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At an early age, Rachel Sontag realized there was something deeply wrong with her father. On the surface, he was a well-respected, suburban physician. But questioning his authority led to brutal fights; disobedience meant humiliating punishments. When she was twelve, he duct-taped her stereo dial to National Public Radio, measured the length of her hair and fingernails with a ruler, and regulated when she could shower.
A memoir of a father obsessed with control and the daughter who fights his suffocating grasp, House Rules explores the complexities of their compelling and destructive relationship, and his equally manipulative relationships with his wife and other daughter. As Rachel's mother cedes all her power to her husband, and her sister fades into the background of their family life, Rachel fights to escape, and, later, to make sense of what remains of her family.
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 their feet 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."