Girl in the Water by Nancy Fox-Kilgore, MS
Nancy Fox-Kilgore’s book Girl in the Water is a harrowing account of a childhood beset by sibling bullying—a little known yet prevalent issue. Although a portion of her childhood life was happy, Nancy came to know horrific abuse from her older sister that would plague her from when she was four years old through to adolescence. Nancy’s childhood was a confusing mixture of happy times with her sister to terrifying moments when her sister would change into a sadistic stranger. Kilgore writes refreshing and heartfelt truths about her childhood, her passion for writing and reading as an escape and her eventual ability to overcome the trauma of her past.
Girl in the Water is a beautifully poetic memoir that follows Nancy’s descent from childhood happiness and love into the crushing darkness of abuse from her older sister. She ends each engaging chapter with a memory coming from her adult life; images of the little girl who never reached adulthood, who suffered tremendously, who became her muse. The ominous images she presents tell a secret, one that Nancy kept for most of her life until now: sibling abuse is real, dangerous and it can continue to affect children into their adult lives.
From the time she was four years old, Nancy admired and loved her big sister Sherry, who was two years older than her and the “pioneer who blazed the trail” Nancy would try to follow. She learned that having a sister meant having a special bond with someone that could not be broken. Being a part of a military family meant living in many different places and together with her sister, Nancy experienced all the thrills of living and growing up in Germany, Holland, France and Italy. her father was absent often due to his position in the Navy; the little time he spent with Nancy and Sherry were cherished memories.
When Nancy was four years old, her mother gave birth to Nancy’s younger sister. Two months later, Nancy’s mother found herself pregnant again, which made her become withdrawn, emotionally drained and unable to provide the affection, attention and supervision that Nancy and her sister Sherry needed. It was during this fourth pregnancy that Nancy’s mother put the responsibility of motherhood on Sherry, which would become a turning point in Nancy’s life. At the age of four, Nancy suddenly faced a time when the joy of a carefree childhood shattered into constant fear and abuse.
Clumps of Nancy’s hair were torn out by Sherry’s rough hands, or by the hairbrush Sherry wielded as a weapon. Sherry would bend back Nancy’s fingers until she screamed. Nancy writes that she “associated bath time with gasping for breath” because her sister would hold her under the water to rinse out her hair. These instances of abuse occurred in between bouts of friendliness and love from her sister, which only served to confuse Nancy and make her feel lost and wary. To her young mind, the best coping mechanism was to withdraw from reality and create beautiful and safe worlds for herself, with mythical creatures that cherished her. In the real world at six years old, she was insecure, socially inept and had to struggle with facial tics and anxiety attacks. As Sherry’s abuse became more dangerous, escalating to when Sherry attempted to suffocate Nancy to death and sexually abuse her, Nancy’s downward spiral into anxiety and fear continued. As both sisters grew to adolescence, the abuse became less physical and more emotional and the bedroom they shared became a place of terror and unspoken malice for Nancy. Only when Sherry got married and left the family home was Nancy able to breathe, although she would deal with the aftermath of the abuse for many years to come.
Girl in the Water is a startling testimony to Nancy’s life of mental illness, depression, anxiety, self-mutilation and fear, all as a result of the abuse she suffered throughout her young life. She introduces her poetry into some of the later chapters, providing evidence to the trauma that she suffered and the long-lasting emotional scars that arose out of it. During her adult life, Nancy suffered from symptoms of PTSD and addiction and eventually put herself through treatments for trauma. Nancy reveals that she did not understand the gravity of her childhood experiences, or even remember a lot of them until much later. Her repressed childhood memories surfaced after undergoing invasive therapy, which helped her to perseve
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Reviewed by Leah Honarbakhsh