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Review: 'Dancing with the Octopus: A Memoir of a Crime' By Debora Harding

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Cait Morrison
Debora Harding

When Debora Harding was 14 years old, she was abducted at knife point. An ice storm swirled throughout her hometown in Omaha as she waited outside a closed church, assuming the choir practice had not been canceled since a school wrestling event across the street went on as planned.

The abductor, a man she refers to as “Mr.K.,” drives her around in a stolen van, interrogating her about her family’s finances. The young, naive girl surmises that her father must make “$16,000” a year. It turns out, it doesn’t matter what he makes. Mr. K. will demand $10,000 in ransom. He does so from a payphone and threatens to kill Debora’s father — and Debora — if he doesn’t come through with the money.

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After making that ransom call, Mr. K. drives young Debora to a secluded area, puts a sack over her head and rapes her before leaving her out in the below-freezing conditions in a railway yard. He will go alone to the mall parking lot where he is to meet her father.

Debora escapes and returns to safety. Eventually, Mr. K. is caught, tried for his crimes and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

But that is not the end of the story. It isn’t even the story.

Where is Debora’s mother in all this drama? She is at home — doubting her daughter’s claims about what happened — saying that none of it ever happened.

By now as readers, we’ve learned a lot about what it was like for Debora Harding and her three sisters to grow up with a father she adored (and who adored her) and a mother who lashed out at her girls, once even locking them in a freezing cold garage for interminable hours. Their father wrote off the deed as part of the mother’s post-partum depression, but that would not explain the years of abuse — beating Debora for failing to put the laundry away, belting her sisters (to the point of drawing blood from large welts on their calves) when she believes they took sips from her glass of Coca Cola.

Harding’s mother calls the cops and tells them her daughter has been smoking pot. The investigating officer notes the mother’s peculiar behavior and demeanor and sides with Debora. The outcome in no way deters Debora’s mothers from more cruelties inflicted on her daughters.

As an adult, Harding starts to experience bouts of depression but also other unexplained maladies she cannot so easily align with post-traumatic stress disorder. One insensitive doctor is no help, telling her that there is nothing wrong with her.

He, like her mother, tries hard to convince her that the truth about her life is a lie.

Years later, Harding and her husband work to retrace the history of the crime in Omaha — the abduction and the rape and the rest. The come to the only real conclusion. Of course, it all happened. Of course, Harding’s mother was monstrous in her lack of compassion for what her daughter endured.

In attempting to achieve some control in her own life, Harding decides that restorative justice might help. She comes face to face with Mr. K. She has found that the situation with this attacker helped her solidify her relationship with her father. She could never save her dad from his own later battles with depression. She could not again connect with a sister who disconnected from the family because of their mother’s abuse. But then, in the anti-climactic and disappointing meeting that comes from the final encounter with her abductor and rapist all those years later, she finds that justice isn’t easily assured.

Some readers believe that memoir is too much about the confessing of dramatic situations that the too-much-information of it all somehow dilutes the writing — the art and the craft of it. What is Harding to do then, with this unsteady raft of stories from her life? She shows the ways in which each devastating relationship is connected to the next sad event — or even happier and more optimistic ones. There isn’t a way to nip and tuck at those. Her whole story is a composite of all these situations — and even more than just these.

Harding shares a discovery she made while studying Freud’s views on epilepsy. Freud argued that the Russian author, Dostoevsky” had a seizure disorder that was a symptom of his neuroses — a kind of “severe hysteria.” Dostoevsky had been a political prisoner and “suffered trauma after being made to stand in front of a firing squad with a burlap bag over his head, only to receive a reprieve from the czar at the last moment.” Writes Harding, “But that was not all. His seizures stopped after he finished writing The Brothers Karamazov.” This book, says Harding, had been based on the experiences of “living with his murderous father” and the “child abuse” that Dostoevsky experienced.

Therapy, exercise, a loving husband, and writing help Harding move forward, knowing now with even more certainty that the idea of “resolution” isn’t a quick fix, but nor is it an enduring one. The resilience exemplified by Debora Harding seems like something entirely hard-won and even appropriately shaky and intermittently unreliable as she fights on.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.