Raised in Brooklyn’s projects in the 1950’s and 1960’s by transplanted Southern parents, Janet McDonald’s academic abilities allowed her to attend Vassar College, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and New York University’s School of Law prior to launching her career as a Paris attorney. But a tale that would appear on its surface, to be a Cinderella story reads more in Janet McDonald’s gritty memoir, Project Girl, as a modern-day Gothic novel.
The book’s title suggests the author’s essential dilemma to have been her and other’s attitudes concerning her commuting, with comfort, between two disparate worlds. However, McDonald’s identity crisis became increasingly complex when a college rape resulted in emotional problems that plagued every aspect of her life. McDonald recounts setting fires; contemplating suicide; and railing against therapists, professors, and family members whose inept attentions fueled her rage. Because she believed they could not comprehend the causes or depth of her despair, McDonald alternately abandoned her intimates and demanded their approval.
She dropped out of school, spent time in mental institutions, and even experienced arrest—all while watching family and old friends succumb to drugs and crime. Simultaneously, McDonald earned above-average grades without studying and joined MENSA, the organization for geniuses. Surely anyone attempting to survive—much less thrive—in such a schizophrenic world would have stumbled. Yet eventually McDonald’s success multiplied as her distress diminished, and Project Girl no doubt constitutes her ultimate catharsis.
The author’s flat, graphic prose proves effective yet her inconsistent point of view—switching from past to present tense for several chapters—distracts and, therefore, detracts from an ostensibly riveting read.