Book Review : On the Outskirts of Normal

In the book On the Outskirts of Normal, Debra Monroe bares her soul as a single mother to a black adoptive daughter. Debra shows vulnerability and honesty through her articulate narrative about the challenges she faces caring for black hair. Her descriptions are accurate, a bit tragic at times yet her dry sense of humor is entertaining. It makes the book a fast read.

Monroe is a successful professor, who earns a substantial income and has very high ambitions. She is clearly intelligent, independent and determined to be a mother. Still, her tenacity is constantly tested. Her health wavers throughout her life, she goes through multiple failed marriages and then there are the hurdles she faces as a single mother in a transracial family

Why do smart women date losers?

Before we dive into Debra’s plight into motherhood we can’t skip over her bad taste in men. We have seen this before a hardworking smart woman dating a loser, I personally don’t get it. Despite the fact that Debra is a published author and a professor at a University, she seems to be attracted to men who oppose her driven nature.

“My second husband turned out to be a wife-beater. And sometimes he kicked things I cared about across the room, for instance my great-grandmother’s china, piece by piece. It was slapstick comedy gone awry: the ever imminent blow-ups, our-on-the-spot maneuvers meant to keep the skirmish secret, muted.”

Even though she endured disappointments in both of her marriages, Debra confesses to still having sexual needs. She gives up on love and takes on a new approach to dating. Her honesty gives the biography a raw edge.

“Yet with two failed marriages under my belt, I wanted romance on my terms, maximum pleasure, minimum risk. The flattery of the first, second, third dates. Infatuation. Sex. This is a man’s province. A woman who wants sex without vows or future plans gets called names. So I’d be breaking the rules.”

Biracial curls and how to care for them.


Adopting a black baby girl

From what I know about adoption, the process can be grueling and also heartbreaking. I cannot imagine opening my heart in such a generous manner and taking the risk of being devastated. Although Monroe began the process with realistic expectations, she faced some unforeseen problems including the scrutiny of strangers, the ignorance of Southerners and not to be downplayed, the care of her black child’s hair.

“In most settings, she’d be the only black person, so I wanted to talk about race, but not too much (an obsession) nor too little (denial). I’d talk about it when it came up but wouldn’t dwell on it. This called for moment to moment discretion….How my daughter felt about race would shape her future, but my troubles belonged to the past, so I thought.”

Maintaining kid's naturally curly hair

Unveiling Black Haircare

I went through a discovery phase with my own daughter’s hair maintenance. I began reading, googling searching for the best practices to care for their hair. Never perceiving that I had a leg up on mothers like Debra. Although I have naturally curly hair, I had never worn those natural curls prior to having my girls. Evidently, my coils were preparing me for the time I would spend grooming my mini-mes massive amount of curls.

Debra, on the other hand, had to figure out manageable solutions to caring for her daughter’s hair with no prior experience. No family hair rituals to prepare her for the time investment. Location is key when your searching for answers and Debra took a teaching position in a rural white neighborhood in Texas before bringing her baby home. That gave her few salon choices within a decent driving range.

Finding a professional hairstylist

“If you’re white, black hair care is a secret.” She goes on to say “The first day washing day, was hard. But tying it up kept the hair easier to comb the rest of the week.” This book was copyrighted in 2010 but that need to ty up, wrap up and protect our fragile hair at night is ever present, and thus the reason we are so committed to Swurly sleep caps. After several attempts at home haircare, Debra enlist some professional help but has to travel to find it. Not a complete relief because finding a hairstylist and keeping a hairstylist is two different things.

“You can’t have just one hairdresser- it’s not a position for any woman to be in… Once an entire black hair salon opened and closed in two weeks. The JCPenney woman lasted three months. Someone would be doing black hair at Supercuts and, by the time I’d call for an appointment, she’d have quit.”

I can relate to this in so many ways. As a kid we got our hair done at JCPenney. Then there is the oh too relatable bond you form with a stylist you love and then they are gone. The struggle is real Debra! Most black women have multiple stylist they utilize. I have one for extensions and one for my natural hair trims.

Protective Styling

When I write about maintaining my daughter’s biracial hair we often speak about protective styling as one of our main go-to hairstyles. A couple of my white girlfriends have asked me what does that mean?  It never dawned on me that this terminology or way of styling wasn’t commonplace for all kids. We invest time in braiding our children’s hair and hope the longevity of those styles make up for the initial length of time for the braiding sessions. I do not personally add fake hair to my girl’s hairstyles, but some parents choose to do that as well. Here Monroe describes her experience with braiding and unbraiding.

“She cried if braiding went on too long, and I’d say short hair would be easier and she’d stop crying. Braiding took two to three hours. Unbraiding took tow to three evenings. I used the end of a rat tail comb to work the bottom of each braid up, like untangling knots in a necklace- except fifty to sixty necklaces. The idea that hair “rested” was specious. I’d comb out weeks of tangles. Transition days, the days the fake hair was still attached but unbraided and braid kinks made uniform pattern, I used a scrunchie to make her look like Cleopatra in an updo. White people would stop and say they liked this style the best-slipshod fake hair tied in a bow.”

The curl revolution

Passages like this make you admire Debra’s insight, her dedication to her child and honoring her ethnicity. You also have to give her credit for her fierce maternal instincts. We are unveiling the beauty of naturally textured hair, and the curly revolution is expanding. No longer is black hair a secret, information is readily available online. Black hair, curly hair, and coily hair is beautiful and shouldn’t be viewed as a burden. Bloggers, YouTubers, and writers like myself are sharing their hair journeys, setbacks, tips, and tutorials making it so much easier to find solutions. If you are an adoptive parent of a black or biracial child this book offers a relatable experience, with some laughs and tears to boot!