In author T Kira Madden’s memoir, Boca Raton is the elusive setting for tragedy, comedy and triumph
By the time writer T Kira Madden published her biographical essay “The Feels of Love,” about the sexual assault she suffered, at age 12, in the parking lot of the Town Center mall, 17 years had passed since the incident. It wasn’t until she wrote the essay, in 2016, that she told her mother about the assault.
Now that “The Feels of Love” is part of Madden’s 2019 debut, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, she’s often asked if revisiting the rape—or her mother’s substance abuse, or her father’s alcoholism and physical abuse, or her eating disorders, or other family shadows her memoir illuminates— proved therapeutic. The answer is an unequivocal no.
“They like to just say it, as if ‘this was healing for you. This was cathartic to you. You must have closed all the boxes now,’” she says. “But it’s not how I feel at all. I couldn’t have written most of the events in the book had I not already gone through the therapy, the conversations, the closing of those boxes before writing it. … To then craft it, and make a piece of art from that experience, is another job entirely. It’s no longer journaling. It’s no longer therapy. It’s just work—work I enjoyed.”
Her craft is evident in every compulsively readable, brutally honest page, with its blunt self-assessments, its disarming detours into absurdist humor, its vivid analogies. In one of her mother’s less lucid moments, she writes, “I lead her back into her bedroom like a horse into a trailer.” She describes her father’s ashtray, sitting next to his passed-out body, as “overflowing with orange filters … like an exotic flower, or a Bloomin’ Onion from Outback.” You will cry, but you’ll also feel uplifted, and there are plot twists right up until the final page.
Much of the memoir is set in Boca Raton, where Madden enjoyed a life of privilege—on the surface. Her father worked in finance, and her uncle is Steve Madden, the fashion designer and businessman.
But Long Live the Tribe reveals the underside of the gloss. Steve Madden, who became involved with Jordan Belfort, aka the Wolf of Wall Street, would serve prison time for stock manipulation. (T Kira’s father, who remains unnamed in the book, was also involved with Belfort.) And T Kira, who is Asian-American of Hawaiian descent, would discover that the racial slurs and taunts she would endure in the Boca Raton school system belied the city’s elevated reputation.
“I think there’s a lot of dark humor to Boca Raton,” she says. “I originally wanted The Rat’s Mouth for the title of this book, because the punch line of this beautiful, glossy, vain city having that translation is funny to me. And it feels appropriate to me, that there’s this sharp, darker underside to this city.
“Though I didn’t recognize all of that darkness until later, I knew I wanted to get out of Boca, and I knew I didn’t feel at home.”
Madden did get out. She moved to New York for college, and she teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence. Now 30, she spoke to me from the café at Books & Books in Coral Gables on the first night of the book tour for Long Live the Tribe; she would remain on the road for another month and a half, the book continuing to earn raves with every passing week.
She’s in a healthy place now, she says. She’s planning a sequel to Long Live the Tribe—it ends on a cliffhanger, after all—after she publishes her first novel, which she describes as a “lesbian horror story about biology.” But being back in South Florida can’t help but resurrect old feelings.
“[Florida] feels so true to me, that it is this aching part of me, so much of my becoming,” she says. “At times I feel really disconnected to it, and at times I feel really connected to it. I’m going to have Cuban food before this reading tonight, and that feels like home to me. At the same time, it feels so foreign to me.
“It still has its claws in me. I still hate it. I still want to be here.”