3 out of 4 stars
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"I met Her when I was four years old. By the time I was five years old, I knew She hated me." These are the opening lines of Rebecca L. Jozwiakowski's autobiographical tale, Vile. The book begins with Rebecca almost drowning in a backyard pool at the age of five, where the stepmother sees her slip under the water but simply continues conversing with other adults standing outside of the pool. Floating underwater, Rebecca only survives when she feels strands of the stepmother's long hair, grabs it and pulls herself up. The stepmother demands the near-drowned girl be punished for pulling her hair! The woman in question is her dad's mistress - "sidepiece" - who was once the payroll clerk at his workplace, fired for padding his paychecks so he could take her out for lunch dates. Rebecca's dad ultimately leaves her mother, marries this woman and has kids with her...
The words "Her" and "She" are capitalised for the abusive stepmother, which makes her actions easy to follow. She is also variously called "Dad's sidepiece-wife", "step-monster", and "bitch". All of these titles are well-earned and profoundly justified. Subjecting Rebecca and her sister to physical and verbal abuse of all kinds, I picked the stepmother's personality type early as a textbook sociopath. She is cruel, vindictive, vicious, and lacks empathy for others. I feel sorry for anyone who has had the displeasure of meeting her, ever.
At Rebecca and her sister's fortnightly weekends at their father's place, the "step-monster" forces them to clean the house meticulously while their father "works" from 6 AM to 5:30 PM on Saturdays. (The womaniser actually spends the day with the sidepiece to his sidepiece!) The girls are not given food until they have dusted, polished, and washed the floors and windows to their stepmother's satisfaction. Then she locks them outside all day in the heat of the San Fernando Valley, where they can't even drink from the garden hose because the water is too hot. At this point, the girls are just five and seven years old.
Vile is neatly presented, with an elegant italic font for the title and chapter headings. It has plenty of strong, vivid writing with an understandably bitter tone at times and dark humour. I enjoyed Rebecca's scathing descriptions of less than admirable people, such as: "He was a cold-hearted, mean, old man – the meanest. You could pour boiling hot tea down his throat and he'd piss iced tea." There is a quirky aspect to the narrative, such as the author calling TIMEOUT! to explain her mixed race background, then TIME IN! to return to the main story. It also has a few pop culture references, notably to TV shows such as Seinfeld and South Park. These references add colour and spice to the narrative, although it probably helps if - like me - you know and love these shows.
Rebecca's father is a weak-willed man manipulated by the step-monster against her and her sister. The author portrays his unusual combination of love and apathy toward his daughters convincingly. I spent the book wondering: "Why is he still with her?", especially when he often jokes with Rebecca that "[She] is still a bitch." Sadly, this question is never answered, probably because Rebecca herself doesn't know. I can't think of anything worse than staying in a relationship with a sociopath and knowingly allowing them to harm your children. In that way, Rebecca's dad was as bad as the step-monster herself.
The only real problem with Vile is a lack of professional editing, with ten minor errors by page 32. If not for this, I would rate it 4 stars, but in its present state, it gets 3 out of 4 stars. It is a powerful and compelling tale of mental illness and cruelty, and a girl who grows into a strong woman despite her childhood abuse. It would appeal to people who enjoy family dramas and true crime; much of the step-monster's behaviour is indeed criminal.
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