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In 'Somebody's Daughter' Ashley C. Ford Confronts The Crimes Of Her Father

Heather Sten, Macmillan
Heather Sten
Ashley C. Ford's new memoir is Somebody's Daughter.

Ashley C. Ford was a baby when her father went to prison, and for many years no one in her family told her what his crime was. As a teenager, she was shocked to learn he had been convicted of rape.

"It was terrible to try to process it," she says. "With rape, there's no mistake about the intention to harm. You intended to harm someone and you intended to harm someone in a way that I understand intimately."

Just a few months before she learned about her father, when she was 13, Ford was raped by a classmate. It wasn't until she was in her 30s and her father was out of prison that Ford told him about her own history with sexual assault.

"And then we just talked about it, and it helped me to talk to him," she says. "My dad asserted over and over and over about his crimes that he made a choice, that it had been his choice, and that he had taken away somebody else's choice."

Ford says their conversations helped her put her own experiences into a new context: "Talking to my dad, I realized ... I didn't make this choice, somebody took my choice. This is not my fault. This is not my shame. It's not my burden. Somebody else took my choice and now it is their burden."

Ford's new memoir, Somebody's Daughter, details her childhood growing up poor in Indiana and her complicated relationships with her mother, her grandmother and her own body.

Interview highlights

On initially not knowing why her father was in prison

When I was very young and I asked my mom, "Well, why?" her reaction to that was so big and so sad, that it became very clear to me as a kid that that's just not a question I got to ask. It was a question that caused a reaction in my mom that worried me and scared me. And then my brother, he asked more often than I did, but he would get the same response from my mother or my grandmother, which was that big emotional, outsize response. Or when we got a little older and he would ask ... my mom would say, "I shouldn't have to tell you that. He should have to tell you that." And so we were just trying to figure out what had happened between the two of us, and that wasn't really working out because we were 8 and 9.

[Murder] was my number one guess. ... No idea who, no idea how, obviously. But I just assumed because of how long he was away, how long he was expected to be away.

On how her family responded to her going through puberty starting at age 9

It made me feel like my body was betraying me every day. Every day I felt like my body was taking something away from me. I remember the last time I climbed a tree as a kid because I remember when my mother told me, "You don't get to climb trees anymore. You're getting too big for that. Your body is changing. When you're up a tree, people might look at you." So it's like you can't climb trees anymore. You can't be outside alone anymore. As my body changed, my brother had to come with me everywhere. I wasn't allowed to just go for my walks in the woods and stuff like I used to do.

On why she didn't tell her mother when she was raped

My mother told me from the time I was very young that if anybody touched me or hurt me, especially in that way, that she would kill them — and I believed her. I absolutely believed that she would kill him, and I wasn't so concerned with his life at the time that I thought, "Oh, I don't want him to die." It was more so that I don't want to lose my mom. If I tell her this and she finds and kills this boy for what he's done to me, I'll have two parents in prison.

On writing her father a letter when she was in her 20s asking for an explanation of his crimes

When he responded to my letter, he told me that he had been a young, insecure, deeply afraid man. And he made a choice, an inhumane choice, because he was not thinking of some other people as human. He was so wrapped up in his own pain and in his own fear about his life and his ability and capability, that he took it out on two people who didn't deserve it, who had their own lives and their own dreams. And he became a monster so that he didn't have to become a man.

On having empathy for the boy who raped her

Not in the way that I would ever want to know or speak to him again — that is a boundary firmly in place for a reason. But I understand, in a certain capacity, that his life went on and that this is a thing that happened and it is terrible and it is tragic, and I do wish there had been some accountability for what happened to me. But at the same time, there is very little that looks like accountability, there is very little that could happen that would make me feel like, yeah, I finally feel like I got justice. That's not going to happen by thinking of him as inhuman. That's not going to happen by forgetting the fact that diminishing his humanity, thinking of him as less human, separates me from my humanity in a certain way — and I'm in love with my humanity. I love being a human. I do. I really do. The range of emotions is terrifying and beautiful. The range of actions are terrifying and beautiful that a human can experience, and some of my experiences suck really, really bad. A lot of them are fantastic.

On why she took nude photos of her body — and how they made her feel

I had just broken up with my only long-term boyfriend, who I had been with from the time I was 14 until I was 20. We broke up after he came out to me as gay. I started to think, if he is attracted to men, then what does that mean about my body? ... I've only ever thought of my body in terms of how other people see it or react to it. And I want to do that differently. ...

I had a little digital camera that my grandma had gotten me that past Christmas, and I started trying to figure out if I could take nudes of me that looked good to me and that felt good to me. And I was totally worried that I was going to be really, really embarrassed by the outcome. But I uploaded those photos to my computer to look at them and I felt really beautiful. I looked at those photos and I saw these gentle curves in my body, and I saw like little marks on my skin, but there seemed to be patterns in those marks and that made it kind of beautiful to me, too. And I found myself just spending so much time looking at these photos of my body. And I was like, I can't believe this. I never thought I even wanted to see a photo of my body like that ever, ever. ... I thought that it would disgust me. I thought that it would make me feel ashamed. And then I was sitting there and I was looking at the photos and I felt neither of those things. I felt proud and I felt beautiful. And it was a spark, like a seedling of a moment, that started to really implant in myself a perception of my own beauty and the idea that I get to define what's beautiful to me.

Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.
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