers, some of which are presumably the friends and family members left out of her story, that the absence of these people “is not meant to deny their importance in [her] life, but an attempt to tell a complicated story as simply as possible.”
Complicated is an apt description of the family relationships that Lillibridge chronicles in her book. She grows up with a feminist mother who doesn’t want her to play with Barbies and who takes the family camping at a lake where nudity is the norm. Lillibridge and her brother fly as unaccompanied minors the 4,000 miles from New York to Alaska to their father’s rustic homestead, where they get locked into their cabin at night with a bag of granola and a bucket to pee in. As she grows, she learns to navigate her stepmother’s mental illness and her father’s oversexualized behavior, as well as her own relationships with friends and lovers. As Lillibridge’s memoir unfolds, the fact that she and her brother grew up with same-sex parents might be the least complicated element of her story.
The memoir is structured chronologically, with sections for the early years, elementary school, middle school, high school, and college and beyond. Lillibridge uses the transitions from one level of school to another to mark her own transitions as a young girl, to a teenager, to a grown woman. Most chapters are very short—most only a few pages—and sprinkled throughout are sections called “Notes from the Fourth Wall,” in which the author reflects on major events in books. The chapter length and the shifts to the more lyrical style of the “Notes” sections did make it challenging to get into the flow of the book at first.
Another stylistic element of the memoir that took a little time to adjust to is, throughout the book, Lillibridge writes about herself in the third person, always calling herself “Girl.” Close family members have similar identifiers—Mother, Stepmother, Father, Brother. For example, early on, Lillibridge reflects, “Girl knew she needed to love Mother less, so she didn’t devour both of them.” This felt a little strange at first, especially since friends and even other family members are identified by their names, but as the book continues, Lillibridge’s naming conventions actually make it clear who is central to the story and who might just be passing through.
Though she doesn’t shy away from detailing her difficult relationship with all of her parents, she also writes about the love and caring that her mother and stepmother show her. It’s this mix of the negative and the positive, the times of great conflict and the times of great joy, that ultimately make Girlish such a memorable read. Lillibridge’s family may not look like every reader’s family, but her story has something that every reader can relate to.[boxer set=”phillips”]