Review

House Rules: A Memoir

by Rachel Sontag

There is no question that a parent physically harming his or
her child constitutes abuse. It is trickier, however, to identify
emotional harm. At what point do hurtful words become abusive, and
how can the parent-child relationship be mended? In her memoir,
HOUSE RULES, Rachel Sontag explores these important and tough
questions as she recounts the abuse she suffered growing up with an
emotionally cruel father and a co-dependent mother.

At first Sontag's father, Steve, comes across as strict and quirky,
concerned with respect and propriety. Over time it is apparent that
he is pathological, filled with a rigid sense of order and
harboring a fear, hatred or resentment of Rachel, his oldest
daughter (all the while managing to virtually ignore his youngest,
Jenny). Steve was known to most people as a dedicated, socially
concerned physician, a mentor to young doctors, a religious Jew and
a witty family man. Still, Rachel later learns that even close
family members and friends always felt there was something off
about him. Whether it was his arrogance, his inflexibility or the
way he talked to his wife and daughters, those outside the family
suspected something was wrong.

And something was very wrong. Steve's house rules were
bizarre and mean: fingernails had to be trimmed to an exact length,
time outside the home was regulated to the minute, losing your
house keys meant you were not allowed in the house for hours
(rainstorms not withstanding) and phone calls were recorded. Rachel
was often forced to repeat back to her father statements like
“I'm a selfish, rotten, worthless, brat” or “I am
the scum of the earth.” He told her he wished she had never
been born.

Rachel found little solace in her relationship with her mother, a
woman who allowed her husband to medicate her with lithium to keep
her docile. She would ask her daughters not to upset their father
and take his side when he berated or punished them for the smallest
infraction. She would occasionally fly into rages and end up in
fistfights with Rachel.

Rachel, who both sought out her father’s anger and wanted
desperately to avoid it, escaped first to a halfway house and later
to a Washington, DC internship and college. She has no relationship
with her father now, and her relationships with her mother and
sister are strained. In HOUSE RULES she wrestles with being her
father’s daughter and what that has meant in relationships
with others and her own self-image. She is afraid of becoming like
her dependent and fearful mother and her overbearing father. Yet,
she sometimes seems proud of the fact that she is like her father
and, like many children abused or not, strives to elicit positive
recognition from him. Some of what he does is clearly abusive, but
some of it is harder to define. What is important, really, is the
total family dynamic and how the Sontags were unable to function as
a healthy unit. Her tale is frightening, honest and thought
provoking.

At times it doesn't feel like Rachel Sontag has had enough distance
from her childhood home to really find insight. And the fact that
she knows so little about her own parents’ childhoods,
especially her father’s, means that the book lacks some
context. Despite the inconsistencies, HOUSE RULES is well-written
and compelling overall. Readers may only wish she had waited
another decade or so before setting out to record the story of her
childhood in order to gain a bit more perspective.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011

House Rules: A Memoir
by Rachel Sontag

  • Publication Date: April 1, 2008
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0061341223
  • ISBN-13: 9780061341229