By Stephanie Thornton Plymale with Elissa Wald
On the day Plymale discovers her calling, she’s living in a station wagon with four of her siblings and their mother, who leaves the children alone all day while she works at a local motel (only to spend most of her paycheck on weed). Unschooled, unsupervised, the two eldest children, aged 10 and 9, gather seaweed for the younger ones to eat. One day, a man living in a nearby bus invites the children inside — but instead of the scene we expect, we’re given the beginning of a life’s dream. In that bus, refitted for comfort, 7-year-old Plymale first encounters “a vision of sanctuary, of a haven, ensconced within the metal shell of a battered old vehicle.”
It’s a memory that ends up defining her lifelong idea of “home.” Through two near-fatal car accidents with her mother’s drunken boyfriend at the wheel, general neglect, state intervention, separation from her siblings, sexual abuse at the hands of a foster father, and on and on, Plymale remembers the feeling of comfort she had when she stepped inside that bus, and goes on to become the chief executive of a prestigious interior design school. The memoir focuses on Plymale’s volatile mother, who seems criminally selfish, indifferent to the damage she leaves in her wake, and Plymale’s discovery that there’s far more to her mother’s story. Despite a lifetime of cruelty and indifference, Plymale loves her mother, sometimes inexplicably so, and it’s that love that pulls her back to her mother’s side after a long period of estrangement, in the hopes of finding out more about her own blank heritage. She knows little of her mother’s childhood, and neither she nor her mother knows who Plymale’s father is. When her mother develops a terminal illness, Plymale is determined to discover what she needs to know before it’s too late.
“Much more than a story of a rape and its aftermath, American Daughter–in the tradition of classics like The Glass Castle, LA Diaries and White Oleander–explores in unsparing details the complex interplay between intimate family ties, generational abuse, cataclysmic losses, and the extraordinary and limitless power of compassion and self-discovery. American Daughter illustrates the enormous strength and will it takes for anyone to choose love.”
– Gina Frangello, Author of ‘Every Kind of Wanting’ and ‘A Life in Men’
Editor of The Coachella Review
At age 4, Stephanie Thornton Plymale survived a full throttle, head-on collision in a mail truck stolen by her mother’s boyfriend. Again, at age 5, sat in the back of a van going 70 miles per hour, Stephanie survived a drunken rollover crash. She was twice physically unscathed but left mute with trauma, a condition which would come and go for years. She later suffered life-threatening burns due to neglect and became blind in one eye. Homelessness evolved to isolation in the Dependent unit of the state of California – to placement in several foster homes, one of which being horribly abusive. By age 10, Stephanie’s experience was that of criminal neglect, chronic hunger, truancy, homelessness, and ongoing sexual violation. The terror and fear that she experienced as a child she later uncovers are the insidious ripple effects from an appalling crime that occurred in the summer of 1953 in Baltimore, Maryland, and made national news.
Stephanie’s mother suffered from severe mental illness; schizophrenia and Dissociative Identity Disorder, was in and out of jail and a series of ghastly psych wards throughout her entire life. Meanwhile and despite all odds, Stephanie’s lifelong desire for a sense of home led to her passion for interior design and burgeoning career in the industry. However, time seemed to stop when Stephanie received a call from her mother after a period of estrangement that was enforced by a court order. Her mother revealed her terminal illness and Stephanie became her mother’s sole guardian.
Timing became critical for Stephanie to address her longing to seek the truth about her devastating childhood and lost heritage. She began a series of “interviews” with her mother in an attempt to find answers and to get her mother to take personal responsibility for the past. In one of these interviews, her mother reveals that she herself was the victim of that horrific crime in 1953 that plagued her as a child and for the rest of her life. This revelation incites the unlikely redemption and reconciliation between mother and daughter. Her mother also revealed a stunning and illustrious ancestry that she had kept hidden for decades. Stephanie grew up thinking of herself as “white trash” and knew nothing until then of the aristocratic family heritage from which she came.
AMERICAN DAUGHTER tells an extraordinary story of trauma, healing and transcendence in this powerful memoir by Stephanie Thornton Plymale, who is currently the CEO of Heritage School of Interior Design, a premier and growing national interior design school.
Stephanie Thornton Plymale is the CEO of Heritage School of Interior Design. Stephanie calls Portland, Oregon, home – a word with much meaning as she grew up without one. From living in a car on the beach with her five siblings, to isolation in the Dependent Unit of the State of California, to a horribly abusive foster home, Stephanie never experienced a feeling of family as a child. Married at 19 to her highschool sweetheart, her desire for family roots helped her to build a stable marriage and loving home for her three children.
From a young age, Stephanie had an insatiable desire to create a feeling of home. This incited her passion for interior design which led to her successful career working in nearly every facet of the industry, including residential, commercial, retail curation, fabrication and staging. After 18 years of owning her own firm, Stephanie felt ready to pursue her next chapter. It was then that she took over Heritage School of Interior Design. Stephanie’s vision was to make education accessible to all who were interested in excelling in the industry.
Stephanie has supported hundreds of students in achieving their dream careers. Many alumni have gone on to win prestigious awards and begin wildly successful businesses. Stephanie continues to balance family life with promoting Heritage, the success of its students, staff, continually growing community and philanthropic efforts. She currently serves on the board for Project Lemonade.
Stephanie’s traumatic childhood, family life and career is unique yet she takes heart in knowing that life’s lessons are universal and that everyone has a story. Her goal is to inspire others to share their stories, receive support and feel empowered by their ability to survive, forgive, heal, transcend and live the life of their dreams.
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