Keep It in the Family

Review: Myopia by Phyllis Skoy

 

Myopia: A Memoir

Author: Phyllis Skoy

IPB Books, 2017

$24.95

 

Phyllis Skoy tackles the art of losing in her reflective memoir Myopia. Within the course of the memoir one witnesses the loss of the mind, of innocence, and of family, just to name a few. The title choice, Myopia: A Memoir, embodies the idea of loss of or alienation from family: how we can lack insight into our parents, even after they have passed on; how we are oblivious to small moments in our childhood that ultimately shape our entire lives. Life itself can be a form of myopia. We grope through the shadows, trying to do life “right,” and often times fail to stray from the path others have laid out for us, or else stray too far.

The memoir begins as Skoy’s father Nathan is dying. He welcomes the idea of death, scarfing down lethal amounts of potassium-filled foods which the narrator buys him. The inner monologue about her father’s resolution to die, and her complicity in it, is piercing: “He’ll never see my triumph transform into helpless defeat: I’m killing him with love and I’m doing a lousy job of it.” This one line captures the multitudes of the memoir. The narrator has struggled her entire life with her sense of worth, with the love family must have for one another, and just how completely our parents can shape us.

Myopia functions as an immersive into Skoy’s family. The main players include the narrator’s cold and controlling father Nathan Mitnick, her absent-minded yet loving mother Jeannette, and her strong-willed and supportive sister Gay. The family lives an unassuming existence in Massachusetts, with Nathan running his doctor’s office out of the home and Jeannette keeping house beyond the office doors. Within the utterly normal, however, runs the darker thread of familial dissonance. The family has a difficult time grappling with Jeannette’s traumatic brain injury, which has left her mind foggy and her memories jumbled. Nathan, asserting himself as the patriarch, expects order and perfection from his wife and daughters. Having grown up in poverty after a harrowing immigration to America, Nathan pursues the image in his mind of what his family should be, rather than taking stock of the family he has. This thread runs thick throughout Skoy’s memoir. Even after he has passed away she struggles with reconciling the woman she is with the myth of Nathan’s Daughter.

Skoy’s narrative is regressive one, often written with the voice of a child. Her mother is “mommy,” her father “daddy”; Skoy uses simplistic language as a tool to frame her youth. “The walls are an icky yellow and green,” the narrator tells us. “When we make fruit pies… we make long, skinny snakes that Mommy crisscrosses over the fruit.” It’s important to note the persistent capitalization of “mommy” and “daddy” throughout the memoir. The parents represent an Other within Myopia, something larger and more important, something not fully understood. It is only within present-day Phyllis Skoy that Nathan is referred to as “my father.” However, this characterization is alienating in a wholly different way. In an effort to distance herself from Nathan’s expectations and disappointments, he has morphed into “my father,” rather than “dad,” “daddy,” or even “father.” Even as the narrator reflects on Nathan’s final days, he is referred to as “Dad,” signaling a change, a breaking down of the Other who once ruled her life. “My birth seems to have gotten the Mitnicks kicked out of their Garden of Eden,” she writes. The use of present tense and the more adult biblical reference reveals to the reader that the narrator still struggles with this separation of “me” and “them.”

The chapter “Hiding Places” beautifully encapsulates the retrospective that is Skoy’s memoir. Though scarcely more than ten pages, “Hiding Places” details what children hide from, and the sorts of hiding we attempt as adults. She begins small and literal: running from Nathan to the garden or to the basement. But as the chapter continues, the hiding places bloom into the drawers and boxes of her parents, the places where they hide their true selves in the forms of old clothes, books, and letters. Children and adults alike have something to hide from: whether it be parents or chores or growing up or late bills or the ghosts of who we once were. In this slim chapter, Skoy provides a meditation on what it is to be human, and what connects us all.

 

Reviewed for the SFWP Quarterly by Beth Osborne.

 

Beth Osborne is a chocolate enthusiast living in Ithaca, New York. When she isn’t reading books, Beth can be found wandering in the mountains, baking bread, and training for triathlons. Before she was reading, Beth was an archeologist. However, a betrayal by an Austrian art professor convinced her to pursue a quieter life.

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