Moss Pens Haunting Memoir of Resilience, Redemption
By Jody Ewing
March 22, 2001
As a small, frail girl from the South, Barbara Robinette Moss was determined to change her fate and achieve a life defined by beauty.
Born in 1956 in rural Alabama, her family was so poor her mother ate dirt and poison-covered seeds to save food for her eight (of nine) children. Often starving and chronically malnourished, Barbara’s facial bone structure, teeth and complexion failed to develop normally, leaving her with what she called a “twisted mummy face.”
She also suffered abuse at the hands of her father, a sadistic tyrant who inflicted pain recreationally, both physical and emotional. “You belong to me,” he told his children, “and I’ll do with you what I want.”
Young Barbara prayed nightly to become attractive, to be changed into Zeus’s daughter Aphrodite — the goddess of beauty — and after a lifetime of fiery resolution, so she has been transformed.
“Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter” is a beautifully written, poignant and searing literary memoir of that journey and a testament to the power of undaunted purpose and faith.
Moss will read and sign copies at Book People in Sioux City on Friday, March 23, from 7 – 9 p.m.
“I never intended to write a book,” Moss says of her story, which chronicles her family’s chaotic impoverished survival in the red-clay hills of Alabama. “I was writing down the events that happened when I was a child in a way to get it out of my life, to just put it down on paper as a way of validation. Sort of like, ‘This happened, and now maybe I’ll be able to go on with my life.'”
What happened was a childhood marked with hunger, cruelty, suicides and violence, offset by a loving mother who plied her eight children with art and poetry in place of balanced meals.
Their father, S.K. Moss, was a wild-eyed, shiftless alcoholic who shot the family pets and routinely awakened his children at 3 a.m. to harass or engage them in all-night poker games. Irrationally proud, he refused to accept any government aid or private charity.
Their mother became their angel, absorbing most of their father’s blows for them — her only sin her inability to leave her husband for the sake of the children. She drew pictures to entertain them and enriched their lives with music, art and a lifesaving appreciation for literature and books.
Zeus’s Daughter took root when Moss gave one of her stories to friend Mary Swander, author of “Out of this World.”
“She read it, helped me reconstruct it and thought I should send it off to a competition,” Moss says. “I’d never given that any thought before, but I did.”
The story, titled “Near the Center of the Earth,” won first place and the Gold Medal for Personal Essay in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition in 1996. That essay, at the encouragement of competition judge Jack Davis (who was then with the Chicago Tribune) grew into the book “Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter,” and serves as its first chapter.
First published in 1999 by Loess Hills Press, the book was quickly bought out by Scribner, who published it in hardcover the next spring.
What makes the memoir succeed is the lingering image not of self-pity but of the incredible bond between the eight siblings. One other child, a newborn girl whom Moss calls a “sky blue baby,” died at birth. Moss’s drunk father buried the baby while her mother was still in the hospital and could not remember where he buried her.
Yet the book has no “woe is me” tone, just the raucous, childish fun the other children had together, the making-do and the total devotion to their desperate mother.
Moss’s siblings also were supportive when it came to publishing the book.
“I asked my brothers and sisters and they didn’t care,” says Moss, who now lives with her husband in Iowa City. “I gave them the manuscript and I thought if there’s an issue with them, I’ll change everybody’s names and I’ll change the place where it happened.” But that wasn’t necessary, and the result is a book being embraced by critics and drawing raves as an American “Angela’s Ashes.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter Marsha Norman is presently writing the screenplay “Zeus’s Daughter,” that Goldie Hawn will produce. A director has yet to be named. Moss says there are hopes of casting Holly Hunter in her role.
“She’s got that southern persona, and it’s real,” says Moss. “She doesn’t have to fake it and try to figure out what southern people think and feel. She’s got it.”
Barb Barnett, Manager of Book People, says this is her favorite book.
“We’re all so excited. This is a very big deal,” Barnett says. “It will be a highlight having her here in the store.”
Moss is almost finished with her second book “Singing to the Wild Cat,” which Scribner also will publish, and picks up where Zeus’s Daughter leaves off.
“I had no idea I was writing such a universal story,” says Moss in reaction to the calls and letters pouring in.
In addition to writing, Moss also is an accomplished artist. She received an MFA from Drake University in Des Moines and a BFA from Ringling School of Art & Design in Sarasota, Fla. She has participated in more than 100 juried exhibitions.
Most of all, she transcended the scars of childhood, changing not only her life, but her face. By herself, she raised money to endure years of experimental, radical facial surgery and painful dental procedures. The result: a keenly developed appreciation for beauty — physical, artistic and spiritual — which is evidenced in her writing.
As Moss puts it, “A metamorphosis, really, of coming into my own.”
This article first appeared in the Weekender on March 22, 2001.
Read Jody’s follow-up interview with Barbara after Moss’s publication of “Fierce.”
Author’s Note: Barbara Robinette Moss passed away from cancer on October 9, 2009. She was 54 years old.
A Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated Oct. 14, 2009, said the former Iowa City author and artist would be remembered for the many lives she touched through her books, artwork and teaching.
She touched a great many lives — including mine — and is deeply missed.