Book Review: Birthdays of a Princess by Helga Zeiner

birthdaysAnother from ireadabookonce.com:

This book is billed as a “psychological thriller”.  Add “emotional” and “disturbing” to that list as well.  Here is the synopsis:

Almost from age one, Tiara has been a star of the American Child Beauty Circuit. When she grows too old to win anymore, her mother leaves Texas and returns to Vancouver. Tiara is twelve years old, she refuses to attend school or interact with other children, becoming more and more reclusive. Her relationship with her mother deteriorates and they become estranged.

 One morning, three years later, Tiara’s mother is shocked to find her daughter the subject of a big story on the morning news. A violent assault has just occurred at a local coffee shop and it seems Tiara is the perpetrator. The brutal and seemingly unprovoked assault lands her in the Burnaby Secure Youth Centre for a court ordered psychological assessment.

 When the police investigate the incident they begin to slowly unravel her confused and dark childhood. They discover her history as a child beauty queen star, managed by her mother and aunt while living in Texas. It also becomes increasingly apparent that explicit photos of Tiara were taken and posted to many internet sites The photos seem to capture Tiara over many years and lead the detectives to wonder whether she is the victim rather than the perpetrator.

 Tiara herself cannot provide any insight. She has buried the memories of her childhood deep in her sub-consciousness, and even if she could remember, she is deeply traumatized and unresponsive. Any attempts by the authorities to probe result in more withdrawal and unexplained expressions of grief and anger.

 Carefully guided by the adolescent forensic psychiatrist in charge at the Secure Youth Centre, she begins to write a journal, anchoring her memories on her birthdays as she remembers them. At the same time, her mother tries to explain the past from her own perspective, insisting she only wanted the best for her daughter and refusing to acknowledge any responsibility at all for what Tiara has experienced. It becomes very obvious that Tiara has been greatly damaged by her childhood.

 

Slowly the two story-lines merge until they arrive at the moment when mother and daughter recall the trauma that eventually leads to the attack. Tiara begins to understand the horrific nature of her abnormal childhood. She allows the psychiatrist to read the notes in her journal, subconsciously guiding him toward the truth.
But the truth is not clear cut. Tiara is guilty of aggravated assault. Even the detectives can’t find motive to explain her action, which means the judicial system has no choice but to keep her locked up as a dangerous juvenile criminal. Tiara remembers much of her past but she has no idea why she stabbed a strange woman in a coffee shop. Her mental isolation doesn’t allow her to confront this important question. Only the psychiatrist, with the assistance of the detectives who keep digging in the past, might be able to unlock the secret buried in her soul.

And they are successful, but in a way they never expected. When Tia remembers all that had happened and what had motivated her to attack another human being, the final answer, the solution to the puzzle, surprises them all.

I need to clarify that I usually steer clear of this subject matter.  I am still dealing with lingering PTSD as a result of my own sexual assault(s) in high school.  There is a term that we survivors use for things that cause us to have a flashback or nightmares.  We call them triggers.  And I do want to stress that this book is one major trigger for anyone who has suffered any kind of sexual assault or exploitation.

That said, it is right on the money regarding PTSD type symptoms.  For that reason, I kept on reading.  I wanted to see if the portrayal of Tiara’s symptoms was accurate.

This book starts with the assault that she commits, a heinous crime where she stabbed a woman repeatedly in the face, dislodging an eyeball and putting her in a coma.  The story then slowly weaves back and forth between Tiara’s journal entries while in custody and the investigation from the law enforcement point of view.  It also peeks in on her mother and her memories and issues.

To help the psychiatrist treating her understand why she committed a gruesome assault, Tiara starts writing down memories, starting with her birthdays.  She starts an entry for each of her birthdays and often the months leading up to it.

Through this technique, she is able to remember.  Remember a lot.  And the memories aren’t pretty.  I found this quote to be 100% accurate:  “I have turned on a tap and now the memories are gushing out under enormous pressure.”  That is almost exactly how I described it.  I went 8 years with ignoring the memories and hoping they would just go away.

Through these memories, the reader realizes just how disturbing Tiara’s childhood was.  Absolutely heinous crimes were committed against this poor girl.  You almost feel that she is justified in committing her crime, once you learn the identity of her victim.

Many emotions rolled through me while reading this book.  Sadness, anger, frustration, despair.  I already didn’t like pagents and I can’t stand to see the tiny little outfits young cheerleaders and dancers wear.  This book solidified the fact that my child will never, ever be in a pagent.  Ever.

This book is a bit of a mystery and thriller in addition to the issues regarding sexual assault.  I read it in two days.  It kept me drawn in and the character of Tiara is so real.

I’m sure those who haven’t had similar experiences might find this book informative, and it accurately portrays what survivors go through.  But if you can’t stomach lurid details it might be wise to skip it.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Indra
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 16:41:08

    Compelling, in-depth review as always, Mommabel. Thank you. I think I will pass, though, sounds traumatizing. And sad. Child pageants make me sick, and they always remind me of poor JonBenet…

    Reply

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