SUSAN LA M ARCA
Adeline Yen Mah
This book is the moving autobiography of a young Chinese girl, Adeline Yen Mah. Born the fifth child to an affluent Chinese family her life begins tragically. Adeline’s mother died shortly after her birth due to complications bought on by the delivery, and in Chinese culture this marks her as cursed or ‘bad luck’ (p.3). This situation is compounded by her father’s new marriage to a lady who has little affection for her husband’s five children. She displayed overt antagonism and distrust towards all of the children, particularly Adeline, whilst favoring her own younger son and daughter born soon after the marriage. The book outlines Adeline’s struggle to find a place where she feels she belongs. Denied love from her parents, she finds some solace in relationships with her grandfather Ye Ye, and her Aunt Baba, but they are taken from her. Adeline immerses herself in striving for academic achievement in the hope of winning favour, but also for its own rewards as she finds great pleasure in words and scholarly success. The book was written following the successful publication of Adeline Yen Mah’s first autobiography, Falling Leaves, which details the years of Adeline’s life from fourteen years of age into adulthood.
‘The secret story of an unwanted daughter’ (The book’s subheading) The idea of an unwanted daughter, blamed for the death of her own mother, is a superstition that may have caused the abandonment of many. • What is the strength of such a superstition? • How does such a superstition come about? In her life Adeline Yen Mah has been many things, a brilliant academic, doctor and a writer, yet it is the role of ‘unwanted daughter’ that plays heavily on her heart. • Why is this so? • Why does it overshadow all other achievements? • Why is it so difficult to move beyond childhood hurts? The pain felt by Adeline is acute and permeates almost every scene in the book. The story is, at times, a catalogue of one unhappy incident after another. Some events that display her anguish are particularly violent, cruel and senseless, as in the episode when her duck, PLT, is killed by the dog (p.94 onwards). Others show the power of cruel words to truly destroy the child’s own sense of self worth. Adeline is an unwanted, even unnoticed daughter. Upon leaving her beloved grandfather’s funeral, Niang (her stepmother) comments loudly that Adeline is becoming ‘uglier and uglier as (she) grew older and taller’ (p.213). An unnecessary and crushing remark made at a most difficult time. Adeline suffers constant rejection from her stepmother but perhaps it is the indifference of her father that crushes Adeline more brutally. Most telling is the scene in the plane (p.40) in which her father remembers neither her real name nor her birthday. She is a forgotten child to him.
Adeline’s answer is to immerse herself in academic life, pursuing success. Her personality, though, is scarred by her treatment at the hands of her parents. She has no sense of self, no sense of where she belongs. Her self-loathing and doubt are often intensely felt: ‘They had tossed me aside like a piece of garbage’ (p.143) ‘Now they knew the pathetic truth! Unloved and unwanted by my own parents! How long did it take for a person to die of shame.’ (p.129) ‘I’m nothing. Less than nothing. A piece of garbage to be thrown out.’ (p.207) “Oh, the misery of it all! I felt I was being skinned alive. (p.214) ‘Everything is ugly. I loathe myself.’ (p.215) Family offers us acceptance and a place to belong, affirmation, help and guidance, things Adeline lacks in her interaction with her parents – she is an ‘unwanted daughter’ in many senses of the word.
This autobiography is written in chronological order. It relies on the memories of Adeline presenting us vignettes, or small scenes, from her childhood. Because of this, the book often jumps periods during which...