Book Review of I'm Down: A Memoir

I'm Down: A Memoir
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Helpful Score: 3


Book Overview

Mishna Wolff was born to white hippie parents in Vermont. However, when her family moves back to Seattle, her father drops the pretense of being "a white man" and becomes the "black man" he fancies himself to be. Having grown up in a predominantly black neighborhood during his childhood, Mishna's father immerses himself in the speech patterns, clothing and culture of his black friends. He expects his daughters to do the same. For Mishna's younger sister Anora, this wasn't a problem. However, Mishna has a hard time finding her place in the neighborhood hierarchy of kids. And when her parents divorce and her mom moves out, she finds herself struggling to fit in. Left largely to her own devices, Mishna must find her own way to survive.

When her dad enrolls the girls in summer camp, Mishna is out of her element and regularly terrorized by the other children. But her quick wit and smarts help her find a survival strategy that works for her: capping. Capping is the fine art of "yo mama" jokes where participants engage in trading escalating insults. Mishna excels at capping, and it is her lifeline in the hard-knock world of kid society.

I was becoming a machineâor at least I thought I was. All I know is I had purpose:

1. Me ruling.
2. You sucking.

I had aspirations. I had goals. I had a lot of friends, and a lot of bruises.

But just as Mishna begins to fit in at the neighborhood, her mom steps in and gets her transferred to a school for gifted children. Feeling she has found her place in the world at last, Mishna is excitedâeven thought attending the school means a long commute on city buses. Alas, although Mishna finds herself with children who have the same skin tone, she is still an outsider. Now she doesn't fit in because her family is poor. Her survival method of capping doesn't quite work at her new school, and she is forced to find another way to fit in. Eventually, she finds a small group of friends who bond over drawing and fantasy stories (think elves and wizards). But she finds an escape for her increasingly difficult home life at her friends' homes.

Sleepovers were like mini-vacations for me. I got to step out of my family responsibilities and into my friends' homes where I was catered to like a crippled person. Dad wasn't in the habit of asking if he could make me something to eat, or if I wanted him to rent me something while he was at the video store. In fact, the last time I'd had Zwena over, he got her to clean the kitchen after I made dinner.

Besides documenting her struggles to fit in to "kid society" in the neighborhood and at school, the book also chronicles her difficult and confusing relationship with her father, who she alternately loves and loathes. Mishna is torn between loyalty to her father and her wish to escape the lifestyle he inflicts on the family. He dates a series of successful and attractive black women, and each one seems like a potential lifeline to Mishnaâan escape from the dirty, uncertain household her farther provides. Here is Mishna describing the visit to her father's new girlfriend's apartment:

And the whole place was covered in light cream carpetâwhich I tiptoed onto like it was hot lava. I knew that cream was for careful people, and no matter how Dad was acting, that wasn't us. We were the kind of people who needed dirt-colored things.

Eventually, her father remarries, and Mishna gains some new siblings. But, increasingly, her aspirations and dreams drive her to move in with her biological mother. In the end, Mishna is faced with a choice: staying with her sister and father in the life she is familiar with but never really fit or moving in with her mother and pursuing her dreams for the future.

My Thoughts

I'm a bit conflicted how I felt about this book. On one hand, parts of the book were very funny and Mishna's story is unique. I've not read a memoir with this point of view before. (Let's face it, memoirs with crazy, alcoholic mothers are a dime a dozen.) However, the book doesn't quite dig deep enough to find the pathos underneath the comedy. Although the book is written in a comic and almost breezy tone, much of Mishna's story is characterized by neglect and perhaps even abuse. She and her sister must often scrounge for food and can never count on having enough money for groceries. They are responsible for housecleaning and meal preparation. They are forced into uncomfortable situations time and time again. And although Mishna shares this information in the book, I don't think she truly faces head-on how difficult her father made her life.

I think part of the problem is that she hasn't come to terms with her father. In fact, I felt the end of the book left things very unresolved between the two of them. I needed to know more about how things ended up between them. Although her father was a constant presence in her life, his wants and needs always seem to come first and many of his choices are just downright inappropriate and selfish.

Perhaps Mishna Wolff wrote this book without having had enough time to be able to see her father through more mature eyes. She seems to skirt the pain, suffering and sadness that seem to constantly bubble below the surface of her entire childhood. Although I'm glad she was able to find comedy in her upbringing, I feel she owes it to the reader and herself to find the truth of her family life. Some of the best memoirists (I'm thinking of Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls) are able to recognize and write eloquently about both the comedy and the tragedy of their livesâthereby creating a piece of writing that fully describes and embraces the human condition. This memoir falls a bit short.

My Final Recommendation

Perhaps if Mishna Wolff had waited a few more years to write this book, she would have been able to create something with a little more meaning and pathos. As it is, this is an amusing memoir, but it lacks the insight and maturity to make it something more. If you are big fan of memoirs, this book isn't a bad read; it just lacks the insight that elevate the best memoirs to works of art or true statements on what it means to be human.