Content warning: domestic violence and descriptions of animal trauma
The image of two mangled, abandoned calves set the tone in “Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals” by Laurie Zaleski. Immediately, the author pulls you into a tragedy full of poverty and loss, refusing release in a pattern that holds for much of the book. The reader follows Zaleski’s life through childhood pains, adolescent tensions and the empowerment she finds in adulthood. She sets out to pull at her readers’ heartstrings, and she tends to succeed. The memoir follows two main narratives: her childhood of abuse and poverty and her complex relationship with her mother. These heavier themes are all sandwiched between more contemporary anecdotes of the animal rescue Funny Farm, which acts as comic relief for the consistently emotionally hefty chapters.
Located deep in the Pinelands of South Jersey, the eponymous Funny Farm is an unconventional animal rescue owned by Zaleski. The residents tend to be the types of animals even standard rescues would turn away, including flightless birds, retired racehorses and an aggressive emu. The number of animal residents is over 600 — and continuously growing. With such an eccentric mix, Funny Farm holds a seemingly limitless amount of unlikely friendships and personalities.
The wounded cows in the book’s opening immediately establish the importance and reputation of the Funny Farm. Zaleski recounts a variety of desperate people with animals suffering beyond what’s deemed manageable and for whom the Funny Farm is their only hope. Even after years of starting her farm, each animal taps into a new place in Zaleski’s (and the reader’s) heart. Regardless of their age or perceived fate, Zaleski takes on challenges of all sizes and breeds. Her mother’s heart and habits loom behind these transactions — after all, the very existence of Funny Farm is dependent upon her mother and their poverty.
Throughout the mostly-chronological memoir, Zaleski paints a picture of an idyllic upbringing. Glamorous parties hosted in her home, a mother of unparalleled beauty and a rags-to-riches father define her childhood. Her father, however, slowly rips this portrait of a perfect family to shreds. Abuse and a penchant for psychological torment eat away at the nuclear family until Zaleski’s mother, Annie, decides to break away for good.
In an honest glimpse at the challenges of moving on from abuse, Zaleski’s tragic fall from grace is showcased by comparing her past lavish lifestyle to her newfound poverty. Her house of wealth has turned into a battered shed with no water or electricity. Readers bear witness to her mother’s greatest attempts at crafting a quality life interspersed with the persistent sabotage and harassment of her father. At this point, she lives in the woods on the property of her mother’s wealthy, sympathetic friend. Of childhood joys, all that remained was an old baby doll her mother once owned, which she holds while crying on the day of their move.
In one of the most startling scenes, Zaleski shares an anecdote from the night before she and her mother escape. Her father, drunk and aggressive, begins to chase his wife with an axe. Young Zaleski and her sister throw themselves onto their mother’s bloody legs to protect her like a scene taken straight from “The Shining.” In spite of the violence, Zaleski doesn’t portray an excess of needless suffering in her storytelling — only enough to show the depth of pain that pushed her mother out. As a reader, this allows the pain to feel real without overwhelming the narrative itself.
The defining event of the narrative is Zaleski’s mother’s new job at an animal shelter, a precursor to Zaleski’s eventual Funny Farm. From the start of her mother’s new employment, their shack becomes home to a variety of domestic and exotic animals. Zaleski promises her mother that she will one day buy a real farm to call their own — a farm free of past ghosts and pains. From here, the memoir follows Zaleski’s unique coming of age — one full of schoolyard bullies, animal care, the impact of trauma and eventually success in adulthood. There are no drags or pauses in her riveting tale; each new chapter presents an emotionally exciting and enthralling part of her life.
Throughout the book, Zaleski complements the traumatic stories with an end-of-chapter “Animal Tale”: lighthearted anecdotes on notable adoptions or events regarding the animals of Funny Farm. These offer a moment of relief for the reader to catch their breath. Juxtaposing her memories with these “Animal Tales” also reminds the reader of how Zaleski rewrote her life. The tales also mirror her own story — following a particularly claustrophobic chapter, the complimentary “Animal Tale” is the story of a horse trapping itself in Zaleski’s car service pit. This type of storytelling gives clarity to which emotion Zaleski views as most important in each chapter of her life and adds further emphasis to the blurred line between her life and her animals. In a particularly lonely chapter, we can see the tale of a lonely animal finding community, or a chapter defined by fear will hold a terrified animal. Ultimately, the stylistic choice of adding “Animal Tales” to each chapter highlights the most important feeling of the chapter and often adds an almost humorous twist.
As the story catches up with the present day, the memoir turns into a heart-wrenching love letter to her aging mother, whom Zaleski cares for. The pain and grief of this slow loss of her mother manifests as a race to complete her promise — creating Funny Farm. In her mother’s final weeks, they tour what is now Funny Farm, and Zaleski is able to follow through on her vow.
This deeply-felt devastation of her mother’s death is what connects the novel back to its namesake: the Funny Farm. Laurie depicts the fear, shame and regret she felt after her mother’s loss and during the initial building of the farm. Eventually, she convinces people to volunteer at the farm, and quickly the joy and uniqueness of Funny Farm spreads until a community of animal lovers and rescuers forms in honor of Laurie Zaleski’s mother. The current successes and joys of Funny Farm are only continuing to grow from its poverty-stricken beginnings.
Daily Arts Contributor Ava Burzycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.