That good ol' ugly cry

5 Questions for memoirist Danielle Henderson

I don’t actually believe in love at first sight. For humans.

I do believe in it for books. You know when you just see a book and know that you need to read it? That’s how I felt as soon as I saw the cover of Ugly Cry by Danielle Henderson. I knew literally nothing about her, nothing about the book, but I loved the title and the picture of her on the cover made me fall madly in love with the little girl she once was.

And reading it affirmed my instincts 100%. It’s reminded me of my own life in lots of surprising ways—the quirky fashions I cooked up in high school, sort of Molly Ringwald Pretty in Pink era, the Sassy magazines, the clunker car, the sense of being alone even when you are surrounded. It also was nothing like my life and I learned so much from that; Danielle experienced traumatic violence and abandonment, and the mental health challenges that go with that kind of toxic stress. Most of all, it is a solidly structured, beautifully written, tragic and funny story—the kind of story that keeps you in touch with your humanity. I had to chat with her…

Courtney Martin: Who do you think of as your audience for this book? 

Danielle Henderson: I think this is primarily a book for people who have had non-traditional upbringings. In my case, I grew up with my grandparents, but there are millions of people who don’t have the traditional two-parent set-up, or any parents at all. I felt so wildly out of place for most of my childhood—surrounded by the Sweet Valley Twins type with their ranch houses, mother and father around the dinner table every night—and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I met people who had a family structure that looked more like mine.

I’d love for this book to find readers who don’t send out cards on Mother’s Day, or have had to, for the most part, raise themselves.

You write so vividly about childhood and adolescence. Are you just one of those people who has an insane memory or did you do some sort of practices to recall the sensory and emotional experience of these times?

I have a tremendous memory for my trauma. The moments of impact that affected me the most will stay with me forever—they’re just foundational. As with most memoirs, there is a lot that was left out, and I particularly didn’t want to include anything that I couldn’t remember precisely. For example, I was in a fog of depression for most of high school, so I don’t remember the name of every teacher I had, or my locker combination, etc. It was easier for me to write about that time in my life from a purely emotional point of view; I have a visceral memory of my emotional life at that time. There are also several memories that feel so vivid to me because they were stories that my family repeated over and over again.

I may be the only writer in the family, but I come from a long line of storytellers.  

What does your grandma think of the book?

My grandma—88 years old now—absolutely loves the book. She listened to the audiobook because she keeps losing her place in the hardcover, and it frustrates her. She’s living with dementia; her short-term memory is fading fast, but she can still tell detailed stories from her youth. It makes her happy to tell those stories, and she sees my book as an extension of that—something that brings her back to a time she can confidently remember. Whenever she looks at the book, she tells me she’s so proud of me—that I was able to make sense of everything, write it down, move on.

There are some tough truths in this book about your family. How do you think about your responsibility to them when writing about them? (I just finished a book that is part memoir that has a lot about people I love in it so struggled with this.) 

This will sound harsh, but I believe that my only responsibility as a memoirist is to myself. I don’t set out to be intentionally cruel or dismissive of my family (or anyone else I’ve included in the book), but it wouldn’t serve me as a writer to have 10 different voices in my head. I’m easily blocked by outside input, so I don’t invite it into the process.

If you could have three memoirists, alive or dead, around your kitchen table, who would they be and what would you serve? 

Jessica B. Harris, Natasha Trethewey, and Mary Karr. I would serve cheap takeout pizza with expensive wine and a delicious non-alcoholic, seltzer-based punch, because who wants to be busy in the kitchen when you have three powerhouses at your disposal for a chat?

In honor of Danielle, we are donating to Women for Women International.