Book Review: Daddy’s Girl by Debbie Drechsler

Cover of the 1995 edition of Daddy’s Girl, published by Fantagraphics.

From the beginning of Daddys Girl, Debbie Drechsler challenges the reader with explicit,
hard-to-stomach images of father-daughter incest.  About half of the 11 stories focus on episodes of incest or sexual assault, and the other half show us a girl navigating her family and school life in the shadow of her ongoing abuse.  The author describes these stories as loosely autobiographical. She is represented by two characters: Lily in pre-teen and early high school years, and Fran in late high school

I did not expect to love this book, but Drechsler is a skilled storyteller.  She avoids a desperate need to be heard that Ive found in autobio abuse narratives of eariler eras. Her teen characters are deeply relatable, and her snapshots of terrible parenting moments are painfully familiar. Drechsler’s stories of girlhood speak emotional truth about a first crush, complex relationships with her sisters, secrecy and shame, and confusion about love and identity. In the story “Daddy Knows Best,” Lily is told by her father, “You know, only a tramp would throw herself at her own father this way, right?”  She feels desperate to figure out what she is doing wrong so she can stop doing it.  When she wins a prize in an art contest, Lily wonders, “What if they knew what I was really like? Would I still get the prize?”

Drechsler uses the comics form to extraordinary effect, making the emotions and body language of the characters speak as clearly as the written text.  Although the drawing style in Daddy’s Girl is casual and cartoonish, Drechsler’s skill as an illustrator can be seen in her use of formal perspective and the beautiful brushwork in each panel.  

In “The Big News” Mom discovers a boy’s ID bracelet, given to Lily by her high school boyfriend (her sister Kay tattled!).  She makes Lily mail it back to her boyfriend.  Lily’s parents are cold hearted jerks.

As an incest survivor myself, a few details in Daddy’s Girl are especially familiar and true. In the story “Too Late” Lily breaks into exaggerated, uncontrollable laughter during a sex act with her father.  “Suddenly, the thought of what it looked like seemed so funny!  I must have gone temporarily insane!”  Her father is enraged and hits her, “… but I didn’t even care!  I’d finally found a way to rise above it! He couldn’t hurt me ever again!”  As she wakes up the next morning, she feels that there is something really important she should remember.  But she has forgotten the really important thing.  She has forgotten her new trick, her new weapon. This combination of inappropriate emotional release and memory failure is explained so simply and honestly — an experience that is true to my own, and a story I have not read elsewhere. 

Drechsler beautifully depicts the tension between craving attention from boys and being scared and disgusted by their desires in “Drummer Boy.”  At her first high school dance, just as her very first romance starts to sprout wings, the boy looks at her the wrong way, too sappy, she says, and she looses her shit.  “Why are you so dumb? Don’t you understand? I hate you! Leave me alone!”  She really likes this boy, but she cannot tolerate his gaze, imagining the horrors it might contain.

Daddys Girl is not an easy read, but it is worth reading. I’ve posted a list of the chapters below, marking those with graphically explicit content.  You can read the first chapter on Fantagraphics’ website.   

Originally published by Fantagraphics in 1995 in b/w (I read the first edition), a second edition of the book was released in 2008, including one new full-color story and a new cover. Currently available from Fantagraphics.

1. Visitors in the Night  (explicit)
2. Dear Diary
3. Marvin (explicit)
4. Helping the Poor
5. The Big News
6. Daddy Knows Best (explicit)
7. Drummer Boy
8. Too Late (explicit)
9. Claudia
10. Constellations (2008 edition only – explicit)
11. Sixteen (explicit)
12. Friends in the Night

p.s. For something uplifting, check out the gorgeous nature illustrations on Debbie Drechsler’s blog.

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