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Book News

'Dress' starts promisingly, but falters

'Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress'
by Thylias Moss

Avon Books, $23

Review by Wendy Brandes

Web posted on: Wednesday, October 07, 1998 2:48:55 PMEDT

(CNN) -- Autobiography was once the province of the famous, or at least the infamous. Kiss-and-tell authors pandered to the lascivious, while the great men of history (and they usually were men) aped Bluebeard, stashing the bloody evidence of misdeeds behind a locked door.

But now, a virtual unknown can get a memoir published. The only requirements are an abused -- or at least misunderstood -- childhood, a disastrous choice of lovers, and the desire to share the aforementioned with the world. Nevertheless, a collection of personal tragedies -- no matter how sad -- isn't the same as a great book.

"Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress" starts promisingly, thanks to poet Thylias Moss' shining description of an idyllic childhood. Her mother and father migrated to Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1950s as part of the exodus of blacks from the rural South. A girl "no bigger than a good-sized goose," Moss is blessed with happily married parents who give her "a name that had not previously existed because no one like me had previously existed." Her sensitive automotive-worker father encourages her to imagine a world without limits. When he tells here the tale of the Goose Princess, he asks her, "What would you do with wings?"

She joins her mother, a maid, for fanciful lunches, preferring "tiger stripe" to bacon and telling the imaginary waiters to hurry because the two must "return to the office in just half an hour." Even the landlady, Mrs. Feldman, is part of the joyous conspiracy, inviting the five-year-old to print her name with a golden pen.

But white flight sweeps the Feldmans out, and in comes the Dorseys. Lytta, their middle child, offers her babysitting services to Thylias' parents. Going on 13, Lytta is still stuffing her developing body into a beribboned sky-blue Sunday dress while experimenting with high heels as "thin and sharp as nails."

Lytta stepped on Thylias' hands with those heels; her pinches left "ladybug marks" on the little girl's arms. "The world is going to eat you up ..." she warned, proving her point by taunting Moss, slapping her, pushing her and ultimately sexually abusing her. For reasons she herself can't understand, Moss never tells her parents -- who certainly could rescue her -- and put up with the torment for four years until her family moves.

The damage endures. Like Oskar in Gunter Grass' novel, "The Tin Drum," Moss feels her height is stunted by horror, "as if physically I can't grow past what she did." But her art also seems stunted by Lytta, the abuse so fresh that she can't bear to analyze it, resulting in a methodical listing of cruelties. She still flinches from Lytta's words, so her dutiful attempts to report them result in strange newspaper-style self-censorship such as "'You're (expletive - she couldn't make me say her words) scrawny' " and " '(Expletive) you're nothing special.' "

And the passivity that Moss developed to defuse Lytta (and that later made her an easy target for predatory men) came off as emotional disconnectedness, reminiscent of Kathryn Harrison's flat narration in "The Kiss," a story of adult incest.

It's hard to be convinced, as Moss is, that she managed to hide her suffering from her parents, if they were anything like the parents of her early memories. "I worked hard to suppress what happened, and apparently I was successful," she wrote. She seems to believe she pulled off a great acting performance, but I think her audience was more than willing to overlook her problems.

"I guess we cannot save ourselves," said Moss, who by now was in her 40s. "But when there is a savior, we must help the savior; a savior is not necessarily strong, just willing to assist." She finds her savior in her husband of more than 20 years, who helps her seize control of her life.

In her final chapters, Moss exults in her ability to love and be loved. Her happiness is evident, but hardly eloquent.

Perhaps she wrote the book to prove she survived. She also proves that what works in life doesn't necessarily succeed as writing.

Wendy Brandes supervises financial markets coverage for CNNfn. She lives in New York City.

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