The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet
University of Nebraska

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.



"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’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)

Whenever I see my mother by chance in caf├ęs and gift shops, at the grocery store, or just walking along the street, I think, “She looks better than I thought! She looks fine!” I think, “She’s still beautiful!” I slow my pace to study her in detail, though at the same time I am careful to not let her see me. She is always tall and thin with gray, shoulder-length hair, high cheekbones, and long limbs. All of which makes sense. But there are other details that don’t quite fit, which is why I study her so carefully. For instance, my mother, when I see her by chance, here or there, around town, is always very well dressed, wearing, perhaps, a stylish raincoat or pleated slacks and expensive loafers. Her hair is professionally cut, not riddled with bald spots. Also, she doesn’t hide her teeth behind her hand when she speaks, and when she does speak, she doesn’t do so nervously or for much too long. I notice all these details, and while I recognize that they don’t quite make sense, the illusion remains.

Sometimes, if he’s with me, I’ll grab my husband’s arm and say, “Is that my mother?” “Are you joking?” he asked once.

Another time, not long ago, I was walking with my children in the little commercial center of our town when I spotted my mother in a gourmet ice cream shop. She was sitting with her back to the window, reading a Nadine Gordimer novel, slowly picking at a cup of chocolate ice cream. I stopped to study the slope of this woman’s shoulders, the nape of her neck, and the beautiful paisley shawl draped around what appeared to be a fine, hand-knit sweater. Isabella asked me what was wrong, and I said, “I think that might be Mormor.” She said, “That is not Mormor.” I asked if she was sure and she said, “Do you really think, if that were Mormor, she’d just be sitting there all calm, reading a book and eating an ice-cream?” I said no, probably she wouldn’t be doing those things. But I was still reluctant to leave and remained planted in front of the window until Isabella said, “Mama, it’s not her,” and pulled me along."
▸▸ 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