House Rules: A Memoir by Rachel SontagHouse Rules: A Memoir by Rachel Sontag

House Rules: A Memoir

byRachel Sontag

Paperback | March 24, 2009

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A compelling, at times horrifying work that is impossible to put down, House Rules will stand beside Running With Scissors and The Glass Castle as a memoir that cracks open the shell of a desperately dysfunctional family with impressive grace and humour.

Rachel Sontag grew up the daughter of a well-liked doctor in an upper middle class suburb of Chicago. The view from outside couldn’t have been more perfect. But within the walls of the family home, Rachel’s life was controlled and indeed terrorized by her father’s serious depression. In prose that is both precise and rich, Rachel’s childhood experience unfolds in a chronological recounting that shows how her father became more and more disturbed as Rachel grew up.

A visceral and wrenching exploration of the impact of a damaged psyche on those nearest to him, House Rules will keep you reading even when you most wish you could look away.

In the middle of the night, Dad sent Mom to wake me. In my pajamas, I sat across from them in the living room.

I was sure Grandma had died and I remember deciding to stay strong when Dad told me.

“What did you say to her?” he asked. His elbows rested in his lap.

“What do you mean?”

“You spent a good half hour alone in that hospital room. What did you talk about?”

“I don’t know, Dad”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? You know. You know exactly what you talked to her about.”

“You talked about me, Rachel.”

“No. I didn’t.”

“To my own mother?”

. . . .

I wondered how he’d been with Mom, how she’d missed the signs. He couldn’t have just turned crazy all of a sudden. I wondered if his own father had infected him with anger. But mostly, I wanted to know what he saw in me that caused him to break up inside. Was it in my being born or in my growing up?
--from House Rules
Rachel Sontag was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois. She received her MFA in creative writing from The New School. She lives in New York City. This is her first book.
Title:House Rules: A MemoirFormat:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 7.99 × 5.57 × 0.71 inPublished:March 24, 2009Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385664753

ISBN - 13:9780385664752


Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brave author describes living with emotionally abusive and incompetent parents Cringe-worthy scenarios are described which give good insight into what it is like to grow up in a home dominated by people who can be said to lack judgement and parenting skills, at best, and more pointedly have serious personal problems requiring professional help to prevent the rest of the family from having to endure them. The author's father has gone on to create a rebuttal webpage which shows his serious lack of insight because the contents verify the author's perception of her family situation. Bravo to this brave author for putting out this work. I hope that the backlash from her family will only embolden her to carry on, head held high, knowing that she did an amazing job of surviving her emotionally disturbed parents.
Date published: 2017-09-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Still think about this book The first time through, I read with shock and admiration of human strength. I related to many parts of the father-daughter relationship, which were written with care and honesty, rather than embellishment. In agreement with the publisher, this story finds a place with The Glass Castle and shines light on getting through to the other side of family dysfunction.
Date published: 2017-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I feel Greatful This book made me feel greatful for the boring up bringing I had. You could truly feel the authors emotions
Date published: 2016-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good book! Insightful view into life with someone with undiagnosed mental illness. Shows how difficult it can be for families who deal with this on a daily basis and yet outwardly, appear as if all is well at home.
Date published: 2015-06-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Very touching story that will stay with you for a long time!! I enjoyed this book very much so. What made it more enjoyable to read was the fact that it was a personal and touching memoir of the Author herself. While reading this book I felt as though I knew the main character (Rachel Sontag) personally. She told her story in a way that I will always remember it. Rachel has been through a lot of heart ache and hurt and resentment but she managed to hold on to herself through it all. I give her credit for being brave enough to share her story with the world. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has been through some of their family issues and heart aches, just so that they too can see that no matter how tough life can be, if you can hold onto a small piece of your true self then in the end you truly will be ok! This is my first review so I hope it helps someone to make the right choice, which is to READ THIS BOOK! The three books that I recommend below are not like this book review but they are also three of my favourite books that I have read and highly recommend to be read!!
Date published: 2013-04-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Amazing story of overcoming a sad upbringing This is an amazing story of how the author overcame a verbally and emotionally abusive upbringing by an overly controlling father (and a weak and passive mother). Yes, she grew up in your average upper-middle class household - but this is what makes it more jaw-dropping. And as I read this, I thought of friends and acquaintances I knew growing up, who had seemingly normal lives and affluent-enough parents - but who still seemed to be the "odd" ones in the neighbourhood. I could never quite pinpoint what it would be like to grow up in those households, but knew something was off. Families like this really do exist, and after reading this story, I felt that I had some insights into the less than perfect families that put on a good face. Sontag amazes me with her ability to grow past this. While the writing style was a bit disjointed at times, I think it's hardly fair to rate this story on that alone. The story is a worthy read.
Date published: 2011-07-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Father knows best? Right or wrong, Rachel's father had the final word. Always. Although he was a great doctor and was looked up to by his med students, Steve Sontag was not a good father. Calling his daughter "cheap" for wearing a small amount of lipstick, strict house rules, and ultimate control over the entire house. Rachel and her sister (the ignored/invisible daughter), struggle with their past while trying to make a new future for themselves.
Date published: 2009-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More than this dysfunctional House Rules is Rachel's memoir about growing up with a controlling father. That's putting it mildly. Rachel's father, Steve, is the type of man that always has to be right. Whether he actually is, isn't relevant in his mind. Also, he has to have things his way, or no way, doesn't matter what it pertains to. Because of this, his wife barely knows what's going on, either because he has her drugged up on lithium, or she just tunes it all out. Rachel takes most of the verbal abuse, as she is the only one out of her mother and sister who talks back to him. It's hard to read some of the things he says to her. He does not care about what she feels when he says these things. You will be wishing that she would say more, or just scream at him, although by the end of the book you realize he wouldn't have been fazed by any of it. An amazing memoir. Rachel is honest about everything! Well written, you won't want to put it down.
Date published: 2009-03-18

Read from the Book

Chapter One There was a time before. There is always a time before. It was a time we can all look back on with a certain nostalgic affection. Not because things were easy, but because we all knew our place in relation to Dad.It was before I turned ten. Jenny was seven. We slept in the same bed. We bathed together. Dad referred to us as "the children," and because we were "the children," because there was nothing distinguishing us from each other, we fought on the same team.Dad appeared to us as stubborn and erratic, but he was our dad and each of us was desperately trying to feel our way to his heart. Mom was her own person. She had a laugh that filled a room. She set up watercolor paints on the kitchen table, clay on the floor, mixed newspaper with water and paste so we could make papier-mâché masks.We lived in a house with a yard. We had a dog. We traveled frequently. We saw our parents above us, our protectors, the people who turned our lights on in the morning and off again at night so we could sleep. Jenny and I hurt to hear them fighting, to think there might be something wrong with the foundation upon which we built our images. It was normal stuff that concerned us all back then. But things were beginning to change. Mom was losing her footing.When I was eleven and Jenny was eight, we attempted to smuggle our Barbie dolls across the Mexican border, to vacation with us in Cancún, where they could sunbathe and swim in the bathtub.Jenny's Barbies were in better condition. She didn't stick their heads in bowls of blue food coloring like I did. She didn't chew theirfeet off. We married some, divorced others, baptized their babies and threw bat mitzvahs. We traded their clothing and the high-heeled plastic shoes that never quite fit their overly arched feet. We pulled their arms off and taped them back on with Dad's duct tape. We broke their legs so we could build wheelchairs. We gave them names that we'd wanted for ourselves: Brigitte, Kimberly, Tina.The dolls got as far as O'Hare. In the baggage-check line, Dad caught sight of the circular cookie tin under Jenny's arm. His face soured."Ellen. What's in the tin?"Mom looked at it as if it was an alien object she'd never seen before.We were standing behind a family of four with a boy and a girl around our age. Bratty-looking, I thought. The girl's fingers were wrapped around the neck of a pink stuffed animal. The boy wore a Hard Rock Cafe shirt that came down to his knees. The dad toted golf clubs. The mom wore heels.The ticket agent motioned us toward the counter. "How y'all doing?" she asked. No one answered. "How many bags y'all checking today?" she asked, smiling at Dad.I watched her thin, frosted lips move automatically. Not very good at reading people, I decided. She didn't seem to realize that something was the matter."Sir, how many bags y'all have?"Probably she wasn't from the South but had flown there several times and enjoyed the sound of the accent.Dad gestured for the ticket agent to hold on as he waved the three of us out of line. We moved off to the side. Mom stood with her mouth agape, hands on her hips.Dad examined her as if she were a piece of art he found only slightly interesting."What's in the tin, Ellen?"Mom fumbled with her purse.The next family stepped up. Kids with yellow headphones stuck on their ears. "The girls' stuff," Mom said."Stuff?" he said. "What kind of stuff?"Jenny and I knew when it was going to get bad. We could always feel it. Dad was about to launch an attack that Mom could not deflect, and we waited, anxious and excited that it was Mom he was mad at and not us."What's in the tin?" he asked.Mom looked hard at it, as if meditating on the matter could turn the dolls into a stack of National Geographic magazines."Barbies," Mom said."Barbies?" Dad took a step back. "Are you kidding me, Ellen?"His face went white. His lips curled upward, and if one didn't know his many degrees of anger, it would be easy to mistake his face for amused, which he was not.The ticket agent looked at us. "Sir, you guys ready for check-in?""No," Dad said.We each took a few more steps away from the counter. Jenny sat down on her duffel."I can't believe you've done this. We've talked about this, Ellen."His words hung heavy in the air, like the powerful stench of a skunk's spray.Mom dropped her head, defeated, as if she, too, could not believe what she'd done.No one was actually sure what she'd done, but Dad wasn't going to let it go. Whatever storm was rolling in would knock out at least the next two days of our vacation."Steve, this is ridiculous," Mom said.Ridiculous was something Mom often accused Dad of being, but it was exactly the ridiculousness that kept Mom intrinsically connected to Dad. It made her, momentarily, the object of his attention, albeit through anger, at a time when he was losing interest in her. She got used to Dad's ridiculousness. This was just the way her husband was. And we got used to Dad pulling us out of lines and making scenes."Jenny? Rachel? Which one of you couldn't leave the house without your dolls?"We got nervous. We looked at each other, silently blamed the other."We're locking them up," he said, staring at the tin."Steve, it's going to cost a lot more money to lock the dolls up at the airport for ten days.""I don't care. It's the principle."He looked at his watch and raised his eyebrows. "We've got half an hour. You better find a place to lock those things up."

Editorial Reviews

"Sontag's lean writing captures the tension — the feeling of family as prison. Each time an outside observer recognizes her father's manipulative cruelty, the reader feels a little surge of hope. Get out of there, Rachel! Get out!" —Los Angeles Times"As Sontag makes clear in her searing memoir, emotional abuse can be as devastating, as cruel, as the most severe physical and sexual maltreatment....What is remarkable and inspiring is that Sontag emerged from the situation a stronger person." —San Francisco Chronicle"Sontag's is a brave account, not only of what it's like to take the brunt of an abusive parent's wrath, but of what it means to have the courage to leave." —Publishers WeeklyFrom the Hardcover edition.