‘Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls’ is a Luminous Lesbian Memoir

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Mark Twain once wrote that “truth is stranger than fiction.” I was halfway through Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls when I began to believe him. T Kira Madden’s memoir and debut is not only an extraordinary literary feat, but proof of an extraordinary life.

T Kira Madden’s memoir and debut is not only an extraordinary literary feat, but proof of an extraordinary life.

Fatherless Girls follows Madden through a turbulent childhood in Baton Rouge to early adulthood as she finds her footing as a lesbian woman. From the opening chapter, when Madden’s mother rescues a JC Penney mannequin from a dumpster to bulk out their family of two, Madden’s story captivates.

Prep school and ponies were the staples of Madden’s childhood, distinct markers of privilege set at regular intervals. It would be easy to imagine her young years cushioned by wealth. Steve Madden – best known as a footwear mogul and associate of Jordan Belfort – is her uncle. But the Wolf of Wall Street, and Steve himself are peripheral figures in T Kira’s world. And her father John, as mysterious as he is wealthy, is often more defined by his absence than presence.

Even after John marries her mother and becomes a permanent fixture in their lives, relentless substance abuse prevents him from being a stable presence in his daughter’s life. In some anecdotes Steve is affable and charming, handing out wads of cash as thick as a hockey puck. In others he is grossly negligent and even violent, coming after Madden and her mother with a baseball bat.

Caught up in the tides of her parents’ passion and dysfunction, the highs and lows of their addictions, T Kira’s is a lonely childhood. Whether it’s classmates being deliberately cruel, or an intended endearment from the lips of friends, racial slurs pepper the book. Chinese, Hawaiian, and Jewish, she doesn’t blend in.

It is perhaps this isolation that enabled her to develop the vivid inner-life that furnishes Fatherless Girls. Madden perfectly captures the culture of the ‘90s: tie-dye t-shirts, Spice Girl lollipops, and fanny packs. More importantly, she articulates what it means to be part of a family defined as much by secrets and silences as blood.

With prose that’s sharp and graceful as a butterfly knife, Madden cuts through the layers of shame attached to women’s lives.

With prose that’s sharp and graceful as a butterfly knife, Madden cuts through the layers of shame attached to women’s lives. Adoption, the sex industry, male violence – nothing is off limits. The most difficult section of Fatherless Girls is Madden’s account of being sexually abused in a mall parking lot by a high school senior and his friend; two grown men who spent months cultivating the trust of a lonely 12-year-old child. But reading Madden’s reflection on finding strength through her connection with the other girls they groomed, and later pressing charges against her abusers, is deeply cathartic.

The main source of delight in Madden’s life is her relationships with women. Her mother, Sherrie Lokelani Madden, is a glamorous figure – and deeply loving when she hasn’t fallen down the spiral of addiction. Of her mother, Madden writes that “she is strong in ways I won’t comprehend until I am much older.”

Madden’s life can be measured in friendships with other girls. And as she enters adolescence, some of those whirlwind relationships blur the boundaries between friend and lover.

Finally, T Kira finds her match in Hannah – who is described in the acknowledgments as her “soon-to-be-wife”. It is fitting that Fatherless Girls is named for the band of women and girls who bring definition to Madden’s life.

Fatherless Girls is not a book that is easily forgotten. It is a life shown through a series of luminous snapshots; astounding essays flitting between past and present until Madden’s world beckons you to leave whatever reality you inhabit. Her story is so stunning and unlikely that there will be moments when you doubt it can be autobiography – but each chapter blazes with an honesty that elevates Fatherless Girls to the finest of memoirs.