TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Ashley Ford, is the author of the new bestselling memoir "Somebody's Daughter" about growing up Black and poor in Indiana. Her father was imprisoned in 1988, when she was only 1-year-old. By the time he got out, she was around 30. She didn't know what crime he was convicted of until she was in her teens. His crime was rape, and it was especially upsetting to hear that because she had been raped by a boy from her school and it left her traumatized. The book is also about her relationship with her mother, who could be charming or brutal, her relationship with her grandmother, who was very religious and warned about the devil, and her relationship with her own body. Having gone through early puberty starting at age 9 and thinking her body was the cause of her suffering. Ford has written for many publications and was named in Forbes 30 Under 30 in media and in Variety's New Power of New York.
Ashley Ford, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think your memoir is so good.
ASHLEY FORD: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. It's truly a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: So you were about 1-year-old when your father was sent to prison, so you really have no direct memory of him at home outside prison. How did your mother and your grandmother describe him?
FORD: When they spoke about him, they usually described him as funny or a dreamer, a scaredy cat sometimes. My dad has a pretty notorious fear of bugs or anything that flies - birds, bees, hummingbirds. He just - he flips out. Like, he's scared of them and always has been. And there were things about me that they thought reminded them of him. So when they talked about my dad, it was usually like, you know, you're so - you daydream all the time, just like your dad, or, you know, you have really good timing, or, you know, Ashley can tell a good joke, you know. Oh, she must get that from her dad - even though I think my sense of humor much more so mirrors my mother's.
GROSS: Did it make you feel good when people said, oh, you must have gotten that from your dad?
FORD: It did because, you know, without his presence, my connection to him didn't feel very clear. So when someone would say you look like your dad or, you know, you dream like your dad or, you know, you like - you don't like air conditioning like your dad, those things made me feel like, oh, I really have a dad out there. I have someone I'm really connected to. And even though he's not here, our connection is still evident. People can see him in me, and that made me feel special. It made me feel like I was not necessarily in the situation that I was actually in.
GROSS: Your mother and grandmother didn't tell you why he was in prison, and you didn't ask until you were older. What prevented you from asking? What was holding you back?
FORD: When those - when I was very young and I asked my mom, you know, well, why - her reaction to that was so big and so sad that it became very clear to me as a kid that that's just not a question I got to ask. It was a question that caused a reaction in my mom that, you know, worried me and scared me. And then, you know, my brother - he asked more often than I did, but he would get the same response from my mother or my grandmother, which was that big emotional outsized response. Or, when we got a little older and he would ask, it would become, you know, my mom would say, I shouldn't have to tell you that. He should have to tell you that. And so we were just trying to figure out what had happened between the two of us, and that wasn't really working out because, you know, we were 8 and 9.
GROSS: What were some of your guesses? Did you think, oh, maybe he murdered somebody?
FORD: I did. I absolutely did. That was my No. 1 guess was that that was what had happened - no idea who, no idea how, obviously. But I just assumed because of how long he was away, how long he was expected to be away, you know, no one really talked about - except for my dad saying, you know, one day I'll get out, and I'll be there. No one else ever talked about my dad getting out.
GROSS: How did you learn why your father was in prison?
FORD: I had gotten into an argument with my mother before my grandmother and I went to the mall together, which we did all the time - catch the bus to the mall and just walk around. And my grandmother was really curious about the argument. And I didn't want to talk to her about it because my mom didn't like me to talk to my grandma about the arguments that we had. So I was just trying to shut it down. And my grandma very uncharacteristically told me I needed to be nicer to my mom and that I needed to be more compassionate with her, like, kinder to her and that she had been through a lot.
And I was just like, OK, you know, very - why is she saying this right now? And then she said, you don't know why your dad is in prison. Do you want to know why your dad is in prison? And I said, yes, I do want to know - even knowing that, like, I was terrified to know. I was terrified to have anything confirmed and have this not be a question anymore. I still said I wanted to know and she told me. She said, your dad is in prison because he raped two women. And I just froze. I just numbed out.
GROSS: How did that compare to murder in your mind? Because you were afraid that the worst would be murder, but maybe there'd be a reason to explain why he murdered somebody.
FORD: Oh, yeah. I mean, like, the ability to rationalize as a child is unmatched. And I was trying to find so many rationalizations for why he may have taken someone's life by accident or to protect someone or, you know, like there are these reasons why it might not have been his intention to harm. With rape, there's no mistake about the intention to harm. You intended to harm someone. And you intended to harm someone in a way that I understand intimately.
GROSS: Right - because you were raped.
FORD: Yeah. About six months before I found out that my dad was in prison for rape, I had been raped.
GROSS: So it must have been, like, so personal to you because you were the victim of the kind of crime that he had committed. What was it like to try to process that?
FORD: I mean, it was terrible. It was terrible to try to process it. I knew that violation. I knew it on my body and in my body. And I knew how it altered the experience of life, of existence for a person. And the idea that this person, this man, this dad had written me these letters all this - all these years about how I was his favorite girl, and I was brilliant, and I was the beautiful girl in the world. And he could not wait to see me. He could not wait to hug me. You know, I didn't have adults in my life who were particularly ever excited to see me or be around me. I didn't - nobody missed me except for him. And he was now the person who had done the same thing that had happened to me. And how do I make that fit together? How can he be both of those people?
GROSS: Did you feel like you could ask him that and that you could talk to him about what he had done and if he had changed?
FORD: Not initially. Initially, I really didn't want to talk about it. And I did not ask him about it or to explain anything to me or to tell me anything until I was in my early 20s and I wrote him a letter essentially saying that, like, I have to know. Because I was still dealing so much with what had happened to me and with my assault that I just wanted to know. Like, I was never going to talk to the person who assaulted me. I was never going to ask him why. I never wanted to see him again, you know? But my dad, I wanted to ask why. I wanted to say why did you do this? Like, why? And he answered me.
GROSS: Can I ask you what he told you?
FORD: When he responded to my letter, he told me that he had been a young, insecure, deeply afraid man, and he made a choice, an inhumane choice, because he was not thinking of some other people as human. He was so wrapped up in his own pain and in his own fear about his life and his ability and capability that he took it out on two people who didn't deserve it, who had their own lives and their own dreams. And he became a monster so that he didn't have to become a man.
GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ashley Ford, author of the new bestselling memoir "Somebody's Daughter." We'll be right back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ashley Ford about her new bestselling memoir, "Somebody's Daughter." It's about growing up Black and poor in Indiana with her father in prison.
Did you feel that if you had empathy for your father, who was convicted of raping two women - and apparently does not deny that he did that...
GROSS: ...Do you feel like if you have empathy for him that it means you have to have empathy for the boy who raped you?
FORD: The thing is, honestly, that I oddly already do, not in the way that, like, I said I would ever want to know or speak to him again. You know, that is a boundary firmly in place for a reason. But I understand in a certain capacity that his life went on, and that this is a thing that happened, and it is terrible and it is tragic. And I do wish there had been some accountability for what happened to me. But at the same time, there is very little that looks like accountability. There is very little that could happen that would make me feel like, yeah, I finally feel like I got justice. That's not going to happen by thinking of him as inhuman. That's not going to happen by forgetting the fact that - that diminishing his humanity, you know, thinking of him as less human separates me from my humanity in a certain way. And I'm in love with my humanity. I love being a human. I love being - I do. I really do. The range of emotions is terrifying and beautiful. The range of actions are terrifying and beautiful that a human can experience. And some of my experiences suck really, really bad. A lot of them are fantastic.
GROSS: You made the decision at the time not to say anything, not even to your mother.
GROSS: Why did you decide not to tell anyone?
FORD: My mother told me from the time I was very young that if anybody touched me or hurt me, especially in that way, that she would kill them, and I believed her. I absolutely believed that she would kill him. And I wasn't so concerned with his life at the time that I thought, oh, I don't want him to die. It was more so that I don't want to lose my mom. If I tell her this and she finds and kills this boy for what he's done to me, I'll have two parents in prison.
GROSS: What made you think that she would literally kill him? Because a lot of people say I'll kill him if he does that and they don't literally mean it.
FORD: I guess the best way to say it is that my mom had a capacity for violence that I had already seen. I knew what it looked like when she was in a rage and lost control.
GROSS: 'Cause that would happen with you. She would be in a rage and hit you really hard...
GROSS: ...So hard that when you were young, you thought maybe you would die.
FORD: I did. There were plenty of times that I thought this is like - she's - she has lost control, and I am going to die.
GROSS: Yeah. You said the light would go out of her eyes, so she'd become a different person.
FORD: Yes. I mean, that's what it was like. When my mom gets angry and - well, especially back then when she got angry, it was the flip of a switch. It was like a different person was there. And I had seen that switch flip - not just on me or my brother, I'd seen that switch flip on other people too who got in her way, who, you know, attempted to harm her in some way. And I knew what my mom was capable of. My mom was an extremely strong woman. She was a corrections officer, you know. So the idea that she would kill someone who had just raped her daughter in the shed in their backyard - that didn't seem far-fetched to me. It seems like enough of a possibility that it wasn't worth risking.
GROSS: Your mother was a corrections officer.
FORD: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: Was she a corrections officer when he committed the crimes and went to prison?
FORD: No, she wasn't. I believe, at that point, she was working at a factory.
GROSS: Do you sit and think that becoming a corrections officer had anything to do with your father being in prison, or is it one of those places that you lived in where the prison supplies a lot of the job opportunities for the place?
FORD: Well, she was a corrections officer at the local county jail and not a prison. And so I think honestly that the only reason she got that job was because one of her sisters also had that job and enjoyed it and was paid pretty well for it - for the time definitely more than my mom was making at the time. And my mom - not only was she a corrections officer, but she was an extremely well-liked corrections officer. She was very respectful to the people who came in and out of the jail. And she was committed to treating them like people.
And so when we would be out in public, every once in a while, someone would be like, hey, Officer Ford, you know, or something. And we would be like, who was that? You know, and my mom would just be, like, oh, that was an inmate. You know, and it's - and they always wanted to speak to her. They always wanted to say hi, you know, because so many of them would be like, you were the only person who was kind to me and treated me like a person when I was there. And it was wild to see my mom that way and also to know that these people who had been in prison or had been in jail were just people and were just hoping that somebody was going to treat them like a person at some point.
GROSS: You know, one of the things about your mother being a corrections officer is that when you were applying to college and you had to fill in all the financial information - because your mother wasn't going to do it - you found out that she was raising you and your three siblings on $40,000 a year as a corrections officer. And that salary seems so low for a job like that.
FORD: I mean, it his low. It is - and, you know, that was with overtime. My mom did overtime all the time so that she could get Christmas presents or so that she could possibly take us somewhere in the summer that wasn't in Fort Wayne. When I realized how much my mom made and that that was probably the most she had ever made in a year, what occurred to me in that moment was that through no choice of her own, my mom had been deeply economically impacted by my dad's incarceration because she started off at 22, married. Both her and her husband had jobs. They were doing OK. They were making it. They were starting to, like, really get on their feet. And she had everything she wanted.
All my mom ever wanted was to be a mom. That was what she wanted most. And that's what my dad promised her, that she would get to just be a mom at some point. That was like the goal. And she went from that dream and feeling like she was on her way to it to having the rug pulled out from under her life. In moments, she went from being a married mother of one, with one on the way, to being a single mother of two kids at 22.
FORD: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ashley Ford, author of the new bestselling memoir "Somebody's Daughter." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Ashley Ford, author of the new bestselling memoir "Somebody's Daughter." It's about growing up with a father in prison. She didn't learn why he was in prison until she was an adult. He'd raped two women. This was especially difficult for her to process because she was raped in high school. The memoir is also about growing up poor and Black in Indiana.
You were around 30 when your father got out of prison. You had two weeks' notice that he was coming out. And you know, you say something really interesting in the book that when your father was in prison, that you felt like you knew him and that he knew you - and this might have been before you found out why he was in prison, before he - you knew that he was convicted of rape - but that you'd spent your lives mentally constructing versions of one another that you couldn't physically confirm or deny the existence of because you saw each other so infrequently. So can you tell me a little bit about the image of your father that you had constructed and the image that he had constructed of you?
FORD: My image of my dad (laughter) that I constructed early in life was definitely one of a kind of savior. You know, I had this feeling or this thought that, like, everything that was wrong in our lives would have been better if he had been there and if he had been with us and specifically with me. I grew up watching a lot of Westerns with my grandma, just all the time we watched Westerns, and I loved it. But when I would dream of my dad, he usually showed up wherever I was wearing a cowboy hat and on a horse.
FORD: I used to have these dreams and daydreams that I would be at recess at school one day and that everybody would look in some direction of the playground. And all of a sudden my dad would be literally riding up on a horse with a cowboy hat, and he would pick me up and put me on the back of the horse. And we would go home, and my whole family would be there, and it would be this big reunion. I used to play that out in my head over and over and over again and found it deeply, deeply comforting. As I got older, you know, and reality started to buck up against that imagining of my dad, the first thing I realized that changed was that he just - I never dreamed about him on a horse again ever. That dream just stopped. It had been a recurring dream for most of my life. And then it just went away. And that's when I started having to construct my idea of my dad as a human being, not an avatar, but as a person.
GROSS: Do you feel like a similar thing happened in his mind in thinking about you - that when he wrote you letters, like, you were always, like, the most beautiful, the most - the smartest, the most talented, the best daughter imaginable. But he didn't really know you as an individual human being with your own personality and your own needs and desires. So I wonder what it was like for him to encounter the reality of a specific human being who was his daughter.
FORD: I mean, it was really - I suspect - pretty jarring (laughter) for him because while I am the best and the most beautiful and the most brilliant...
FORD: (Laughter) But while I am, you know, I think, a pretty awesome person, I am not necessarily all of the things that my dad assumed I would be. Pretty soon after my dad got out of prison, I'd gone to visit him again and decided that I should tell him - because I didn't want him to find out in any other way - that I had been sexually assaulted. So I sat down with him. And I said I really want to tell you something that's very important to me that you hear it from me. I said I was sexually assaulted when I was 13. I was raped. And he looked down at the table where his hands were folded, and he closed his eyes for a couple seconds. And then he looked at me and he said, I'm so sorry. That is the one thing that I just wished and wished and wished would never happen to you and you would never have to experience. And then we just talked about it.
And it helped. It helped me to talk to him about it, to hear about his mistakes and how he felt about his mistakes. It reminded me, you know, because my dad asserted over and over and over, you know, about his crimes that he made a choice, that it had been his choice and that he had taken away somebody else's choice. And talking to my dad, I realized like, oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I didn't make this choice. Somebody took my choice. This is not my fault. This is not my shame. It's not my burden. Somebody else took my choice, and now it is their burden.
GROSS: What's your relationship with your father like now?
FORD: My relationship with my dad is good. He's really good with my boundaries. You know, he would call me and talk to me every day (laughter) if I let him. But you know, I need a little more space than that - really with everybody. I don't talk to anybody everyday. But you know, I've needed some time and some space to, you know, reach out when it feels good and right to me. And he makes room for that and makes room for me. And I do believe that he wishes he saw me a lot more often, and maybe someday we'll get there. But right now, we're getting to know each other. And I really, really like him, and he likes me, too. So it's just a budding relationship.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ashley Ford. She's the author of the new bestselling memoir "Somebody's Daughter." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ashley Ford. She's the author of the new bestselling memoir "Somebody's Daughter." It's about growing up Black and poor in Indiana with her father in prison.
You got all these messages from your mother and grandmother to, like, protect your body, to tell if anybody touched you inappropriately, and yet people were leering at you because you went through puberty so early. You were not only raped at the age of 13, but earlier than that, at a New Year's Eve party, at your home, one of the family friends, somebody who was almost like a member of the family, molested you.
GROSS: And so, like, that's a lot. How'd it affect your feelings about living in your body?
FORD: It made me feel like my body was betraying me every day. Every day I felt like my body was taking something away from me. I remember the last time I climbed a tree as a kid because I remember when my mother told me, like, you don't get to climb trees anymore. You're getting too big for that. You're getting - your body is changing. When you're up a tree, people might look at you. People might do all - you know? So it's like, you can't climb trees anymore; you can't be outside alone anymore. My mom got really - you know, as my body changed, my brother had to come with me everywhere. I wasn't allowed to just go for my walks in the woods and stuff like I used to do.
I also - when my mom got really angry sometimes, the - one of the first things that she would go to to, like, hurt me was my changing body and to say things about, you know, sexual interactions that I was not aware of and had never had. And she would bring those up almost as, like, this shaming thing - like, you don't want to be like this; you don't want to do these things because this is how people will talk to you. But she was just talking to me that way (laughter), and so I felt like it was me. I felt like it was the boobs and the butt and the hips and the growing and nothing fitting for very long and then when it's too tight, you know, or it's too loose, or, you know, you have to go to the office as a fourth-grader because you're wearing a white shirt without a bra, and your teacher finds that incredibly offensive, so you're not allowed to be in class for the rest of the day. You have to go sit in the office and do all your work from there. Like, that's - it was mortifying.
GROSS: Do you think your mother was terrified you'd get pregnant because you had physically matured so early?
FORD: Absolutely. I think that the idea that I was going to be a pregnant teen or a pregnant young person was for some reason my mom's, like, nightmare. It was her nightmare. And she was pretty constantly worried that that was happening, that I was off somewhere getting pregnant.
GROSS: You took refuge in school. You know, your mother would sometimes hit you real hard, so home was a dangerous place. You took refuge in school. Of course, the boy who raped you was a student there, too, so you had to do your best to avoid him in the halls. But how did you turn school into a safe place and a place where you could stay after hours and still feel safe?
FORD: I think because I was so used to having to sort of give up or give in or make myself small at home that, at school, I had no room for any of that. I just couldn't abide it. I was very open-minded and opinionated. And, you know, I was a thoughtful student, but I was a really, I think, difficult student to have in class because I just didn't let my teachers get away with anything (laughter). And that was rough, you know, not just for them but for me because it didn't necessarily feel like a choice; it felt compulsive. But that created this space, I think, where some of my teachers recognized that as intelligence that is not necessarily being utilized at the moment, and they helped me figure out how to channel some of that expression and that emotional energy into artistic endeavors, mostly.
So I'd always been a reader. My grandma taught me how to read when I was 4, and I would read anything I could get my hands on, even pamphlets. But I had never really tried to write. And I also hadn't really tried to be a part of, you know, many other artistic things, like making music or being a part of theater - you know, things that just, like, help you get these feelings and emotions and experiences out and also just kind of help you sometimes not be yourself for a little while, just be someone else for a little while. And school provided so much of that for me. And my teachers - you know, every once in a while, those teachers who saw that energy that could be used in different ways in me, those teachers turned out to be, you know, the life-alterers (ph), the people who sort of decided to step in and help me in a way that they were not obligated to but that probably, seriously changed my life.
GROSS: We talked earlier about how you were kind of in conflict with your body 'cause you went through puberty so early. Boys and men looked at you in ways that made you really uncomfortable. And there were a lot of things you did not like about your body. In your book, you write about learning to love your body by taking photographs of your body and looking at the photographs and seeing things that you hadn't seen before. What made you decide to do that - to take photos of your body to better see your body?
FORD: Well, I'd just broken up with my only long-term boyfriend, who I'd been with from the time I was 14 until I was 20. We broke up after he came out to me as gay. I started to think, well, if he is attracted to men, then what does that mean about my body? And he would insist, you know, nothing. I still think you're beautiful. I think you're sexy. I think you're lovely. I am just like - I'm gay, you know. And I realized like, OK, that can be true. That can absolutely be true. But this is a problem that I don't have my own perception, really, of my body, that I've only ever thought of my body in terms of how other people see it or react to it. And I want to do that differently. And I had a friend - photographer friend - who'd taken some nudes of herself. And I wasn't going to ask her to take nudes of me.
But I had a little digital camera that my grandma had gotten me that past Christmas. And I started trying to figure out if I could take nudes of me that looked good to me and that felt good to me. And I was totally worried that I was going to be really, really embarrassed by the outcome. But I uploaded those photos to my computer to look at them, and I felt really beautiful. I looked at those photos, and I saw these gentle curves in my body. And I saw like little marks on my skin. But there seemed to be, you know, like, patterns in those marks, and that made it kind of beautiful to me too.
And I found myself just spending so much time looking at these photos of my body. And I was like, I can't believe this. I never thought I even wanted to see a photo of my body like that ever - ever. I never thought I wanted to see a photo of myself nude or, you know, lying on the ground nude in like a certain position, whatever it was. I thought that it would disgust me. I thought that it would make me feel ashamed. And then I was sitting there. And I was looking at the photos. And I felt neither of those things. I felt proud. And I felt beautiful. And it was a spark, like a seedling of a moment, you know, that started to really implant in myself a perception of my own beauty and the idea that I get to define what's beautiful to me.
GROSS: Your grandmother was a cosmetologist. And I don't know what standards of beauty she had and what standards of beauty she raised you with - but were they standards that you felt you didn't fit into and didn't even want to?
FORD: Absolutely. Absolutely. My grandma used to - by the time I was in college, my grandma would sometimes reminisce in my presence about when she bought me jeans in a size zero and how she remembers the day that I went into the dressing room, and I didn't think I could fit into those size zero jeans. And I came out, and they looked perfect on me. And she would just wax poetical about the day that I wore the size zero jeans. And I would turn to her and be like, yeah, I remember being 11 too.
FORD: Yeah. I also remember being 11 years old, great year. Great year - 11. Yeah. And I thought, like most people think when their grandparents say stuff like, you know, how can you leave the house in a skirt without your pantyhose? Do you know - and it's like very easily, very easily I can leave the house without pantyhose. And that's how I felt about most of the things my grandma had to say about my weight or my hair. But it bothered me, you know, at times. It definitely bothered me. She got me a girdle for Christmas one year, only a girdle.
GROSS: Oh, no (laughter).
FORD: And it was - like. It's one of those things that my family kind of laughs about now. But at the time, I was like, this is ridiculous. Like, this is ridiculous. Your standards and concern about the shape of my body is ridiculous. And I just couldn't deal with it.
GROSS: Ashley Ford, it's just been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you for your book. And thank you for this interview.
FORD: Thank you so much for your time, Terry Gross. It has really, truly meant the world to me to be able to do this today. Thank you.
GROSS: Ashley Ford's new memoir is called "Somebody's Daughter." After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new season of the Netflix series "Lupin" about a master criminal. This is FRESH AIR.
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