The corn and beans that Dorris Moss carried from the shed to her family’s clapboard house in Eastaboga, Ala., were coated with pesticides. She rinsed them as well as she could and boiled them. Then she placed a clock on the kitchen table and sat down with her seven starving children. Lifting the spoon to her trembling lips, she told them to keep their eyes on the clock. “If I’m not sick in two hours,” she said, “you can eat.”
This isn’t the worst incident that Barbara Robinette Moss, one of those children, recounts in Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter, her affecting memoir about a childhood steeped in poverty and violence. Moss’s misery was compounded by a face disfigured by malnutrition and lack of dental care. But the real scars were left by her alcoholic father, Stewart Moss, who was as capriciously cruel as the mythical deity on Mount Olympus. He routinely roused his children from bed at 3 a.m. to wash, his car, mow the grass or count knotholes in the walls. He also would wait until they had grown especially close to a pet. Then he would shoot the animal. “He inflicted pain recreationally,” writes Moss. “It was his hobby.”
But Moss’s memoir, which has resonated with the critics (the Chicago Tribune calls it “vivid” and “dramatically rendered”), is more than a litany of deprivation. It is a story of overcoming—of a little girl who discovered moments of beauty within daily despair and managed to transcend the brutality to become a loving mother and wife and a successful artist. “Barbara proves that just because you come from that kind of family,” says her big sister Alice Skala, 50, an Army civil servant in Attalla, Ala., “doesn’t mean that you have to stay there.”
For Moss, 45, the journey was not complete until she could have what she calls “a normal face.” It took 16 years and two major operations, but at 38 the girl whom classmates had called “dogface” and “monster” got her wish. The transformation was so dramatic, says Moss, that when she attended her high school reunion, a former football hero accused her of “paying someone to say she was me.”
Moss grew up in several rural towns throughout northern Alabama. Her father was a decorated World War II veteran and once had been a welder, but he had become a nasty drunk who lost jobs and repeatedly caused his family to be evicted. By the time Barbara nearly died from rheumatic fever at 13, her mother was so ineffectual at protecting her kids that she wouldn’t defy her husband and seek medical help. “My mother was at the point where she no longer had control of anything,” says Moss. “She was just too numb to function.”
But there was another side to her parents. Dorris read to her children from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, sang show tunes and covered the paneless windows with paint-by-number watercolors. Moss says her mother fueled her “own quest for beauty.” Even Stewart occasionally expressed tenderness, gathering his brood on the porch to point out constellations. “That’s Venus, the Goddess of Beauty, Zeus’s daughter,” he would explain, mixing the Greek and Roman deities. “When Dad said that, it stuck,” she says. “If I were Zeus’s daughter, not only would I have a great father but I’d be beautiful.”
Barbara was not beautiful. Her face was dotted with dark moles; she had a deeply recessed chin and was so bucktoothed that she could not close her mouth. “I could put my baby sister’s fist in my mouth without opening it,” Moss says, “which would make her laugh and me cry.” At 10, she tried to look like comic-strip hero Rex Morgan’s gorgeous nurse by applying “makeup”—Silly Putty and duct tape. Outside of her siblings she had no friends. As she got older, boys jeered, “Put a bag over your head!”
At 15, she went to a doctor who removed the moles for a fraction of his fee. At 16, she saved money from a job at a car wash to buy braces, which she wore for 12 years. (She was 28 when she underwent surgery to realign her upper jaw.) As soon as she graduated from high school, Moss says, she “married the first person who asked” to escape her home. A year later she was back, divorced and with an infant son, Jason Freeman (now 26 and a psychology student at the University of Iowa).
After a second marriage ended in 1983, Moss took Jason and headed to Sarasota, Fla., where she attended the Ringling School of Art and Design. For three years, says Moss, “we lived in a crack neighborhood.” Still, she managed to rear her son, hold a night job and graduate in 1987 with a B.A. “There was no stopping her!” says Jason proudly.
That same year, she moved to Des Moines to attend graduate school at Drake University. In 1989 her father, who had cancer, shot himself. “I had gotten to the point where I didn’t think he could hurt me anymore,” says Moss. “But he did.”
After 35 years of marriage, her mother had finally thrown him out in 1976, after discovering he’d been unfaithful. Her decision enraged Moss. “It wasn’t that she’d left him,” Moss says. “It was that he could do just about anything to us, but he couldn’t be unfaithful to her.” She eventually forgave her mother, and they remained close until her death from spinal meningitis in 1997. Ironically, in his last years, Stewart had remarried and was a model husband. “He kept his drinking to a bare minimum for his wife, lived in a beautiful home with beautiful furniture and a miniature poodle,” she says, adding wryly, “just the kind of dog he would have shot.”
After she received a master’s degree in 1991, Moss took a job in Iowa City as director of Project Art for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. She thought she had made peace with the past. But in the mid-’90s, she would wake before dawn, haunted by childhood memories, including the death of her sister Mary Louise, the eighth child, who lived only hours after her 1961 birth. “My father buried her that night,” Moss recalls, “but he was so drunk he could never remember where.” She began to use the predawn hours to put her memories down on paper. “She needed to write her story,” says Jason. In 1996, Moss wrote an autobiographical essay that won the prestigious William Faulkner Creative Writing Award—and later became the first chapter of Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter.
These days, when she isn’t unearthing her past for a sequel, Moss lives wholly in the present. Since 1993 she has been happily wed to Duane DeRaad, 55, director of utilities for the University of Iowa, who has two daughters, Kristen and Kara, from an earlier marriage. Her extravagances are buying fancy cowboy boots for square dancing and reveling in sinfully long baths—something she couldn’t do growing up without indoor plumbing. “Hot water,” exults Moss, “is the greatest luxury!”
Champ Clark in lowa City