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Book Review

Patton's painful memoir raises prickly questions

That Mean Old Yesterday, By Stacey Patton, Atria Books, 320 pp., $24

Early in her agonizing memoir, Stacey Patton declares that her first foster mother was so disagreeable she "blamed us when the grass didn't grow in summer." Is this just tart hyperbole meant to emphasize the bitter truths of a ruined childhood? Not according to Patton.

"You know why this grass won't grow? Huh?" she recalls her mother yelling while holding dry needles of grass in her fingers. "Because ya'll trample on it like little horses all damn year long!"

In "That Mean Old Yesterday," Patton's hard-drinking foster mother shows more affection for her ugly, grumpy German Shepherd than any of the children in her care. Patton so feared this ill-tempered woman that, as a child, she wouldn't go near her mother's false teeth in the bathroom, too afraid "they'd jump out the glass and start yelling at me or bite me."

These childhood memories from the first five years of Patton's life are what pass for the good times in this relentlessly bleak memoir. Those mean old yesterdays get a whole lot meaner when another couple adopts Patton, and she is subjected to incessant verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. That we know she will survive - Patton is now an adjunct professor of history at Montclair State University in New Jersey - doesn't dull the sharp ache of her suffering.

And here, the suffering comes fast and furious, primarily from her harridan of a mother, Myrtle. A churchgoing, God-fearing monster, Myrtle, according to Patton, never spared the rod - or more commonly, a swift backhanded slap, or the sting of an extension cord. Each day brought a fresh horror to Patton, and the author juxtaposes her torment with hardships endured by black children during slavery.

It's a tricky comparison, made more so by Patton's theory that a tragic legacy of this nation's peculiar institution is a flawed logic in black parents that leads them to abuse their children. As "slave parents whipped their children to help them recognize the absolute power of whites, and to prepare them for their future in bondage," her mother believed she was whipping Patton "to prepare me for the modern realities of being a little black girl growing up in America."

Of course, it's also possible that Myrtle was a sociopath.

Patton's race-baiting assertions are not the only issue here. Though well written with an uncanny ear for the rhythmic flair of colloquial urban speech, there's a nagging reluctance to give one's self wholly to this wrenching story. Memoir writers, especially those with the most harrowing stories, have had a tough go of it ever since James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" was revealed to have, as one website crowed, "a million little lies" several years later. First publicly revered, then publicly scolded by Oprah Winfrey, the controversy called into question just how flexible an author is allowed to be when recalling the details of his or her life.

Even more recently, Augusten Burroughs settled a lawsuit with a family who claimed they were defamed in his bestseller "Running With Scissors." The author and his publisher agreed to refer to the work not as a memoir, but as a book, in future editions, and to acknowledge that the family has different recollections of events described.

Certainly, in regards to Patton's memories of a childhood so caustic it could make the Brothers Grimm wince, such correlations seem like yet another kind of abuse. What can be worse for beaten children than to have their veracity questioned? Still, it doesn't help that Patton at times contradicts herself, claiming to remember little about life at home with her first foster mother, then recalling intense word-for-word conversations had with the woman when Patton was only 5 years old.

With so many searing memories in "That Mean Old Yesterday," any notion that Patton might have cooked her story may seem unfair. Yet in the post-Frey era, they are also unavoidable.

Renee Graham is a freelance writer.

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