The opening section to the memoir YOU RUINED MY LIFE AND YOU STOLE MY BRA doesn’t seem all that important at first: a middle-aged daughter is trying desperately to cut her aging, increasingly infirm mother’s toenails. Author Anita Finlay stretches out the anecdote for much longer than you would expect: 15 pages into the book she’s still at it, and getting little for her troubles except complaints and the barbed comment when she inadvertently draws blood. This, however, is the point; the remainder of this engrossing memoir amply demonstrates how it is the back-and-forth between mother and daughter, the sense of people talking but not saying anything—“a mishmash of me telling her what to do ‘for her own good’ and her resenting it”—that gives the book much of its emotional heft.
Along the way, Finlay incorporates some family history. Born in Italy but raised largely in Austria, her mother married a Hungarian Holocaust survivor on the strength of a three-week courtship and emigrated to New York. Emotionally scarred, Finlay’s father became paranoid, imagining a house full of two-way mirrors and hidden cameras recording his actions. He also experienced rages, abusing his family both emotionally and physically. Finlay shares the harrowing memory, experienced at the age of four, of watching her father beat her mother with studied exactitude. She is generous in asserting that the Nazis “[stole] my father from me.” Nevertheless, his abuser status and his “daily bombing raids” meant that he was the sort of parent who needed to be tiptoed around, as Finlay learned to do. She would also talk him down from his rages—like an air traffic controller, as she puts it at one point. It’s an apt metaphor; those who have experienced abusive relationships will know the feeling of having to “read the room” and manage someone else’s emotions.
Finlay married, moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career, and became a character actor with a slew of appearances on big-name shows including L. A. Law and Gilmore Girls. A divorce was followed by a second marriage and the transfer of Finlay’s mother to the West Coast to allow for her care as she aged. The complexities of their relationship, the casual put-downs, the pull-push tendencies that led Finlay never to be quite secure and to “paint the devil on the wall” (meaning she willed herself to always expect the worst so she would never be caught off-guard) slowly unraveled. Finally, illness overtook her mother. The writing style here is chatty and accessible, and if the renderings of her mother’s central European accent could be dispensed with, there is no denying the heartfelt nature of the narrative. Finlay lays bare the intricate web of expectations, insecurities, and assumptions that lie at the heart of so many parent-child relationships; and she tells them in a narrative that is by turns funny, engrossing, and touching.
An engrossing and heartfelt memoir by actor Anita Finlay, YOU RUINED MY LIFE AND YOU STOLE MY BRA explores parental abuse and how it complicates the relationship between a mother and her adult daughter.
~Craig Jones for IndieReader