“Somebody’s Daughter” Redefines the Way We Think about Love

Ashley C. Ford, author of Somebody’s Daughter (Photo credit: Sylvie Rosokoff)

Ashley C. Ford’s debut memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, is a graceful bildungsroman about a life filled with not only trauma and sadness but also tenderness and love. It’s a complicated and gorgeous story that illuminates and interrogates the writer’s childhood while forcing the audience to examine their own experiences as children—as somebody’s child—and how those experiences shape the way they see themselves. Somebody’s Daughter opens with Ford finding out that her father is getting out of prison after being incarcerated for nearly her entire life. “My heartbeat traveled to every end of me, pumping pumping pumping through my ears,” Ford writes of the moment she learned her father was being released after 30 years. What follows is an examination of Ford’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood as a Black girl who was always somebody’s daughter, but whose father figure was beyond reach. Yet he wrote to her often, words that allowed her to see the essence of his spirit, even though his absence, Ford tells Bitch, made him an “avatar” to her.

We follow Ford through her teenage years, including the moment she discovers her father was incarcerated for raping two women. At the time, she’s engaged in her first healthy and loving romantic relationship after experiencing abuse from another boyfriend, and she’s both confused and repulsed. She loves her father, but his crimes are unforgivable (or at least, she writes, not in her power to forgive). But she wonders how we can love those who have done unspeakable things. Is anyone unworthy of love? And how do we define love within the rigidity of the ideal? It’s a question that Black writers have explored for generations. How do we love our parents who have hurt us? Ford’s definition of love must include her father and also her mother who was physically and verbally abusive. Her memoir opens with a poem by Izumi Shikibu that beautifully captures the essence of this narrative.

“Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.”

It’s reminiscent of Nikki Giovanni’s famous poem, “Nikki-Rosa,” which reads, “and I really hope no white person ever has cause/ to write about me/ because they never understand/ Black love is Black wealth and they’ll / probably talk about my hard childhood /and never understand that /all the while I was quite happy.”

Ford’s narrative isn’t one of happiness or bliss. But it is one of love, of searching for the light of the sun, of loving her family despite the harm, and of exploring what it means to belong to someone. Ultimately, it’s a story about realizing that self-love must come from a holy place of abundance, not of distrust. Somebody’s Daughter is a story about fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters, but at its core, it’s an exploration of what it means to love and how we can learn to love each other well. 

The idea of “somebody’s child” comes up so much in the book. You’re exploring it as possession, the benefits and pains of belonging to someone. What did being somebody’s child mean to you in those formative years? What does it mean to you now that you’ve processed it in this book?

It has really shifted through writing this book. One of the things that has confounded me since I was a child was the fact that I felt mistreated by my mother, and I also was very clear in my heart that my mother loved me. She also thought that when it hurt her to do those things to me [it] was the sacrifice of being a parent. I have learned a form of self-love from my family and from my mother, but it was really self-protection. It was a self-love based in fear about what other people might do to you or say to you or how they might violate you. I thought being a child was essentially being [your parents’] possession. They protected you, cared for you, and loved you because you belonged to them—the way somebody would protect their property.

It was not until I was working on this book that I realized the way I wanted to be loved and the way I should have been loved didn’t have anything to do with fear and self-protection. It had to do with loving myself so much that I simply could not abide someone treating me worse than I would treat myself. So now, I think of childhood as this great opportunity for a parent to teach a person how to care for and love themselves so much that they don’t have to be taught to fight or defend themselves. Before it was like, “Childhood is about learning how to protect yourself.” Now I’m like, “Oh no, childhood is about learning how to love yourself and being protected while you build that foundation of self-love so that you can carry it with you for the rest of your life.”

A lot of people don’t understand how much of self-care and self-love stem from defensive mechanisms and trauma responses. “Love yourself because no one else will. Protect yourself because no one else will” is such a reactionary stance. It’s necessary to protect yourself, but people think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t approach it in this defiant and defensive way. It’s a form of caring for yourself, but it comes from a place of lack and fear rather than a place of abundance.

Yes! That is absolutely true. We don’t really receive an emotional education of any kind in this country. We don’t really understand, in a lot of cases, that our feelings are not finite. We cannot love ourselves too much. We cannot care for and about ourselves too much. There’s no evidence that you can love yourself or somebody else too much. When we say we love somebody or ourselves too much, we’re almost always talking about insecur[ities]. You can’t love another person too much. You can let a person walk all over you, but is that loving them? It’s completely different, but we conflate the two. I grew up in a family that conflated the two. I grew up being told I was too friendly, that I was too nice, that I thought about people too much, that my compassion would be my downfall.

Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford (Photo credit: Flatiron Books)

bell hooks’s All About Love: New Visions is a necessary read, but I disagree with her when she says the abuse we suffered as children came from parents who didn’t love us. So much of that book is affirming, but that part limits the definitions of love, which also feels like a defensive measure. It’s so hard to hold the idea that someone could love us and hurt us. It’s much easier to tell yourself, “That wasn’t love. That’s not what love is.” But it’s almost like chemistry: Something within that love was pure, but it was contaminated. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the whole thing has become a different chemical.

I agree. In general, as a people, we don’t consider how our definitions of things like love or fear are informed by everything from what you listen to and what you see to what you experience and how you feel. Because love is a verb, it’s going to look different in every situation. The way my husband has shown me that he loves me over the past decade that we’ve known each other has been so expansive for me. There were things I never expected him to care about. But for him it was like, “When you love a person, this is how you show up,” and I ha[d] never experienced this from any of the people who love me.

One of the most painful parts of the book is your father’s incarceration and the sexual violence he committed against those women. You write that it’s not your place to forgive your father, but you can still love him. What has been your journey to get to that place?

A lot of therapy.  A lot of reflection. I had to think about what love meant to me. What it was, what it looked like, how it showed up. I had to figure out what forgiveness meant to me. A lot of people just know how to feel but have no real definition. [But] you have a personal definition; you just need to interrogate it. And so I needed to figure out whether I thought that what my father had done made him unworthy of love. Between the therapy, the interrogating of my definitions of my emotions and my feelings, and reading a lot of stories … I don’t think you can be a voracious reader in all genres and not come away with a more expansive idea of humanity.

Reading widely is life-changing. For me, reading is more important than therapy. Therapy is a place where I can talk about myself and be very self-absorbed, but reading forces me to get outside of myself in ways that are sometimes very uncomfortable. Reading pushes you; it helps you get well.

You have to stop and [ask], “Did this story put something inside of me, or did it activate something that I already knew somehow? Something I already suspected was true about humanity, about people, about our potential for good and bad?” But a book cannot ignite something in you [if you] didn’t already have some kindling. It has revealed a piece of you to yourself.

What were some books that helped you investigate yourself as you were writing?

I went back to some books that I’d read before: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Walk Two Moons, a middle-grade book by Sharon Creech. I reread The Color Purple. One of the books I read when I was working on this book that actually ended up helping me a ton was Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson. That book helped me find some language to access my emotions, to be able to write specifically from the point of view of a child.

“Oh no, childhood is about learning how to love yourself and being protected while you build that foundation of self-love so that you can carry it with you for the rest of your life.

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There’s a scene where you ask your father if it’s okay that you’ve been writing about your story—which includes his story—and whether he minds if you continue writing. What would you have done if he had said no?

I’ll be honest; I didn’t expect him to say no. I wanted to ask him. I wanted to have the conversation because I wanted him to know that this was something I had already been working on and that this was something that was important to me. I’d read these letters from my father my entire life, and I could not imagine him telling me “no, don’t write anything. ” It was more that I wanted him to know that I respected him enough to ask.

I also read it as you asking him to be proud of you. I read it as a scene of affirmation, not as an act of supplication.

Absolutely. I wanted his affirmation. I wanted him to affirm me, my choices, my life. At the end of the day, that’s my dad. I know some people feel like the biological doesn’t mean a whole lot if somebody’s not around, but my dad made a point to write to me all the time. He was, in some ways, an avatar. But that avatar was fueled by the data that he had given me about who he was and how he felt about me. Obviously, I’ve gotten to know my dad a lot better since he came out of prison, but at that point I was still sitting in front of my avatar, a person that, in a lot of ways, I had created. So it was important for him to see me, for him to know that I hadn’t forgotten about him, that I thought about him, that I cared about him. At that moment I wanted to play the role of “The Daughter,” somebody who had to ask their father for permission for something. There was a lot happening in that moment and in that scene. I’m honestly so impressed that you picked up on that because I worried it was a little too straightforward, like, “This is what happened.”

You and I talked about your father being worthy of love. There are a lot of people who feel that committing that kind of sexual violence makes a person unworthy of love. In your eyes, is anybody unworthy of love? Does the concept of unworthiness exist?

I don’t think so. I think if somebody loves you and they choose to love you, that’s all the worthiness you need. Being alive makes you worthy of love. I know that people do and say terrible things. I am not saying that they don’t deserve consequences. My personal definition of love includes accountability for your actions. It just doesn’t require human isolation—that’s what I believe. And when you believe some people don’t deserve love, you treat some people like they don’t deserve love. I don’t want to be that kind of person.

We have to be open to the idea that love can look and be so many different ways. Love doesn’t require you to support a person without question. Love doesn’t require you to sacrifice your very self in service to somebody else. But everybody, at some point, has gotten turned around, has turned away from love, and a lot of what people do is a reaction to being turned away from love. If somebody out there decides to love that person anyway—if somebody has it in them or is called to that position—then that’s all you have to say about who’s deserving of love. I know I deserve love because I love me, but I also know I deserve love because other people affirm that love, and I love them in return. And that can be true for absolutely anybody.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Nylah Burton
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Nylah Burton is a writer and sexual assault prevention specialist based in Washington, D.C. She covers topics related to mental health, health, climate justice, social justice, and identity. Nylah also has bylines in New York Magazine, Zora, ESSENCE, The Nation, Jewish Currnts, Lilith Magazine, and Alma, among others. You can follow Nylah on Twitter @yumcoconutmilk.