Review: Daddy's Rules

By Rebecca Abrams, March 5, 2009

By Rachel Sontag
Harper Perennial, £7.99

For Rachel Sontag, madness was so embedded in the normalcy of family life that it was years before she realised it was madness. Daddy’s Rules is her deeply disturbing account of a childhood destroyed by years of unstinting psychological abuse.

A successful doctor, a respectable member of the local Jewish community, and to all appearances, a loving family man, Sontag’s father was, in private, a controlling tyrant, ruling his wife and two daughters with capricious dikats, erratic behaviour and volatile temper. Attempts to resist were crushed with hours of verbal abuse.

As Sontag’s mother sank into lithium-induced torpor — the lithium prescribed by her husband for supposed mental instability — Rachel tried to break free of her father’s demonic regime. In retaliation, he tapped her phone calls, locked her out of the house, humiliated her verbally for hours on end, forced her to write long letters of apology, and then rewrite them for being insufficiently heartfelt. How far his cruelty was a product of his own childhood, as the son of immigrants and the victim of routine antisemitism, is not explored. Perhaps this would have seemed to Sontag like making excuses for her father.

With the support of counsellors, therapists and friends who saw through her father’s charming veneer, Sontag succeeded in hanging on to a sense of reality other than his. A stark reminder that psychological cruelty can be just as devastating as physical abuse, Daddy’s Rules is also testament to sanity’s power — and purpose.

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011