In her middle age, Tamara Saviano found new strength in setting to paper an unflinching reflection on her troubled childhood.
The Most Beautiful Girl, the Grammy-winning music producer’s resulting memoir, is both achingly grim and courageously inspirational.
It is also a music time capsule. When Saviano and her physically and verbally abusive alcoholic father aren’t spinning LPs or loading eight-tracks, they’re singing. As she wrote the book, Saviano jogged her memory by playing her father’s favorite records.
Mention of legendary artists—Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Charley Pride, Wilson Pickett, John Denver, the Eagles, Elvis Presley, KISS, Billy Joel, Kris Kristofferson, and her father’s favorite, Johnny Cash—the records they produced, and their lyrics pepper the narrative. Music lends pop cultural context to a story that begins in the early 1960s and spans the next five decades.
Her father sings Cash’s 1968 hit “Long Black Veil” as he cracks ice cubes into a drink and kisses her goodnight. “Oh, Sweet Pea, c’mon and dance with me …,” he croons as they walk home from kindergarten.
In its lighter moments especially, the story is a wistful throwback to 1970s blue-collar Wisconsin, weaving in Saviano’s suburban Milwaukee neighborhood, Green Bay Packer football Sundays, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and the wooded, northern Wisconsin resort where the family spent most of their weekends and holidays.
As often occurs in alcoholic families, Saviano’s father’s tirades alternate with moments in which he shows deep love. In these moments, family dynamics seem almost normal. Saviano writes that,
“It’s Dad’s contradictions that confuse me as a child …
it seems there is a relentless battle
between good and evil raging deep inside him.
There are times in my life when my dad is
my staunchest ally and strongest supporter.
There are other times when he crushes me like an empty can of Pabst.”
In her father’s darker moments, music becomes a grinding player in their dysfunction; late at night he drunkenly turns up his stereo, often playing Cash tunes, rousing his four young children from sleep.
Music itself becomes a victim: One Christmas morning, her father’s gifts of now-classic Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Carryin’ On albums are smashed during a family confrontation.
That Saviano’s music business career in Nashville ultimately brings her to personally know Johnny Cash, after being raised by a father who revered the singer, takes her story in a deeply poignant full circle. The book’s first pages, in fact, juxtapose Saviano’s attendance at Cash’s 2003 funeral and the shocking story of her, at age fifteen, being dragged by her father from a friend’s house and savagely beaten with a belt for getting a “D” in algebra.
The family situation doesn’t improve; such scenes are common throughout the memoir. Saviano goes on to become a teenage wife and, very quickly, a divorced single mother. She spins Kris Kristofferson’s Little Girl Lost on her turntable while tending a colicky infant. Her life—and life outlook—improve only after the passage of many years and “excruciating” therapy.
In her twenties, Saviano comes to know her biological father, whom she didn’t know existed until her teenage years. This relationship, and her career, take her in new directions.
Saviano is unable, before he dies, to resurrect the relationship with the father who raised her; they are estranged from each other during the final ten years of his life. She is, however, able to come to terms with the past, and to ultimately look with compassion at his life situation. She comes to see the events that precipitated the drinking and violence. She writes that,
“I have no score to settle with my father. This is simply our story …
I suppose this book is a way of making peace with my dad.”
Her message is quite simple: Healing is possible only if you first let go of the past.
Musicians often write lyrics as the outlet for weighty emotions and situations. Saviano’s release comes in the form of a written memoir, steeped in the music that is the record of her life. To her great credit, she writes not only about family grit, but also about the ability to move on.
It’s that second piece that is transcendent. It elevates The Most Beautiful Girl from a tell-all family memoir to a deeply reflective guidebook for readers who desire—who need—to get beyond the past.
February 2014, American Roots Press
$16.95, paperback, 206 pages
—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann