Healing when it seems impossible

‘Underwater Daughter: A Memoir of Survival and Healing,’ a tale of abuse and recovery.


Antonia Deignan, a summer Vineyard resident since her childhood in the 1970s, uses a lyrical style throughout her memoir, “Underwater Daughter,” to immediately convey the confusing experience of childhood incest and how it shaped her life from a tender age:

“A lounge lizard lived in my home, posing as my brilliant and fumbly-bumbly father. I was 4 when he touched and tickled and weirdly lingered where he shouldn’t have in between, at the tip-tops of my pinchable thighs, sweet spots. And I was four when my mother watched him touch and tickle me there … I was 4 when his touch made me goosebumpy and squirm in pleasure, innocently …”

Deignan was in awe of her father, a successful physician, who devoured books, had perfect pitch, and played at his Steinway with a building crescendo. She writes, “Perhaps his passion for his music was a cry for help, a silent enemy from his childhood, a perpetrator now held within the divinity of his masterpieces, his fingertips.”

About her mother, Deignan writes, “The actual word God was not spoken in my home, and the concept of God rattled me because I was thoroughly convinced God. Was. My. Mother. Full. Stop.” And later, about the fact that her mother would look on as her father abused her, Deignan shares, “Her standing small in the hall was one of her God tricks. It wasn’t her standing there in her mom clothes; it was her shadow … She normalized it. Her acquiescence condoned it. My terribly fragile, broken, godless, duteous, rigidly intellectual, meek mother was guilty of knowing.”

To cope with the repeated abuse, Deignan would pretend to be someone else and create dreams to escape, and she would also steal things from her mother, lying when confronted: “I knew who I was (a liar, a stealer, a weirdo, a slut), and felt fairly certain most everyone else knew too.”

The abuse continued until Deignan was 11 years old, and then, just three years later, she was raped by an adult who was part of her cast in a professional theater production.

“Underwater Daughter” takes us on Deignan’s journey of reacting to and then eventually dealing with her childhood traumas. She becomes a professional dancer right out of high school, and although successful, spirals into a gripping eating disorder and drug and alcohol abuse, and undergoes cosmetic surgery to please her mother, which brought about even more sexual attention.

Deignan at one point enters therapy with her parents, hoping they would admit what occurred at home — to no avail. She eventually has, by intention, five amazing children, but it isn’t until a very serious bike accident at age 55 forces her to stop that she really starts healing, which eventually includes the relationships with her parents. Deignan shares her adult understanding of what occurred and the ramifications — that a child is unable to objectively define or comprehend dysfunctional behavior by their caretakers. And, also, that “when a child navigates trauma and becomes yoked to fear, over time the fear escalates, accelerates, and can expand into a destroyer of joy and light.”

However, Deignan also asks profound questions speaking to the depth of her transformation:

Is it possible that vulnerability as a result of trauma can be holy? Is it possible that a weakened heart in the aftermath of trauma can be revelatory, and damaged love can be revolutionary? Instead of succumbing to the ego’s alliance with fear, what if our reactions to trauma were slowed and shapeshifted away from fear, and we deferred instead to intuition and presence of spirit and prayer, and what if by paying closer attention to the soul within, awe always won, held hands with suffering while remaining steadfast in its commitment to a higher vibration?

As Deignan comes to healing, the theme of love keeps coming through as in this moving passage: “I know I meditate on love, a lot. My hope is when we meet and I place my love in the lead, you will do the same. As you lean in toward me and offer your love forward first, can we meet there, love on love, and leave fear behind?”

Deignan says of her book, “I think [one of the] takeaways could be a new awareness that most (if not all) people in one way or another have a degree of suffering or critical experiences or extreme disappointments that can be traumatic and almost insist on being readdressed or acknowledged or reckoned with at some point during their lives that can result in a new beginning, a reinvention … By re-lensing ourselves and refocusing our perceptions away from blame or fear to compassion, we can transform suffering into self-discovery, and ultimately forgiveness — forgiving oneself, forgiving the details of one’s past, in order to cherish the gifts right in front of us.”

“Underwater Daughter: A Memoir of Survival and Healing” by Antonia Deignan, $17.95. Will be available at Edgartown Books on May 2, Bunch of Grapes, and at antoniadeignan.com. The author will be at a book signing at Bunch of Grapes on June 14 from 3 to 4 pm; speaking on July 6 at the Edgartown library from 4 to 6 pm; signing books at Edgartown Books on July 9 from 2 to 4 pm, and speaking on August 24 at the West Tisbury library, from 3 to 5 pm.