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Rachel Louise Snyder on her coming-of-age memoir 'Women We Buried, Women We Burned'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Rachel Louise Snyder's new memoir, "Women We Buried, Women We Burned," begins with a memory. Or is it a vision? She's near the equator on a ship, a semester at sea program, staring up at the sky. It appears to be perfectly split into two - half night, half dawn. Let's ask the author to continue.

RACHEL LOUISE SNYDER: (Reading) Science explained the celestial vision I saw that night. But memory makes it a miracle. I wouldn't understand for years still. But that line was a kind of beginning, a reset, a visual demarcation of my own metamorphosis. That line is my origin story.

SIMON: Rachel Louise Snyder, who is a journalist who's told stories of survival from around the world, especially in her book on domestic violence, "No Visible Bruises," now tells her own life story, and she joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

SNYDER: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: You lost your mother to cancer when you were 8. Your father found love pretty quickly.

SNYDER: Or something like it (laughter).

SIMON: Well, and let me just put it this way. It wasn't a loving time for you, was it?

SNYDER: No, it was not a loving time for me. Yeah, you would think that losing my mother would be, like, the big thing. And that was big. But her illness, her cancer had dictated so much of our lives. You know, my brother and I would come home from school, and did we have to help her? Did she need help getting out of bed? When she died, we suddenly had this freedom. You know, we could take our little Schwinns anywhere, you know?

And then my father met someone at a family camp. And I think he must have really felt that he was ill-equipped to be a single parent because he married her two months after they - after I recognized that they were hanging around each other. And the morning of the wedding, my father brings me downstairs to the church. She's in her wedding dress. I'm in a bridesmaid's get-up. And my father says, Rachel, meet your new mother.

SIMON: Well, also, I mean, as you write, cancer took my mother, but religion took my life. Your father brought your family into a religious community.

SNYDER: Yeah.

SIMON: If I may, there just seemed to be a lot of everyday violence that was taken for granted around you.

SNYDER: Absolutely. Yeah. I - my real mother was Jewish, so - and my father was Christian. So when my mother died, my father really went deeply into Christianity, in particular fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. And my aunt and uncle had a church in Illinois, a very tiny little church, and they told him that God was speaking through them about him, and that he needed to marry this woman, and he needed to move us to Illinois, and we needed to enroll in this kind of ridiculous, tiny little school where there were five kids in my entire grade. So everything just suddenly changed.

And we had never had corporal punishment. I mean, sometimes I guess with a wooden spoon, you know, in the '70s, as parents did, but suddenly punishment became this long, drawn-out, multiple-hour affair that ended with, you know, one or the other of us being spanked with my mother's - my real mother's, my dead mother's - sorority paddle. But it was really explained and justified through the teachings of the church, which are an extension of an authoritarian patriarchy that we see all over the world still today.

SIMON: You were invited to leave school.

SNYDER: My aunt and uncle's church school had closed down after my eighth grade year, so I went to public school. And I went for two years in theory, but I rarely went to school. And so at the end of my sophomore year, I was invited to leave and not return. I was expelled. And then finally, one day in September 1985, my parents sat us down for a family meeting, which we had often, and they gave us a typed-up list of rules, which I still have in my office today, that said, you know, you have to abide by these rules or you will not be able to live here. And the four of us never abided by a single rule, like, starting that day. We had all just had enough.

And so we found ourselves with four suitcases lined up on the foyer, and we were told to pick one. And I picked a blue and red Samsonite, packed up my stuff, and I lived out of my car for about the next year and a half, sleeping on couches, sleeping on floors.

SIMON: It's very moving to read about that, and it makes you kind of wonder if, despite how tough the circumstances were in which you lived - well, no better way to put it than this - if the kindness of strangers didn't also teach you something about the possibilities in life.

SNYDER: You know, Scott, that was the crazy thing about it, is that I had been told by the church that the world was full of nothing but danger and darkness out there. And once I got out into that world, I didn't find that to be true at all. It was my first real lesson in how wrong the worldview of my parents was because it was informed by their own ignorance.

SIMON: So you went to sea because a generous relative helped to go to school on this - I got to tell you - sounds like just a wonderful experience. You noticed a similarity with a lot of other students, though, didn't you?

SNYDER: Yes, I did. I was an unlikely candidate for college. By my senior year, by then, I had really gotten my footing, as it were, with school, and my uncle - I had an uncle in New York who found the Semester at Sea program. On that ship, it was about 500 students. One after another, I found kids who had lost one or both parents.

It was really startling to me. It was the first time I'd ever met anyone who'd lost a parent. I mean, I was like an oddity growing up, and I really began to wonder if there was some way that we were living differently than other kids. And it had to do with understanding that you have one life through this lens of a great loss.

SIMON: That really got to me. I wrote down your phrase, we were landmasses reordered after disaster.

SNYDER: Yeah. Sometimes I forget what I write, and then someone reads it back to me, and I think, that's beautiful. Oh, I wrote that.

(LAUGHTER)

SNYDER: Yeah. That's what it felt like. It felt like...

SIMON: Yeah.

SNYDER: ...You shift some emotional shape of yourself. And the thing about losing someone so young - you know, my mother was 30 when she got cancer and then 35 when she died. So I was almost 9 when I lost her. And I did not understand what that loss meant. And the loss grew bigger as the years went on.

SIMON: So you're at sea looking up into the sky, irresistibly, that you - somehow, in one glimpse, you take in the light and dark of the universe, reminding us that life contains both sides.

SNYDER: Life contains both sides. But, you know, because light bends around the earth, the light actually has more matter than the darkness. And I think it's true at the individual level of a life. It's certainly true of my life. Like, getting kicked out of my house seems like the worst thing that could happen. But in fact, it's the thing that set me on a course where I really, truly freed myself from the forces that were controlling my family. And I've had an amazing life - absolutely unpredictable.

SIMON: Rachel Louise Snyder - her memoir, "Women We Buried, Women We Burned." Thank you so much for being with us.

SNYDER: Thank you, Scott. It was wonderful to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.