“The Ugly Cry,” written by a 44-year-old Black woman, is a perfect illustration of Twain’s point.
In its early pages, Henderson writes that, as a child, she regularly retreated to her grandparents’ washroom to crack open books (once, she even fell asleep in the old claw foot tub). Henderson and her just-a-smidge-older brother, Cory, were raised primarily by their grandmother, Carole. If you’re conjuring an image of a doting old lady, go ahead and burn that idea to the ground. This chain-smoking matriarch is a figure less reminiscent of a quaint Norman Rockwell painting than Edvard Munch’s feverish, anxiety-inducing “The Scream.”
As the author tells it, “I’ve never seen my grandmother bake a cookie, wear a shawl, give good advice, or hug a child unprompted. I have, however, heard her curse so intensely I swear she was making some of them up on the spot, watched her obsess over horror movies with an academic intensity, and listened to her frequent lectures about the reasons every woman should not only carry a knife at all times but fully be prepared to use it: ‘A man wants to put his hands on you? Carry a little secret knife. Cut his throat. Ask questions later.’ ”
These are the book’s first lines. It’s one barn burner of an opening.
A TV writer for series like “Divorce,” “Maniac” and, not surprisingly, “Difficult People,” Henderson has an aptitude for realistically rendering complicated characters. (She is also the brain behind the popular feminist Ryan Gosling memes, later spun into a 2012 book.) Grandma is a gag, but she can also be dismissive, cutting and occasionally downright cruel.
It’s hilarious when Grandma, in response to young Henderson’s delight at seeing her grandparents kiss, says, “What’s wrong with you, ya pervert?” with a laugh.
It’s amusing, if a tad cutthroat, when she brings her ruthlessness to board games: “In her world, every game was a blood sport meant to be won at all costs,” Henderson explains. “After rolling to see who went first, the Monopoly carnage began in earnest.”
It’s hardhearted, and wholly unnecessary on Grandma’s part, when a very young Cory (at the time no older than 5) sustains a severe, excruciating burn one night, and she uses his misery as an excuse to gloat, haranguing him for not staying in bed. (“ ‘Now look.’ … Grandma stood firm in her smugness, more impressed with how right she was than how much we were all hurting.”)
Between the quips, behind the comedy, there is breathtaking sorrow. The book scissored my heart to shreds. All manner of violence — psychic, sexual, physical — is enacted on children. Perhaps chief among Henderson’s hurts: a walloping sense of abandonment.
Her mother, Robin, present during the early years of her and Cory’s life, is always out of reach, even when she’s near. (“I craved my mom, even when she was standing right next to me. ... I wanted her to gently touch my arm and laugh at my knock-knock jokes the way she did when strangers said anything at all,” the author writes. “What would it feel like to have my mom all to myself? For the rest of my life, I would never know the answer.”) When Henderson is about 7, Robin meets a man who takes what isn’t his and offers only pain. At age 10, Henderson and her brother are dropped off at their grandparents’ two-bedroom apartment, ostensibly for the weekend. They never share an address with their mom again.
Henderson’s grandmother and granddad, fooled into thinking they were finished with child-rearing, are forced to cobble together the resources to raise two preteens. Grandpa continues working as a bartender; Grandma takes a job at a retirement home for nuns. Away from her mom and her abusive boyfriend, Henderson is free from external danger, but her sense of security never entirely returns.
In the acknowledgments, the author expresses the utmost gratitude to her grandmother, who is still alive but living with dementia. “Thank you for saving me,” Henderson writes. “Thank you for teaching me how to save myself.”
The trouble with savior narratives is that they’re built on suffering. “The Ugly Cry” is a vivid, voice-y, richly textured read; it is also profoundly sad, and must have been spectacularly difficult to write.
How I wish that Danielle Henderson had been given a different story.
Nneka McGuire is a writer in Chicago.
The Ugly Cry
Viking. 304 pp. $27