Book Review – House Rules by Rachel Sontag

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sontag’s memoir of growing up with an emotional abusive father is extremely well written.  I wanted to devour the entire book in one sitting.  This novel perfectly illustrates how damaging emotional abuse is, much worse than physical abuse.  The scars from emotional abuse never heal.  

Sontag’s parents were professionals, her father a respected doctor and her mother a social worker.  Yet, despite their shiny facade, the book details how Rachel was singled out for her father’s abuse while her sister was ignored.  Sontag uses examples like forgetting her house keys and her father refusing to let her inside, even in the freezing cold, because she broke a house rule and needs the punishment.  His punishments are completely without mercy.  He even made Rachel write apology letters to him and forced her to edit them until they sounded more heartfelt and sincere.  He would have nightly talks with her and make her write down all the awful things about herself, like “I’m a brat.  I’m worthless.”  

Sontag chronicles how she managed to survive high school and go on to Smith College.  She drops out and roams around Boston basically homeless with no help from her parents.  Sontag finally reaches a breaking point with her father when he refuses to allow her to visit her friend in Colorado and tells her she needs to lose the money she spent on buying an airplane ticket.  She goes anyway and when her father finds out he cuts her off completely.  
Sontag still does not currently have a relationship with her father.  Sontag’s memoir discusses her struggle in trying to repair her relationship with her mother, which is almost impossible since her mother continually chooses her husband over her own children, and navigating a relationship with her sister who was largely ignored and discounted her entire childhood.  You would think this is just another bad parent memoir, but really Sontag’s book is filled with hope, over-coming, and becoming her own person despite the programming she was given by her father.  Her voice is strong and it left me grateful for my own mildly dysfunctional family.   
The Reader gets the impression that Sontag’s greatest journey is to find unconditional love.  Sometimes as an adult you have to give yourself what your parents never gave you.  I hope she finds that unconditional love within herself.

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