Marcia Edwina Herman-Giddens’ memoir, Unloose My Heart: A Personal Reckoning with the Twisted Roots of My Southern Family Tree, is both a moving and sobering account of her coming of age during the civil rights movement and investigating her family history during the pandemic. The most powerful sections of her first book detail her unhappy childhood at the hands of a cruel and mentally ill mother and her growing awareness of the plight of Black Americans despite the rampant segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1950s and 1960s.
Marcia Edwina Herman-Giddens was born to a desperately mismatched couple and grew up in the industrial and polluted city of Birmingham. The city was so segregated that the only Black Americans she ever met during her early years were maids, and they were usually kinder to her than her own mother, who was a deeply racist and mentally unstable woman who terrorized her only child.
Herman-Giddens remembers, “I didn’t know about the Ku Klux Klan, nor did I ever see the Klan do its evil work, but they couldn’t hide their loud bomb blasts that traveled down the valley.” One of the reasons Jim Crow was created and implemented was supposedly to “protect” white women, but Herman-Giddens makes it clear that it was white men who were the menace. The possibility of molestation was as ubiquitous in her childhood as was the smog above the city of Birmingham — the threat of sexual violence as invisible and as ever-present as the racism that undergirded Southern society.
Despite her troubled childhood and a very early marriage, Herman-Giddens pursued a career in medicine at a time when married women were not supposed to work outside the home. This she achieved through a supportive husband and the new friends she made at a Unitarian Church, who opened her eyes to the plight of Black Americans and encouraged her to support the civil rights movement. Despite her involvement with the controversial Project CAUSE at Tuskegee University, which Herman-Giddens reveals with refreshing honesty, she became aware of her white privilege and the “scabrous, apartheid world” she was born into. She began participating in several civil rights events in Birmingham, including the Concerned White Citizens March in Selma in 1965.
In Unloose My Heart, Herman-Giddens’ youth and young adulthood is interspersed with her investigation of her mother’s family tree, which included multiple slave holders. Her research is thorough, and she writes of the wrongdoing her family perpetuated with a keen eye, not shying away from the generational horrors that are part of her family tree. She writes, “I believe that as a society, we cannot have dialogue, we cannot move forward, if we do not know the full truth. Not knowing is insisting on staying in a state of purposeful ignorance that only hurts us.”
One of the most surprising sections of the memoir is when Herman-Giddens details writing to ten of her former classmates, asking them if they remembered four racially-charged atrocities that happened in “Bombingham” during the 1950s. Only one person responded. “Many people our age don’t want to acknowledge that racism is alive and well,” the friend replied.
Such a response of devastating silence is proof of the importance of memoirs like Herman-Giddens’. She is consistent about stating that Southern institutions were built by the enforced labor of enslaved people and perpetuated by Jim Crow. Hopefully, more of her contemporaries will tell their stories of growing into awareness and not remain silent about the past.
The memoir is at times uneven: the sections detailing Herman-Giddens’ slave-holding ancestors are unwieldy and, in comparison to the emotionally devastating episodes concerning her mother, often dull and repetitive. Herman-Giddens also acknowledges repeatedly that she hasn’t read all of her mother’s diaries and papers, which is a shame, as her mother haunts the latter half of the memoir like a malevolent specter. The interactions between the two women are the most emotionally searing and unforgettable portions of Unloose My Heart.
Perhaps Herman-Giddens will write another book unhampered by the genealogical aspect of her family and focus on her relationship with her mother and the women in her life, despite the lingering trauma and her statement that there are some enigmas in her life “she will never be able to parse.” Herman-Giddens is an engrossing writer, and it is to be hoped that this is not the last we will hear from her.
Unloose My Heart: A Personal Reckoning with the Twisted Roots of My Southern Family Tree
By Marcia Edwina Herman-Giddens
University of Alabama Press
Published January 2023