How Beautiful and Rough: A Conversation with Ashley C. Ford
Ashley C. Ford isn’t so much an internet personality as she is a cultural presence. Everywhere you turn, she’s writing celebrity profiles, hosting podcasts, developing media, teaching writing classes—she’s an elemental force in the creative landscape of our time. And, we’re lucky to be alive at the same time as her memoir breaks onto the scene.
Somebody’s Daughter is a coming of age story with an insightful, attentive narrator who brings a mature tenderness to the portrayal of her single mother struggling to hold her ground as caregiver for her children; her father, incarcerated and present only in letters full of simplistic affection; her extended family and community as they work out making peace with each other and themselves day in and day out. Ford’s development into the main character of her own story centers much on the power of knowing yourself and not being afraid of feeling good in your own skin and talents and what you know to be true.
One of my favorite elements of Somebody’s Daughter is how Ford shows the struggle to balance the adult knowledge and responsibility that is often foisted upon the oldest daughter of a family in crisis with the desire and need to act her age and experience normal developmental rites of passage, without knowing too much and being exiled from childhood itself. As Ford comes into her own as a thinker and as an independent adult, she offers the reader a glimpse at that hard-to-come-by peace that can be made with neglectful or abusive caregivers when we can both see them as whole humans and also don’t make excuses for the harm done.
After getting to know Ford a little personally via Twitter and more generally from her writing and podcasting, it felt like being offered a feast to read her book and to have a call with her to discuss Somebody’s Daughter. In May, we spoke over the phone, and talked about parents’s self-perceptions, our child selves as reliable narrators, and the freedoms adulthood has granted us which make being generous with our families easier.
The Rumpus: You worked on this book for quite a while. What has the journey from starting writing this to getting it published been like?
Ashley C. Ford: Mostly emotional. Writing, in and of itself, sitting down and typing out words, as people imagine it? Not terribly hard, right? We write emails every day. We send texts. We’re constantly writing. But telling this story, I was not necessarily prepared for the emotional impact of it.
When I started this book, I had very few goals for it. I could not imagine a big life for this book. I thought the circumstances of my story would be too specific, too weird. I didn’t necessarily want to write a book like anybody else’s book. And so, I had very low expectations. And I think those low expectations were defeating, emotionally. Because I thought all the emotional stuff would come from other people’s reaction to the book. And I had a good, long while to work on this book without worrying about anybody else’s reaction to it.
I deeply, deeply underestimated my own emotional reaction to the book. I was really lucky because I had an agent, an editor, a publisher, who were 100% behind me, plus quite a few friends in my community who had already published books. They let me know, in no uncertain terms, that everything I was going through was very normal. I thought, If this is normal, how come nobody warned me about it? How come I didn’t know anything about it? I think it’s because every time a person writes a book, they go through a process that is unlike anybody else’s process, they go through circumstances and challenges that are unlike anybody else’s circumstances or challenges. Because no two books are really the same. No two authors are the same.
So, the process has been intense. It has been intense and it has been, at times, lovely. And it has been, at times, deeply discouraging. I think, as a writer, you’re going to have to figure out your own process and you’re going to have to figure out what works for you as the writer you are right now, writing the book you’re writing right now.
Rumpus: I want to ask you about the memoir’s title. As I read it, I was thinking about the title with the “somebody” being your father, because the journey to meet him as an adult who understands what’s come between you two seems to be the biggest plot through-line.
But I think it’s also more broad than just him. You’re Indiana’s daughter, you’re your mother’s daughter, you’re your grandmother’s granddaughter. Is this how you envisioned readers interpreting the “somebody”?
Ford: I mean, I hoped. That’s how I interpreted it.
Is the “somebody” my mom? I love my mother. And my mother has a very possessive position on me as her child. My mom always felt like she didn’t necessarily want to ask for help. She definitely didn’t want me to ask for help for myself in different situations, because she thought it would make her look like a bad parent. She thought that I belonged to her, that I’m her responsibility. If anybody else was picking up the slack in a different part of my life, that was a commentary or a critique of some kind on her very position as my mother.
I never felt that way. I mean, the entire time I was growing up, as you can tell from the book, I was surrounded by family; I was surrounded by friends of family. I was always in the community. And I felt at the time, and feel to this day, that I was raised by a lot of different people. I was raised by teachers who took on, at certain points, the responsibility of just asking me, “How are you? What’s going on with you? I noticed something different about your behavior and I want to talk to you about that.”
I always wanted my mother to feel like, Wow! I’m really glad you had someone to talk to. I’m really glad that this teacher reached out to you or that you had this conversation. When it first started to happen, I would present it to my mother this way. But her reaction would be one of suspicion: What are they trying to figure out? What are they trying to say? What do they think they know about me? You know?
It made it so that, unfortunately, I felt like I could no longer share those relationships or those moments with my mother. And then, hiding them made them feel tainted or bad or like a secret. So, I thought I just had to be alone. I got my emotional security, in a lot of ways, by sneaking around and talking to people about how I felt and what was happening to me, as if my emotional experience was bad or wrong or a dirty thing.
My mother is my biological mother. Nobody can take that away from her. Nobody else made sure I had a roof over my head or food in my stomach or any of those basic things, right? That is absolutely true. But the job and the work of parenting was done by many people in my life.
And now, I add myself to that chorus. Self-parenting, trying to figure out how to correct—or not even correct but just change some of the things about me that feel ingrained that actually aren’t. They’re just learned behaviors.
Rumpus: You talked a little bit earlier about how you were able to write a lot of this without worrying about other people’s input. Now that it’s out in the world, how has the reception been from the host of parents watching?
Ford: Well, my dad hasn’t read it yet. He wants to read a copy of the book, like a physical copy of the book. And he would like me to give it to him. So, our vaccinations are just marinating, they’re just kicking in. And soon, I’ll be able to drive up and hand him a copy of the book, which is the way he wants it. And I’m happy to do it that way. That’s the way I’d like to do it, too. It feels very appropriate.
My mother will probably not read it. I’ve talked to her about that. I’ve talked to her about the fact that the book is coming out. If she wants to have a conversation about it, I would be totally open to that; I would be happy to talk with her about it. But I also know my mother. And some things, my mother just decides, I am just not going to deal with that. I’m just not going to acknowledge it.
I accept that about my mother. I don’t need her to read the book. I don’t need her to like or understand the book. That is not a fantasy that I have or I’m holding onto. I am actually almost proud of her for just letting me know, for not telling me that she’ll read it and not reading it. I’m in complete acceptance of who my mother is. And I love her.
Rumpus: There’s a craft element I was curious about. The writing world talks about nonfiction and the author/narrator divide, and you keep a very, very close position as a narrator to the character of Baby Ashley. You’ve got this child’s perspective. And your adult self, who we all know and love from social media and your writing elsewhere, doesn’t seem to step in to intervene a ton.
Ford: When I thought about why I was writing this book, I thought about what I wanted to say, and in all aspects of this book, one of the main points I wanted to drive home is that children have a rich inner life. They see everything. They remember. They remember things in their minds and in their bodies. They’re having a real experience in the world. I think we forget that for a few reasons. I think we forget it because a lot of people want to forget their own childhoods. So, they cut themselves off from that inner child and from the memories of what it was like to be a child. I think we do it because we have this warped idea that children are just being prepared for adulthood and that childhood is not its own worthy experience.
I think I wanted to do write this book because we don’t really hear from the children of incarcerated people or the children who live in situations like this. We hear about the adults, who they became. We hear about how they’ve either faltered or prevailed. We hear about that all the time. But what was it like then? Do we really understand? Are we really curious about what’s going on in the head and emotional space of children? And if we’re not, why is that? Why do we think they experience any less humanity than we do? Because they don’t necessarily have the words or the context to describe what is happening to them in a way that is, I guess, in a way that is clear and comfortable to adults?
That doesn’t mean that they’re not going through it. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have ideas and preferences and useful, useful perspectives on what’s going on. I’m tired of the way people talk about and treat children. Not just parents, but people in general. Politically. Socially, the way we treat children. I think it’s… the word is strong, but it often disgusts me. It disgusts me the way people talk about kids and how they’re used as a rhetorical advice for the whims of adults who think of them as property or pawns to play. It disgusts me.
I wanted this book to come from the perspective of my child’s self, because that is—the words there are my words. They are the words of a person who has lived a life for thirty-four years. But the emotions and the thought processes, they were real. They affected me. This is me saying, These are the things that were running through my head as a five-year-old, as a seven-year-old, as a twelve-year-old. This is how beautiful and rough it was for me at the same time.
Rumpus: I really love that decision. As a child, I remember making a promise to myself, when there was some injustice happening, with how my parents were handling some situation. I was like, “Y’all forgot what it’s like to be a kid. I’m never going to forget what it’s like to be a kid.”
Ford: Yep. Yep.
Rumpus: “You just don’t understand.” It’s very true. So, I love that you decided to do it this way. I think it’s maybe my favorite choice you made in the whole book. It’s very powerful.
There’s this moment when you’re in college and you realize you don’t have to regularly experience anyone screaming at you. And then, again, a little bit later, you realize you can walk out when someone’s bringing meaningless conflict to you. It seems like one of the things that’s happening there is that you’re starting to shift your approach from being afraid of knowing things to feeling more autonomy as you learn more about yourself and the world.
What helped you get to that point? Because there’s a couple points in the book where you talk about the knowing of things being very, very terrifying. When did knowing things stop being an existential threat?
Ford: Going to college was a wild experience for me. Because school was kind of like that for me, except that I think we all know that high school students get treated quite often by educators as if they’re just looking for problems. I’d been treated that way at my school, like I was just looking for problems or making problems. Because I would speak up about things, because I felt more free at school than I did at home.
College is 24/7 school. And you don’t get treated by your professors, in general, when you ask questions or when you challenge things, like you’re just trying to start problems. At least not at my college. When I was there, I started seeing that my opinions were not just dismissed. They were often further explored or celebrated, in some instances.
I genuinely thought people were messing with me. Like I would be in a class and a professor would say, “You’re doing really well. I really loved that you brought this up in class,” or whatever. And I was looking for sarcasm or something like that. Like, There’s no way people are interested in what I have to say.
My mother is the kind of person where, when she is in a bad mood in her house, the house is in a bad mood. And you have to act accordingly. You have to walk on eggshells; you have to tiptoe around. Or, like I did in my high school years, you have to just go away. You have to just, like, disappear.
I never had to do that in college. My dorm room was this safe space where nobody else’s emotions were taking up all the room. And even if they were, I was not obligated to either stay in the space or stay around that person. There was no obligation. I could just leave. I could just walk away. I could drop a class. I could change my major.
Suddenly I had this control over the daily occurrences of my life; I had this control over the dynamics I allowed in and out of my life. And I couldn’t deny that power anymore. I could not deny it.
So, when I found myself in a situation, going back home, or in any situation where I felt like, This isn’t good for me, this doesn’t feel good to me, that maybe this hurts me, maybe I just don’t want to be here for this, I was like, Oh, my God. I can just leave. I can just walk away.
Rumpus: I think this is one of the things that benefits a lot from your close narration from the child’s perspective. Because one of the hallmarks of being a kid is that you can’t leave.
Ford: You can’t.
Rumpus: Who were reading as you wrote this, that helped shape your writing and thinking about your story?
Ford: One of the books that I really love, and I’ve talked about it quite a bit, is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. I think she wrote really well in that book about the experience of being a child who is forced to be reactive to the world and in a place of, What happens to me, happens to me.
And also, she wrote really well about the strange thing that happens in childhood where you believe, for whatever reason, that using your voice, by speaking up, by saying what you know, by telling the truth, other people can be harmed or killed. Because I genuinely believed that telling the truth to my mother about some of the things that had happened to me would result in another person’s death. I really felt like I had that power. I believed it, in my blood and bones, as a kid.
And so, I think, Angelou writing about that and that power, that book really helped me figure out that that was a key tenant of my trauma and of my experience.
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents helped me go back into the book and express some of the compassion for these people that I actually felt. Compassion for my mother, compassion for my father, compassion for my grandmother, compassion for me, compassion for my educators. It really helped me suss out some of those places where I had written things down in a really hard way. I wanted to go back and humanize those moments.
One of the goals of my book always is that I didn’t want there to be heroes or villains. I wanted there to be people. Because the only thing I’ve ever known are people. I don’t know heroes, and I don’t know villains.
Photograph of Ashley C. Ford by Sylvie Rosokoff.