Book Review: Andrew Gifford’s “We All Scream”

0609171345_resized (2)I couldn’t wait for my copy of We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford’s Ice Cream Empire by Andrew Gifford to arrive in the mail.

The book promotion said, For more than seventy years, Gifford’s Ice Cream and Candy Company was associated with nothing but pleasure for native Washingtonians and visitors to the nation’s capital. But behind the iconic business’s happy façade lay elaborate schemes, a crushing bankruptcy, two million dollars of missing cash, and a tragic suicide. As the last Gifford heir unfolds his story with remarkable immediacy and candor, he reveals the byzantine betrayals and intrigue rooted in the company from its modest beginnings — dark influences that would ultimately destroy the legendary Gifford business and its troubled founding family.

When the book finally landed in my post office box, I saved it for just the right time, packing it in my purse to read to my husband as we drove from North Carolina to Tennessee and back on vacation (I’d done the same on the way to and from Maine last year, reading myself hoarse on J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, another fine book).

Andrew’s We All Scream gripped us like tires on mountain curves, our emotions shifting gears with each climb and descent in the author’s life. Chapter upon chapter piled up the familial baggage, which he then methodically decluttered, one disquieting revelation after another. By the time we arrived back home four days later, weary and with cinders still in my purse from a coal-fired ride on the Tweetsie Railroad, we still had a hundred pages left to finish. We savored them over three quiet evenings, left to discuss the humanity of our own families in the end.

The real story of Andrew Gifford’s life was everything I suspected it would be, and more. I wasn’t looking for the dreamy nostalgia of Gifford’s Ice Cream, so you won’t find any sticky sweet sentiments here. In fact I think I only went to their store once, with my friend Kathy and her sisters, when we were in our teens, back in the early 1970s. It was the popular place to go. At the time I was a troubled adolescent. Hanging out with Kathy’s functional family kept me going until I could find the emotional growth and faith to deal with my demons. I had no idea that behind the freezer cases and candy counters lurked a family more dysfunctional than my own.

I didn’t pick up the book to looky-loo at the Gifford’s business fail and missing millions. I could have picked that up from news articles.

What I wanted to hear was Andrew’s voice, the voice of The Boy Who Survived, now a man, freed from the horrors of an abusive family. Andrew’s book delivered that, loud and clear. As someone who also turned to writing to heal wounds, I cheered as he steered clear of self-destruction, and processed his feelings on paper. He plotting his escape, worked to fund it, and succeeded, despite many obstacles. Along the way he helped other writers by producing publications that showcased their work.

Reading We All Scream was like sitting in a counselor’s office and spilling out the most horrifying revelations while water gurgles in a coffee table rock fountain. He plays the long game, leading his reader from a child-sized exploration of a basement laundry chute, where we run our fingers along mysterious scratched lettering to, by book’s end, the closet of an Atlanta apartment where we are primed to unlatch his father’s long-lost briefcase.

The author claims his space. He is Andrew, not the heir to a legacy, not the breadwinner, the invalid caregiver, the  co-conspirator, the savior. Because he makes it okay to just be Andrew, his book gives the rest of us a roadmap to overcome the roles others force on us. We are not victims, not heroes, just survivors. We want to “be.”

The author recognizes he can’t fight the cult of Gifford’s Ice Cream and fan nostalgia for memories of Swiss sundaes. At least now he can deflect them, with “have you read my book?” and offer them the link to a buy button. I wish him many book sales. I wish him peace.

I don’t keep many books. I’ve already passed on Hillbilly Elegy. This one I am keeping.