Reviewed by Julie Pierce Onos
Million Dollar Red
by Gleah Powers
Vine Leaves Press
December 2019, ISBN-13: 978-1-925965-20-9, 284 pages
“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” -Pablo Picasso
In Million Dollar Red Linda paints in relief her life from the pre-teen years through early 40s with a poignancy that causes the reader to recall as well.
Gleah Powers is a self-named author and visual artist. She published an award winning book of fiction prior to Million Dollar Red in addition to other short works of fiction and poetry. Additionally she is a visual artist with vibrant paintings for sale and commission. She has a unique voice and the memoir is fast-paced and the reader finds themselves transfixed.
Million Dollar Red teaches that you cannot trust others until you learn to trust yourself. Linda’s childhood wounds and mishaps of adulthood initially led her away from trusting herself to do anything but survive. This memoir demonstrates that unresolved trauma causes ripple effects of pain, heartache and loss in yourself and those to whom you are connected. However, you can reverse the effect by intentionally working on healing.
Powers heart-wrenchingly shows the point of view of a child of a woman who struggled with depression, alcoholism, various forms of abuse and unresolved trauma. What is is like to grow up with this mother as your only life line? What happens when the life line is drowning? What happens when you realize that the world as your mother explains it, is a lie?
Linda came of age in the 60s having lived in multiple places due to her mother’s life choices. Her childhood taught her to read a room and understand the dynamics of class in a visceral way. She moved to NYC in the 70s due to her own life choices. Criss crossed through low paying jobs, heartbreaks, cults, poor father figures and an artistic blood line, we grow up with her, sober and unflinching. Million Dollar Red deals with race, class and domestic abuse in a way that demonstrates a young person’s evolving understanding of what is happening in the world and how that connects to her.
Million Dollar Red is the name of a popular color of lipstick and nail polish. It’s the bright, bold kind of red that only a woman confident in her beauty would wear. It was Linda’s mother’s favorite. Since her confidence was only surface-level, her internal struggles inflicted the original trauma onto Linda. Her demands throughout the years of keeping up a false exterior only continued the mother wound. The ability to trust what you see and believe is stolen from Linda in childhood by the false beauty of Million Dollar Red and all the other ways she was forced to pretend she was ok while her mother allowed a warped perception of society to dictate what she should prioritize.
The approach of the memoir is both topical and chronological. She tells the story via 14 vignettes, each chronological within itself. All but one of the vignettes are told from the protagonist’s own point of view; the other is from her mother’s. The way the book is structured adds intense depth to the story. You will wonder if you should meet her at her new destination to help her unpack her ‘new, small life’.
Of course, meeting her at that destination is a metaphor for unpacking our own traumas. Unresolved trauma of ourselves and those we are connected to can be passed down or linger in our own lives and cause us to make bad decisions. These bad decisions continue replicating the pain in a ripple effect until the trauma is dealt with honestly. This is shown in Linda’s primary relationships with her parents and her sister as well as with others throughout her lifetime.
Linda’s mother has led a life marked by trauma and searching for the validation of a rich husband. She sought stability, social status, and a life of ease however, she never reached the point of having a reliable husband until her own children were scarred, damaged and over 40. Through the various chapters of the book she is simultaneously coldhearted and neglectful of her children, while at the same time a tragic, abused figure. Whether its getting married to someone her children never met while they are away at summer camp or needing to be rescued by a pre-pubescent Linda from a violent, abusive ex while a current suitor stands there motionless, Linda’s mother lurches from pain to pain, daughters in tow. However much there are times to sympathize with the mother, it is clear that neither Linda nor her sister’s needs were met as children. Throughout the book Linda is hard on herself and distrustful of many; but never seems to squarely face her mother until you reach the final vignette of the book. However damaged one’s mother is, you still yearn for her validation. Confronted with the harm she allowed to befall Linda, rather than squarely deal with her own trauma and the reality of not protecting her daughters, the mother chose to stop talking to Linda. Still focused on make up and appearances, she relegates herself to be no more useful than an old mascara wand to Linda in her new life.
Linda’s biological father had his own demons that he carried with him at all times. He abandoned his children twice both as the result of the divorce and second when he didn’t try to prevent their failed adoption by one of their step-fathers. Linda is resentful and yet a curiosity about him grew and she attempted to see him three times. The first out of a desire to have a father who weighed in on her life and provided direction – but the weight of his failures didn’t allow him to do that. He carried his pain so heavily that it fleetingly appeared as if it could get on Linda as a young woman trying to understand her father and the lack of fatherhood in her life. The second was out of a sense of duty and this sense of duty is something she carries with her and often causes her to do things she doesn’t want to do – whether its lying to police for her mother or taking her friend for an abortion, she consistently does things out of duty and obligation – a sure recipe for pain and resentment. This led to the final time of seeing him on his death bed. He was never there for her but at least she was able to make her peace. She was there for him and brightened his final hours even though he was never there for her.
Ironically, her biological father blamed himself so much for his failures that he was ultimately no good to either of his wives or his daughters. Escaping legal accountability for manslaughter was supposed to be an opportunity provided by his original father-in-law so that he could continue providing for his family. Instead, he pulled into himself and didn’t provide either financially or emotionally for anyone. Her mother dissociated from both the bad things that happened to her that she couldn’t control and the things she could control that she took zero accountability and blamed herself for nothing. Linda’s baby sister Kimberly soaked up a double helping of pain, sinking further and further into an abyss where she no longer desired to interact with Linda. In the book, Kimberly never seems to face her problems – lurching from lower to lower station in life like her mother. Linda has a lot of guilt for not saving Kimberly from their painful childhood and leaving her with her mother as a teenager. Was it even fair that she felt she had to save Kimberly? There is no peace for Linda here and no accountability or healing from Kimberly, only Linda’s relief that by the end, Kimberly had achieved some small modicum of stability with the help of their grandmother.
Ultimately we are each responsible for our own lives. Wherever we are when we realize this, is when we are able to take responsibility and work on our own healing. This is reflected in Linda’s life. Though she initially goes from failed father figure relationship to the next, each time, she learns something about herself, what she is capable of, and who she wants to be. In the end, she is finally moving and starting something new again – not because of anyone else but herself. She is no longer imprisoned by her mother’s faulty life code or the pain of failed relationships. In the end, life can be pared down to essentials and she resolved to start a new life with only that. It is enough. The generational trauma that was passed through Linda’s parents will not be passed through Linda because she chose to honestly face her problems and create a new life.
Although the message is clear, there is a way in which the reader is left wanting – not all the threads of the story are tied up. Where does Gleah end up? Does she keep selling art – enough to live on? Why did she change from Linda to Gleah? However, maybe these hanging threads are not a weakness. Perhaps that prove the overall point even more strongly – we never have to be done evolving and growing if we don’t choose. Because Gleah chooses to have a new life, her story lives on.
This book has many strengths – the pacing is fast, smooth and breathless. The character development is strong – even within the first few pages, there are so many details you can already sense about who Linda, Kimberly, Mother and Jack are as people and they continue helping the story gel throughout the book. Although it was not the focus one the book, another strength is that it gives great insight into how some coming to age in that time might view the current events at that time such as racial tensions, cults and the lack of equity for women in the workforce. Million Dollar Red provides great insight into the point of view of a child who survives childhood traumas to finally make a sustainable life for herself. It would be a great book to be read in community work-focused classrooms for those who seek to be trauma-informed as they make a difference with today’s youth.
The final work of art in Million Dollar Red tells the complete story. It was a triptych depicting the three stages of Linda’s failed marriage. The first, “Dollin”, depicts a man and woman embracing set in the context of her and her ex-husband’s favorite comic strip. The second, “La Boda de la Guera y el Judio”, reveals their marriage was doomed from the start as the woman was resigned and the man terrified. The final piece, “Private Graffiti” was of a woman’s back covered with symbols and poetry. However, it is in that final piece that all of the parts of Gleah had come together and she was moving forward. This “Private Graffiti” of Gleah’s life demonstrates that unresolved trauma marks us and continues to affect us until we stop and determine to heal. Only the final piece sold; and in that finality, the lie became truth.
About the reviewer: Author and Speaker Julie Pierce Onos has written and taught on many subjects including parenting, spirituality and holistic health. In holistic health, she helps clients focus on health from a holistic point of view rather than a self-defeating focus on size. She guides her clients in identifying and correcting nutritional intolerances and deficiencies. In her work centered on spirituality her client work focuses on identity, life purpose and the practical side of putting beliefs into action. Bringing together the holistic health and spiritual guidance, she helps individuals create their best lives. She is simultaneously the parent of an infant, a young teen and a college age teen and the daughter of baby boomers so she can laugh (and cry) about all stages of life right along with you. A Yale University graduate, she is the mother of three and works in the Boston area in social services and holistic health.