T Kira Madden was in 10th grade when her friend sat her down on a shag pink carpet. They were cross-legged, and she watched as her friend put pills in small piles. She assigned them to days, this pile for Monday, this pile for Tuesday—uppers and downers and first steps toward Madden’s eventual Adderall addiction.
“This,” her friend said, “is how you survive Boca Raton.”
It’s a moment that challenges what a lot of us think of Boca. Outwardly, many see a life of privilege—medians as manicured as golf courses and perfect rows of cul-de-sac homes. It’s easy to assume that the lives here must be that tidy, too. But as an author, Madden has attempted to break down the pristine image of growing up here.
Her new memoir, “Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls,” contains a series of essays about her life as a gay, biracial child in a home that, perhaps like Boca, might have seemed perfect only from the outside. The book has earned wide-ranging praise, including a New York Times review that describes the book as “compulsively readable” and a “fearless debut that carries as much tenderness as pain.”
The niece of fashion designer Steve Madden, T Kira Madden went to a private school and rode horses—a recipient of many of the things you’d assume would lead to a solid upbringing. But Madden’s book delves into how childhood can become, despite a parent’s best intentions, a series of struggles. Madden was born to a single mom and a father married to someone else. He wasn’t around much for Madden, and her mom also disappeared often due to a long-fought addiction.
Madden, speaking recently at a coffee shop in Weston, says growing up she met the constant challenge to suppress anything that made her different.
Perhaps most difficult of it all was dealing with the nickname she had been given, “Kinky Chinky”—always a reminder that she didn’t look like everybody else. “People would say, ‘You don’t look Asian, and that was the best compliment I could get,” she says.
She became friends with another girl they called “Black Betty,” and the two of them would lob “such racist things” at each other constantly. She thinks now it was a way to take away the sting when they heard them from everyone else.
Coming out as gay was simply not something Madden considered in Boca. She watched a friend who tried it get so bullied at school that she had to transfer. Her sexuality wasn’t something Madden would discuss publicly until she moved to New York City, and, coincidentally, got a note from a downstairs neighbor that they shared something in common. They were both from Boca Raton, and so they bonded over that before she became Madden’s first girlfriend.
It was about then when Madden also figured out that all those things that had made her different were the things that also made her interesting. “For so many years, I couldn’t understand, what is it that is so different about me,” she says. “As an adult, I came to understand that I’m different and that’s amazing and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Madden, who still lives in New York, is prepping for her next book, a novel. The first step is clearing off her desk, which she cluttered with keepsakes to help bring her back to her childhood, including family photos, a lava lamp, glitter pens and the turquoise typewriter she used to write her memoir.
She’s hopeful there’s a kid in Boca who reads her book, someone deep in the throes of exactly what she went through. It isn’t hard for her to imagine what she’d say to that kid.
“Your outsider-ship is your strength, your superpower,” Madden says. “Learn to use it for others. There will always be people wanting to make you feel like being different is wrong. But you will find your people. Eventually, you will find your people, and it will be great.”