While the memoir market is constantly looking for the next big, near-unbelievable story to astonish hungry readers, often the most affecting accounts of a life are those that are simple, unassuming and relatable. Though on the surface, Canadian-born actress Barbara Williams's The Hope in Leaving is a harrowing tale of poverty, tragedy and familial dysfunction, it is never once written for high drama or shock value. In fact, the true poignancy of this notably understated book is just how normal these lives feel to those who have lived them.
Williams was born on Vancouver Island to Simone and Jack Williams – her mother a study in sacrifice, and her father the kind of weathered, hard-drinking man who carries a beer in his inside coat pocket. Growing up in the harsh lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest, Williams's youth is coloured by scarcity and strife, set on the backdrop of an unforgiving wilderness and surrounded by the hard-luck characters that populate it. The growing family moves repeatedly over the course of her young life, and is defined almost entirely by struggle – their momentum always in the pursuit of something better that never seems to come.
In her 20s, Williams makes the difficult yet necessary decision to finally escape her family history and pursue her dream of acting. It's a dream that miraculously makes it out of a set of circumstances that consistently seek to destroy it. But on the day she is set to leave for Toronto, she discovers that her sensitive and troubled older brother Randy has taken his life. He has a long history of self-harm – cutting and burning himself, running away and doing drugs – and for the family, the news has a weighted sense of inevitability.
From there, the narrative moves seamlessly back and forth from the immediate aftermath of his death, to the family's difficult past. "I'm feeling Randy strongly right now, he's challenging me," Williams writes. "I'm afraid of heights but if he jumped off a cliff I would follow. He once branded his arm with an iron. I outdid him … Now he's challenging me to face the room where he died."
In travelling through time and memory, Williams paints an intimate portrait of two gifted siblings – one who just barely found her way out, and the other too long trapped by his own troubled mind. They are only a year apart in age, so all of Williams's recollections of her life feature Randy prominently. Like "good-natured little wolves," they support each other in the pursuit of survival, finding amusement and camaraderie despite their difficult lot. (A good-natured egg fight in the kitchen while they're down to their last is particularly meaningful.)
Brother and sister cling to each other to get by, trying to maintain a playful childhood while the world forces them to take on greater and greater responsibility. They sleep in cars, suffer without heat and are stalked by predators. A bear is shot and killed while following them on their way to school. There is casual familial aggression and consistent ill health. One home (of dozens) is a "crappy little shack," while another is a "gravel pit house." The Williams children all pile into a single room, their yard a "mess of dandelions" and their home infested with rats.
Their father buys "the whole god-damned lower mainland a drink" and leaves them with nothing. He stumbles home drunk from the legion hall to fight with his wife, the result her throwing something that would break "like our family breaking one more time." In documenting these difficult moments, Williams reveals she is deeply skilled in the art of subtly painting a scene for maximum impact. She strings together a series of stark tableaux to emphasize a childhood characterized by neglect, abuse and lack.
In one section, Williams's mother goes into labour, and ends up driving herself to the hospital with her children in the car. They wait there for her in the cold for hours, doors locked, anticipating the arrival of another child the family can't afford. What is most striking is how normal the entire scenario feels in the telling, as if there is nothing strange about their unsupervised vigil. Williams's authorial distance from such personal subject matter is nothing short of astounding, as she transports us completely into an existence that is difficult for many to conceive of.
Despite leaving high school in her teens to find work, Williams is finally able to crawl out of her circumstances and into the potential of a new life in the theatre. She benefits from the kind gestures of those who see promise in her, and works hard to take advantage of the doors that are opened. Randy, by contrast, falls deeper into his own madness, institutionalized for schizophrenia and subject to electroshock therapy treatments. The tragedy of this story lies in how their fates are doled out – both sprung from the same root, one finally pulling free and the other falling so far behind. Yet what makes this memoir so significant is how it refuses to pass judgment on any of its players, instead laying out the harsh realities of a life lived and delivering the tiny hope of escape.
The Hope in Leaving is an incredibly powerful offering, delivered with rare grace and strength given its painful subject matter. With it, Williams has proven the most powerful storytelling is that which trusts readers to feel its impact without instruction, and find meaning without guidance.