Monday, December 05, 2011

Grip, A Memoir of Fierce Attractions by Nina Hamberg

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 288 pages
• Publisher: Route One Press, 2011
• Price: $12.50
• ISBN-10: 0982754701
• ISBN-13: 978-0982754702

When I received an advanced reader copy of Grip for review, I anticipated a memoir about a woman’s survival of abuse. With so many women experiencing abusive relationships (one out of three is the last statistic I’ve heard, and I expect that is on the low side), we sorely need many more such stories of how girls and women cope and, hopefully, survive and thrive later in their lives.

Grip has such moments to set the background. There is the abuse from two very self-centered parents, the father being physically abusive by shoving and hitting, the mother being emotionally withdrawn (as many women are who have abusive partners), a brother who just seems cold. And, there is an attempted rape by a “peeping tom,” leaving the narrator scarred physically by the man’s knife, but emotionally by the violation of her privacy, her body, her trust. Law enforcement officers add to that abuse when they can’t be bothered to take such violence against women seriously. They shrug off the incident in a gratingly insulting manner. The would-be rapist is never caught. The setting is rich with potential to tell this story.

A very long string of abusive relationships follows in the narrator’s life. She chooses one partner after another that treats her badly, cheats on her, uses her and generally treats her with utmost disrespect.

I should be feeling pretty sympathetic by now, right? After all, I myself fall into the statistic of the one out of three, and I know what it means to undergo variations of at least some of the narrator’s experiences. I also understand that many of those who are abused become the next generation of abusers, as inexplicable as that seems on the surface. Women who are abused have a way of being drawn to abusive men, as if following a pattern until they have whatever is roiling inside them worked out, allowing them to break free at last.

The narrator does show many of these typical behaviors. She can be emotionally stunted at moments, at others tosses her heart out with such abandon and stunning trust that it is bound to end badly. Indeed, the book as a whole tends more toward being a story of her sexual conquests and misadventures, giving credence to the theory that those who suffer abuse lose so much self-esteem that they then allow themselves to be treated like crap by anyone who crosses their path, and nowhere more than in the bedroom.

Yet I felt no empathy. The narrator’s actions were often outrageous, but what left me cold was her seeming lack of introspection, making any connection to the events of her childhood to her present actions or drawing any conclusions from them in retrospect. I saw no growth. Her fantasies center on being utterly submissive, even repeatedly releasing her would-be rapist to keep on doing what he did to her. In college, she calls herself a feminist, yet seems oblivious to her requirement of the validation of a man at every turn.

All of which could be typical behavior for a survivor, yet the narrator never quite seems to make that vital connection. When she enrolls in a class for filmmaking, she is angered by the pornographic and demeaning films of her male peers, sanctioned and even encouraged by the male professor. Yet the film she produces is equally outrageous, with women pondering the violent deaths of men. Rather than embracing the power of a woman, she becomes one of those so-called feminists who merely emulate men and try to one-up them in their bad behavior. Never is that connection made that she is behaving no differently than the boys.

Her sexual escapades are no different. She claims to be a free and modern woman, enjoying meaningless romps with men she does not know—even as she wears romantic clothing, admittedly “plays the part of an actor” in bed, and wonders why she can’t seem to find her “soul mate.” Her response is to become submissive as soon as she does catch a partner, anything to please, to allow herself to be used, even her wallet to be depleted—to the point of bailing out a boyfriend from jail that had been arrested for attempting rape. She seems to realize her betrayal against her gender in doing so, calling it “massive,” yet bails him out and continues to support him anyway.

As I read, I kept waiting for the narrator to have her a-ha moment. She mistreats her dogs, ending in the neglect and sometimes painful deaths of her pets. She allows herself to get screwed in the back of a car in daylight on a residential street with a little boy watching in amazement. She gets a job as a counselor for at-risk youth, telling lies about her qualifications to get the job, and treats the job with absolute disregard for the vulnerability of such youth, at that moment when they might yet be rehabilitated before becoming career criminals. She hits one of the boys across the face, “open handed, hard,” and doesn’t seem at all to care about the tremendous responsibility she has been given. No wonder our juvenile system is falling apart …

No a-ha moment. No process of evolvement. The narrator just seems to be telling her story of being blatantly abusive herself without ever connecting the dots. There is almost a light tone of bragging when it comes to her conquests and betrayals—of herself, of her gender, of humanity.

When the story finally ends with a happy second marriage, I am all out of empathy. Let’s see …. she has mistreated animals, children, men, women, herself. If there was a reason for all of this, by the end of the memoir, it is very nearly lost. If one has abundant reason for behaving badly at first, at some point it is time to take responsibility, take a hard look in the mirror, and understand why one does what one does—and stop it. The risk otherwise is to become one’s own enemy, a mirror image. Without that lesson learned, the memoir hardly has purpose or message.

One other thing puzzled me as I read this memoir. Brand names of various products were often so blatantly inserted into scenes, without any relevance, that I wondered if I wasn’t reading one of those examples when an author takes payment to work advertisements into copy. I understand this is a new trend, as technology has allowed people to blip out ads on their phones and televisions, and so marketers are looking for new ways to publicize their brand. On page 18, the narrator as a young girl is brushing her teeth with Crest. On page 37, she drinks Lipton tea. On page 38, a Librium gets popped. On page 41, absolutely everyone in the neighborhood is driving an Oldsmobile. On page 42, there are Bungalow Bars and Good Humor ice cream, and on page 46, one washes with Irish Spring. Really? Either the narrator has a remarkable memory, or the reader is left wondering how much of this copy is manufactured.

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