IN THE OPENING LINE of her memoir Girls of Tender Age, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith writes, “Here’s how my father describes our socioeconomic level: Working Stiffs.”
As a child of the working class myself and under remarkably similar circumstances as hers, I was immediately drawn in.
Ms. Tirone Smith spent her childhood in Hartford, Connecticut, in the 1950s. Her parents came from large ethnically defined (Italian and French) Catholic families. She was a smart, seemingly “plain” but feisty little girl who, unlike her parents, went on to college and then the Peace Corps. I followed pretty much the same path around the same time in Jersey City, New Jersey. At times, I felt like I was reading my own life, down to the photos throughout the book that could have been taken from our family album. I especially enjoyed being reminded of cultural touchstones of the times (how about Dondi, Dragnet and Miss Rheingold!), of the rich lode of lovable and often wacky characters in large extended families, of the common female malady of being “on the verge of nervous breakdowns,” of the mysteries of the Catholic faith as interpreted by children, of heating one’s home with a coal furnace, etc. Reading this remembrance of East Coast urban, Catholic, blue collar life in the ’50s, told with a droll humor as well as sparks of anger, was a welcome indulgence in nostalgia.
However, Ms. Tirone Smith’s life differed greatly from mine in two major ways. Her older brother Tyler was autistic, and a fifth-grade classmate of hers was the victim of a serial killer in a neighbor’s yard a few houses from hers. It is the telling of these experiences that makes this book worth writing and worth reading. And it is in the telling of these stories that any nostalgia for the ’50s quickly evaporates.
From today’s perspective, the ignorance about autism at the time and the total lack of resources outside of the family to help the boy are shocking. The result is that Tyler, who is also an idiot savant obsessed with World War II, essentially holds the family hostage to his symptoms, habits, or eccentricities e.g., no one can ever cry out or make any noise without Tyler gnawing at his wrist. He hardly sleeps because of his “rounds” a series of actions or rituals he needs to take to negate things that stir up the demons in his head from the color red, to a touch, to looking in a northerly direction. The family goes to extraordinary lengths to accommodate him and care for him for years and years with no help from anyone except relatives who occasionally provide them some respite. Ms. Tirone Smith’s father especially carries the burden her mother escapes through night work, bowling, golf, seemingly anything that takes or keeps her from home a good part of the time. The author clearly loved her brother and is quite sanguine about the impact he had on her and the family. Yet, she clearly experienced shame, distress and a compromised childhood because of him. She writes, “The good that comes of being raised in a loony bin is our ability to weather the most awful of crises remain calm and take care of business.”
Despite its horror, the story of the serial killer was actually less interesting to me than the story of Tyler, and certainly less inspiring. (I wonder if the story of serial killers preying on young girls has become too commonplace?) Ms. Tirone Smith alternates chapters of the book between the chronicle of her own life and that of Robert Malm, the killer, until they intersect with the murder of her classmate. Her memories of how her family, her school and the community managed the aftermath of the crime with the children stands in stark contrast to how such traumas are handled today. In this book Ms. Tirone Smith makes amends to the memory of her friend and finally addresses and resolves her own suppressed feelings about the case. In my view, she errs by drowning us with too much detail about the investigation of the case, the appeals, and even the execution of the killer. The extensive number of pages devoted to these details detracts from the narrative arc and central themes of the memoir. Reading those chapters made this reader feel as though she was into another and different kind of book, and I was eager to return to the story of the author, her brother, her parents, her aunts and uncles, etc.
One doesn’t have to have grown up, as I did, at the same time and under the same circumstances as the author to enjoy reading this book. Girls of Tender Age is a well-told story of family life the bitter and the sweet. And, in the compelling story of her brother’s journey in life, Ms. Tirone Smith provides an instructive tale of courage, devotion and love in the face of formidable challenge.
Maureen Carroll (Philippines 196163) lives in Washington DC. Somewhat retired, she has recently returned to contract work for Peace Corps, training new country directors for a few months a year. Otherwise, she finds numerous, thoroughly satisfactory ways to enjoy life, including reading good books like Girls of Tender Age.