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About LION TAMER Memoir Trilogy

by Therese Marie Duncan

LION TAMER is a fast-paced raw tragic-comedy-hero’s journey memoir about a girl who loves her father, and other people - no matter what - in the universal experience of surviving one’s own life. While Marie’s mother is a Civil Rights activist and Vietnam War protester in denial about Marie’s father’s roving hands on his daughters, Marie takes on the lions, outside—and in. With blind love as her beacon she careens, lurches and sometimes crashes, but always sets her compass again to the only true north she knows—love. In the end she understands—it points at herself, and she must voice her truth to her father, and learn the truth about him.


            "How long does it take to die after your head is cut off?" I ask my Dad at the dinner table. I’m five and martyrs are his favorite subject. I hope he likes my question so he won’t still be upset.


In this first chapter, “God Died,” Marie’s dad, head of the table where her mother and the first nine of their ten children are seated, is pleased with Marie’s question, but later in the dinner stops speaking to Marie when she contradicts him by insisting God did die, because Jesus is God. Marie sees a solution—she’ll become a martyr to get back in her dad’s good graces. But she learns it will take more than one family Rosary to twist her ankle long enough under the heavy green chair for it to break. But at least a limp is something.

Each time her father roars like a lion, Marie startles with dread but knows he is a good protector, until he starts travelling for three months at a time and suddenly she feels she is on her own.


She gets used to her father travelling, but from age twelve when she wakes and, stunned, must play possum until she gets the courage to roll over, because her dad’s hands on pressed on her breasts, she never gets used to him being around again. She tells no one and decides to follow her mother’s guidance, voiced when unpleasant things happen, “Oh, let’s just forget about it.”


At sixteen, drunk, (a family tradition to learn her limits with alcohol), Marie has a problem—she needs to shut off the nerves screaming in her head:


            His hand on my waist makes me want to scream.

            But girls dance with their fathers. So why can’t I do this? What’s the matter with me? Why don’t I breathe?

            Because he sings love songs to me and grazes my breasts whenever he hugs me. I can’t even say the word breasts out loud, I’m so ashamed. He presses his body tight so I feel his belt buckle in my stomach...

         …If only my head could fly off, I could calm down.

         Yep. That’s a fifteen foot carpeted run down the hall to the wall! This is brilliant.

          “Watch!” I lower my head. This is going to work.

           Dad looks out the kitchen door at the far end of the hall. “I’m watching.”

           I run as fast as I can headfirst toward the wall.

CHAPTER XXXVII—The Peaceful Sprite

             My head hits the wall.

             A flash of light.


             A shock of pain takes my breath.

             I drop to the padded green rug.

             I burst out laughing. I can’t stop. After the hard wall, the rug’s like pillows...

             …Wow. I never felt peace before now. All the pain’s gone.

In Volume II Marie, who lives by the wisdom love never fails, is repeatedly tested.

             His heavy black phone is like our phone in Seattle. This is meant to be. I dial. Good—the machine picks up. “Hi, Mom, I’m spending the night at a friend’s. See you tomorrow.”

             “She won’t worry?” Adam asks.

             “No. She has ten of us.” I sip my drink. “Where does Margaret Callahan live?”

             Adam looks out the window. “Seal Beach.”

             Well, I’ll love you for now, Adam. Dissolve your pain. Dissolve in your arms and trust you. I can do this. Show you how much you’re loved by someone who doesn’t need to keep you.

             I know what to do. Just climb up on his big bed. Like this. And wait.

I can make love to him so time will stop and he’ll wonder how does she know me like this?

             Sorry, Dad. You wanted me to marry for love. But I just want to love for the sake of love.

             Adam looks at me on his bed. Turns away. Sets his drink down. Takes his T-shirt off. His back is so long.

             How bad will it hurt? I don’t care. I drink all my whiskey and set the glass on the small old wooden table by the bed…

             …It’s just like I dreamed. Nothing matters. A whirl of violin feelings. His hands slide into my clothes. Cellos come up from the deep where my tears live. He smooths my tears into my cheeks with his mouth. I rub my face on his shadow and run my temple into his neck until he suddenly pushes his mouth all over mine…

             …He’s tender. I’m impatient. My feet push his jeans away from his legs…

             …I have no idea what to do next. Off come our under wear. He gets up and turns a small lamp on so the room glows with warm light. He looks me in the eye. So serious. It’s dark outside. There’s a world, a war, a million people like us who have just this minute kicked their underwear away. I feel normal…

             …But he’ll never love me.

Then four years later:

              This is better. Sitting on the curb. Under the streetlight. Our friends visiting on Arnold’s porch. 

             “So, you want to tell me about it?” the officer says.

             “Sure. About what?” The cool night air feels good.

             “Why you tried to kill yourself.”

             “Me? I didn’t try to kill myself.” That’s insane.

             “From what you showed me you’re pretty cut up with the razor.”

             He’s so nice. I wonder if he’s married. If only I could have him for a husband.

            “No. I didn’t try to kill myself. I was just angry at my husband. I wrote his name in my stomach.”

            He shakes his head. “That doesn’t make sense. Those are pretty deep cuts.”

           “I don’t want to kill myself. Really. We’re miserable because we fight, but killing myself isn’t anything I want to do…Do you really think someone who wants to kill themselves would cut themselves in the stomach?”

But in Volume III comes the ordeal, Marie facing her greatest fear—that she matters. She confronts a boyfriend, her father, herself, and is rewarded.

            The room's awful small. Nobody's talking. I don't think I really belong here. The other four women are all young with lots of makeup and cute clothes. Their hair's done up. They've probably been stalked and strangled. Well, the questionnaire said, "Have you ever been hit, pushed," etc. So. Okay. I qualify. Barely, probably.

            "So, Marie, you're new, would you like to tell us about yourself?" asks Dixie, in a tone that's nice but not quite as gentle as she looks. Can't she see I'm fragile?

            "I don't know why I'm so scared."

            I tell them everything real quick so the people who need real help can talk.

            "He pushed you, that's just the start," says Rose. Her eyeliner's like black swords. "You know that because you've already been beat up. Did he push you first, the one that beat you up?"

            I think about that. "He did. He cracked my head on the ground, in a little park, come to think of it." I had forgotten all about that. How could I forget that?

            "See? It don't matter it was a long time ago," Rose goes on. She doesn't even know me but she's talking like she does. "You're in denial. You need to look at the truth."

            Rose is telling the truth, but I look to Dixie for the authority, but Dixie just raises her eyebrows at me. But I thought there would be some explanation.

            They're quiet. There is no complicated psychological explanation to help me.

            I have to be honest. That's all.

And finally the reward, in a surprising twist in Volume III when Marie, doggedly keeping her father company in a nursing home, desperate to heal the family before he dies by getting him to admit what he’s done, persuades him to answer the question why he never apologized, sees a wrenching truth of her father’s past and heals the final wound of her own.

            I find him sitting up in bed, eyes wide. He looks different from yesterday.  His face seems stretched across his skull, sort of. And he’s balled up with his bony knees bent stiffly near his chest, fingers pinching quickly, ineffectually, at his sheet which is near the foot of the bed. Funny how dark purple his fingers always are, from bumps against hard things I think. One arm is outside of his white T-shirt. By the looks of his cotton pajamas, he is dry.

            “Hi Dad.” He’s so changed from even a month ago. Small, and light. Each round of sickness takes a toll, but I’ve never seen him like this.

            “Marie? Oh thank goodness you’re here,” he says, his voice worried and froggy from his chest cold. One arm starts to flutter my way and I take it by the elbow, not the hand...


            The next night:

            There he is—in his wheelchair in the dining room—bent way underneath a table. Amazing he’s up and about after being so sick. He’s bounced back again. Sort of.

            “Hi Dad,” I say. I pull up a chair and sit down.

            “Marie? Is that you?”

            “Yes. What are you doing down there?” I ask.

            “I can’t, I can’t quite get her.”

            “Can I help you?”

            “Yeah. She’s right there.”

            I look under the table and see nothing where his arm is reaching. “Who’s there, Dad?”

The three volumes are a slow motion barely perceptible phoenix rising, like most people’s lives.

LION TAMER’S market is women of all ages interested in the subjects of relationship, incest, domestic violence, addiction, recovery, transformation, spiritual healing, seniors, comedy, self help, and family.



Volume One of LION TAMER (Complete 100,000 words) “Here I Am, Steel, Not the Kind of Girl You Marry” told in first person present tense spans age five through sixteen. Marie, sixth of ten Catholic children, wakes to find her father’s hands on her breasts and learns she can never safely hug him again. She thinks she is like Van Gogh, because alcohol helps her paint, and banging her head calms her down. One night, after her father inappropriately dances with her, Marie “takes control” by running headfirst into a wall. In the following months she builds on that confidence by dating a seminarian. 


Volume Two of LION TAMER (Complete 100,000 words) “Van Gogh’s Cadillac, Swan Dive and Undertows,” the years of undaunted improvidence, covers age sixteen to thirty-five. It’s a time of addiction, adventure, danger and confrontation.  The turning point occurs after confronting her father who calls Marie and her sisters sluts and whores. Marie, telling her sober brother she’s “Fine, just losing my mind,” finally gets sober. When Marie tells her sober brother that she bangs her head, he tells her, “You can do that if you want, but you might be missing an opportunity for spiritual growth.” It’s Marie’s moment of truth. Her transformation begins.


Volume Three of LION TAMER (fifty per cent complete) “Trouble with Semis, The Man in the Red Jacket, The Dolly with the Purple Gown” covers the years of transformation. Marie finally embraces forces within herself and ultimately, in a surprise twist and riveting moment of pain and insight accepts and loves her father for who he is, and herself for who she is.


LION TAMER has been work-shopped at the Ojai Writers’ Workshop. Comments by readers: “It’s a page turner.” “I didn’t want it to end.” “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” “I love Marie—you never know what she’ll do next.”

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