The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet
University of Nebraska Press

Clear-sighted, darkly comic, and tender, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is about a daughter’s struggle to face the Medusa of generational trauma without turning to stone.

Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s in a family warped by mental illness, addiction, and violence, Kim Adrian spent her childhood ducking for cover from an alcoholic father prone to terrifying acts of rage, and trudging through a fog of confusion with her mother, a suicidal incest survivor hooked on prescription drugs. Family memories were buried—even as they were formed—and truth was obscured by lies and fantasies. In The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet Adrian tries to make peace with this troubled past by cataloguing memories, anecdotes, and bits of family lore in the form of a glossary.

But within this strategic reckoning, the unruly present carves an unpredictable path as Adrian’s aging mother plunges into ever-deeper realms of drug-fueled paranoia. Ultimately, the glossary’s imposed order serves less to organize emotional chaos than to expose difficult but necessary truths, such as the fact that some problems simply can’t be solved, and loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean saving them.



"A story with a shadow half. This ambitious memoir glints with poetry and wisdom...aching, endless, unresolved, and extremely compelling... The glossary is a clever choice of form. Like mental illness, a glossary impedes forward momentum (if one is compelled to flip forward and back), but it also provides a logic that real life doesn’t offer... The structure allows different truths to exist at once... Adrian’s novelistic attention to scene works...her prose is lyrical and funny, often in the same moment." —The Los Angeles Review of Books

"The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a feat on many levels. Adrian tells a harrowing story, surprisingly redeemed by her own sweet family, but in many ways also continuing. She gives it meaning without having answers to all the questions she still asks herself. Her work as glossator is astonishing and inventive. Her glossary is strangely gripping, with a momentum pulling the reader in and through. The result is whimsical, even darkly funny at times, brimming with compassion, terribly sad and deeply loving. Memoir readers should not miss this singular offering." Shelf Awareness

"The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet . . . details, with precision, sensitivity, and lyricism, the specialized language of a childhood and adulthood with an alcoholic father and a mother with a catalog of emotional problems. The form imposes a semblance of order, is an attempt at understanding, and blazes with harrowing moments (the three-year-old Adrian seeing her mother’s first suicide attempt, “the blood, the razor blade”; the incest and physical abuse her mother suffered; the lifelong tug and push between daughter and mother). The book is an intimate and searching accumulation of the moments, tender and brutal, that heap together and create a life." The Boston Globe

"Adrian uses a highly unconventional form to mirror her confusion over how to connect her wide-ranging, frequently painful memories of what she and her sister endured living with a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic and violent father... Despite the heartbreaking pain of the stories Adrian shares, she remains clear-eyed about what she remembers, providing minute details in ways that bring her scenes to life while also creating deep connections between the reader and her childhood self... Despite everything, Adrian still loves her parents. By sharing her conflicted feelings in such an intimate way, she helps the reader see not only that love, but its indelible impact on the identity of a woman still wrangling with how to define it." —Hippocampus

"Adrian’s unique approach to narrating a story that resists order is to transform it into glossary entries. The story is told through an alphabetical list of terms—from Abecedarian to Zigzag—in which she jigsaws together the bits and pieces of her experiences in order to create this beautiful reckoning. Some of the entries are long and provide pages of narrative, others are brief like a punch." Signature Reads


“A stunning merger of form and content; a remarkable portrait-becomes-self-portrait; and something like a master class in complicity.”
—David Shields, author of Reality Hunger

“The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a revelation. By structuring the book in the unconventional form of a glossary, Kim Adrian allows the reader into the very intimate mechanics of her memory. Each page I read pulled me deeper under the book’s peculiar spell. Through Adrian’s rigorous attention to detail I found myself involuntarily drawn into her perspective, both as a child and a grown woman, hungry to make sense of this troubled family, and this vibrantly unstable mother.”
—Alysia Abbott, author of Fairlyand: a Memoir of My Father

“A vivid, vibrant glossary of a life. Adrian’s sharp prose and unique form combine to illustrate how powerfully our childhoods reverberate throughout our lives.”
—Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic & Desire

“This is desperately serious work, an exacting memoir that excavates, with compassion for all involved, the harrowingly repetitive patterns of abuse as well as moments of something like hope, crushable and delicate, thwarted, and yet renewable. An agonized, beautiful, unflinching account.”
—Lee Upton, author of Visitations: Stories

“Kim Adrian’s The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is an intimate portrait of the chaos and confusion of her mother’s mental illness. It’s also a deep meditation on storytelling itself—our desire to impose order, discover meaning, heal what is broken in us, and find a way to live with what can’t be fixed. Innovative in form and comprised of razor-sharp vignettes, Adrian summons a rare, hard-won compassion for both her mother and herself.”
—Steve Edwards, author of the memoir Breaking into the Backcountry

“Kim Adrian’s portrait of her mother—a woman who inflicts considerable damage, having had plenty done to her—is darkly comic, probing, and full of compassion. This memoir unfolds in the startling form of a glossary: an A-to-Z of key words that have shaped Adrian’s coming-to-terms with family and its mysteries. The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is altogether remarkable.”
—Martha Cooley, author of Guesswork: a Reckoning with Loss

“Adrian has written the logical, not chronological, order of her family’s treasures and skeletons. These snippets, snapshots, and sequences are the ABCs of answering those age-old family questions—who are we and what have we become? With compassion, humor, and heartrending love, Adrian uses the alphabet to compose redemption’s glossary.”
 —Amy Wallen, author of When We Were Ghouls: a Memoir of Ghost Stories

“Real love is difficult, painful, and exasperating. But in this compelling memoir, written in the form of a glossary, Kim Adrian also reveals it to be a kind of endurance. Out of a fragmented, deeply moving, and dazzling narrative, the author pieces together this hard-won love, made possible by her refusal to give up. Many books are described as ‘brave’—this one really is.”
—Sue William Silverman, author, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

“The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet astonishes from A all the way to the end. Funny, sad, unassuming, wise—exquisitely written—it will make you laugh, cry, wonder, hope. You (and your vocabulary, too) will be the better for reading this beautiful book.”
—Dinah Lenney, author of The Object Parade


from Chapter 4 (©Kim Adrian)

It’s Christmas Eve, and my mother calls to tell me a story.  Because my father is visiting for the holiday, and because my parents haven’t spoken for over two decades, and because my father is pretty much afraid of my mother, afraid that she will cause him  some sort of career- or relationship-based misfortune (as, in fact,  she has so carefully contrived to do in the past), I step outside, onto our porch, to talk with her, even though it is very cold and I’m not wearing a coat. I do this mostly because I don’t want my mother  to be able to hear, in the background, my father’s voice among  the many voices that fill our apartment tonight, and also because I  don’t want her to feel isolated by the sound of all those voices in  general since she is alone and uninvited and it is Christmas Eve, a holiday she has always loved and looked forward to with the  excitement of a child. 
She prefaces what she is about to tell me by saying I need to listen  very carefully because this story is going prove that I have to believe  her, that I should believe her, and that I will now understand, with the  telling of this story coming up, that she is not paranoid, only unlucky  and observant. I walk to the edge of our porch as I listen, so that I  can look at the strand of Christmas lights David hung up a couple  of weeks ago—large, colorful, old-fashioned bulbs. It’s just one long  strand of lights—green and yellow and blue and red—running along  the edge of our roof, then loosely spiraled through the limbs of a small  fir tree, but somehow it seems all the more magical for the minimal  touch.  

My mother’s story goes like this: she went to Kinko’s a couple of nights ago and stayed for a few hours because she can no longer use the computer in her apartment as her every mouse click is being tracked. So for twenty dollars an hour, she went to Kinko’s and rented time on one of their machines. It was three o’clock in  the morning, she said, when she got there, and the people working  the night shift were being really vicious to her. For example, at one  point, one of the clerks asked her to come over to the counter. 

“Look up,” he said. So my mother (who can be disturbingly compliant) looked up.

“Not there,” said the man, “there.” He pointed.

She tells me that she looked to the spot he’d indicated, and his co-worker, a woman about the same age—mid-twenties—said real sweet only not really, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” Then the  woman behind the counter took a picture of my mother with one of those goose-necked cameras, the kind with a large single eye  attached, via cable, to a computer. 

“Now, Kimberli,” my mother says, “you tell me, why would she  do that? What possible reason?” And for once she is quiet, her voice  pointedly held in check. 

I know what she wants me to say. She wants me to say that,  yes, with the telling of this story, I am now able to see, finally and  with perfect clarity, what she’s been talking about all these years.  Yes, this anecdote about a couple of completely assy dorks at  Kinko’s has finally made it clear that everybody is in on this plan,  this scheme—that those two Kinko’s employees are obviously in  cahoots with DMH, which proves that DMH is in cahoots with  AT&T, and the whole lot of them are in cahoots with her various  doctors, dentists, and shrinks. Yes!—she wants me to say, Yes! I see  it all of a sudden, clear as day! I see that every single one of these people—  from the customer service representatives at AT&T to your shrink of  twenty-two years to the highest-up mucky-mucks at MacLean Hospital  to every one of your last five or six landlords to the entire administration  of your locally owned bank to some mysterious sector of Medicaid—I see  that every single one of these people-slash-entities shares a single agenda,  which is to put you back in the nuthouse. She wants me to say, I get it  now. Finally, really, I get it! And not only that, I understand the necessity  of helping you with this problem, and I will put my own life on hold in  order to see to it that you win these battles because deep down I am your  Sancho Panza, Mom, I am!  

I know that this is what she wants me to say because it is what  she always wants me to say, but I do not say these things. I don’t say  anything for a while because my mother is talking again, repeating  the whole story more or less verbatim, only emphasizing different  elements, probably in the hope of giving me a fuller picture.  

I am feeling many things. Cold, for one, because it is bitter out  here. Three of my fingers have turned white. I can also feel my  heart breaking, jaggedly, as if someone were pulling a serrated knife  through it. And my bones hurt because guilt has always done that,  for some reason—hurt my bones. Yet at the same time I’m getting  really, really impatient. Not surprisingly, impatience wins. I cut her off and say, “Maybe those kids just know that you have problems, you  know, Mom? Maybe they’re a couple of bored, nasty losers working  the graveyard shift at Kinko’s, and they know you have issues, and  maybe they were just trying to get your goat. Just for fun. Maybe  they thought the best way to do that would be to push one of your  buttons, so they scared you, because they’ve figured out you’ve got this thing, this paranoia . . ."

“Oh, no-ho-ho-ho, Kimmy,” my mother interrupts. “No. No.  No. No! You really don’t get it, do you? One day it’ll be too late, and  then you’ll get it. You are just so stubborn. Why would I make something  like this up? What possible reason do I have for inventing such  a complicated thing?”  

The Kinko’s story goes on for a while after this. Actually, it gets  more complicated because it turns out there was another customer,  someone who made a big stink over my mother’s paperwork, which  he thought was taking up too much room, but she thought he was  just trying to look at her things, so there was a scuffle of sorts, which  prompted the man to make a comment about my mother’s mental  health, and this, to her mind, only proved his complicity.  

When David pokes his head outside to tell me dinner is almost  ready, a wave of laughter spills onto the porch. The warm air from  indoors smells of saffron-laced fish stew and just-baked almond cake.  I tell my mother I have to get off. She says okay, but doesn’t stop  talking, so I tell her I really have to go because dinner is almost ready  and I should help set the table, and she says, okay, okay, but still she  keeps talking. I say I am going to hang up now, and she says okay  again, but doesn’t stop, so I say, “Now is when I’m hanging up.” But  first I say, “Merry Christmas, Mom.” And then I say, “I love you.” And then I hang up.

▸▸ Read a longer excerpt at AGNI-online.

An intimate and searching accumulation of the moments, tender and brutal, that heap together and create a life.
The Boston Globe