Our Reading Lives

STARFISH And Other Monsters

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I picked up Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman last week based on a recommendation that made me want to cry when they described the mother-daughter relationship (Liberty recommended it on All the Books). There are certain books that come into your life at the exact right time, and I think this book landed at the exact moment I needed it.


There’s a lot that’s different between Kiko (the main character) and myself. For one, I’m not half-Japanese, so that was never a weapon wielded by my mother. I didn’t have to deal with racism from my own parent on top of emotional abuse. I also didn’t have a disturbing uncle. I don’t know if it counts as a spoiler (I fully believe in warning people about things like that beforehand), but there is mention of child sexual abuse in this book, and I have never had to deal with that. I’m also 30, which makes me older than Kiko, and I am now blessedly in my own house, with a loving family and some kickass friends, so I’m no longer in the suffocating trap that Kiko feels in Starfish.

But here is what is eerily similar: Kiko’s relationship with her mother. There are different beats here. My mother didn’t have all the same tactics, but at points, the words Kiko’s mom used were exactly the same, in a way that sent a chill down my spine for how familiar they sounded. I know those words. I know how it feels to be told you are always bad-mouthing her, and how it feels to be told that she only wants the best for you, and you just don’t appreciate everything she does for you, and how much she loves you. I know, so well, feeling those words like weapons, instead of comfort. I know how it feels when your mother’s words become a constant drumbeat that sounds the call: “You are not enough. You will never be enough.”

And you wouldn’t be anything without all I did for you.

Yeah, you could say I recognized myself in this book, and in Kiko’s desperation to escape. This book made me remember my senior year of high school, and feeling so trapped and tired and not knowing if I would make it to college. I heard over and over: “Just don’t let it bother you! That’s just how it is!” and that just made me wish I was stronger. It felt like another failure that I couldn’t just brush off what she said or how she treated me. I couldn’t just turn off my phone, for a long time. I know how it feels when you are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, and how you don’t want to trust people. My mother used to tell me that my friends didn’t really like me, and they didn’t want to hang out with me, and even today I’m surprised when people seem to like the things I say. Because someday they’ll figure it all out and see I’m a fraud.

Because no one will ever love you like I do.

When someone constantly tells you when you are young that something is wrong with you, you believe them, because you don’t know better. And a lot of times, the way they tell you is convoluted and hard to convey to someone who isn’t there to witness what is happening.

Why can’t you just get over it?
Why can’t you just move on?
Everyone’s parents say crappy things sometimes.
They love you; they’re family.

But this book, Starfish, isn’t really about family happily ever afters. It doesn’t have the moment I’m so familiar with in books or movies or TV shows where they just need to talk and hug and show forgiveness (a moment that infuriates me), and maybe bond over an old memory. Sometimes that isn’t the answer and sometimes your parents don’t know how to love you the way you need because of something that is in themselves. And if you wait for it, you will be waiting forever. Sometimes, your happy ending is moving on from the hope that they will be that mother you needed them to be and that they will apologize and acknowledge what they did to you. And when they do that, then you will be okay.

Sometimes you have to be okay without that because they can’t give you that resolution. And what you need is to find the strength in yourself to build a new future and trust other people, even though it scares you.

I have no doubt Kiko has a long road ahead at the end of the book, because the reality is that years of emotional abuse take a toll, even when you decide to move on. Starfish painted a picture I recognize. It’s a story that may be harder to tell because of how she may have denied it, and how you may have thought you were just making too big a deal of things, but its a true story that needs to be spoken out loud.

I never said that. You’re making that up. Why do you always make me out to be the bad guy?

I needed this book at this moment as I make decisions about what kind of life I want to have, and how my mother factors into that. I wish I could say I finished this book and came to some kind of beautiful realization and angels sang and suddenly I knew how to deal with all the things she said to me, or how it affects the way I think,  but that is not what happened. The reality is that it is hard work to rewire your brain, and I started fairly recently (with the help of a professional). I wish I could say that I suddenly realized that I am enough and not having that relationship feels fine, but I can’t, because it still hurts. It’s not hopeless though, and what Starfish did remind of is this: I’m not alone and I’m not making this up. And I can’t wait around for something I may never get in order to feel complete. I have to find that in myself. And I can tell that voice in my head to SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP.

Over and Over again, as necessary.

And if you know these feelings…if you have a parent or someone in your life that you just wish loved you the way they thought they should? Or if you have constantly felt not enough, or you know the sudden stomach lurch when your phone goes off and it’s that person and you know it will affect your whole day? If you had someone tell you over and over again, in small ways, in ways you couldn’t quite convey to someone else that you were just constantly failing and they only want the best for you and you can’t trust anyone else? You aren’t alone either. Read this book (if you’re up for it), talk to someone, and find your family—whatever that means to you. And please don’t give up fighting that voice inside your head. I’ll be right there with you.