We All Scream
Stillhouse Press, 5/1/2017
290 pages, $16.00
Reviewed by Eshani Surya
Summer: fireflies by the bonfire, the sprinkler in the lawn, and, of course, ice cream. From parlors and roadside farm stands to a kitchen freezer scoop, ice cream figures into our fondest memories. For some, their ice cream reminisces center on a particular brand of ice cream—perhaps that of Gifford’s Ice Cream & Candy Co., a Washington D.C. staple from the 1930s through 2010. As Andrew Gifford, grandson of Gifford’s founder writes in the opening of We All Scream, that store was “an empire.” After all, it was there that “presidents lined up for a scoop next to office workers and laborers…lovers held hands and children celebrated their birthdays, year after year.”
But Andrew Gifford’s telling of the ice cream behemoth doesn’t ring with the same affection as others’ might. Gifford’s story is one of abuse and lies, corruption and paranoia. We learn about the unshakable rats that roamed the backrooms. We learn that the ice cream might have been poisoned with mercury. We All Scream is an unflinching tell-all about how what one sees, and even tastes, is not always reality.
As a memoir, Gifford’s book both provides insight into a little-known history and delves into the psychology of a child growing up in an unstable environment. Gifford did not know his paternal grandparents well, but the ice cream store figures into most of his early memories. In that store, he was a child encountering a dangerous, factory-like playground. Gifford would frequently explore the manufacturing floor, seeing “every flavor poured out of the machines into fifty-gallon buckets, where it was flash frozen atop a conveyor belt that carried them through a plastic-curtained door in the wall…flies and cockroaches would swarm.”
And because of the store, Gifford was also subject to the violence of his family, all of whom had their own designs on the company and promoted a culture of paranoia in the home. Not only did Gifford’s mother beat him, but she also told lurid tales, like one about “the Usurpers,” another ice cream operation in Maine. “They call themselves Gifford’s Ice Cream,” she told her son. “But they aren’t Gifford’s. They’ve stolen our name. Next they’ll steal our skin, and then we’ll be dead and gone and they will rule in our image.”
Only partway through does Gifford’s Ice Cream’s move from the forefront of the book, revealing a teenaged Andrew Gifford, trying to save up money to escape his personal hell. Though, as he discovers, it may be impossible to escape the place that was one’s inception point—Gifford’s parents met at the store, when his mother was a waitress, and his father the owner’s son, and subsequently, all their lives continuously revolved around the company’s going-on’s.
Gifford seems interested in two connected goals. He wants to dispel the mythos of nostalgia that surrounds Gifford’s Ice Cream— “the cult of Gifford’s devotees is obsessive,” he says as, in some cases, fans have tried to revive the store. Why, though, is it important for Gifford to try to change public perception of his family’s store? Because Gifford uses this book to explore and understand his family legacy in terms of abuse and violence. His person was shaped by business rather than sweet flavors. By exposing Gifford Ice Cream’s for what it was, the author is allowed to share his vulnerable and still-questioning voice. We All Scream is a person’s in-progress acceptance of his past, a story that searches to understand the strangeness of a traumatic experience that is diluted by others’ insistence of its charm.
We All Scream is most compelling when it details Gifford’s search to understand the family politics and trauma that he unknowingly partook of—and when Gifford allows himself space on the page to parse out what these experiences have meant to him. For, these are the moments when Gifford’s book is not only a fascinating exposé, but also an admittance of familial failure and greed and regret. He claims: “I didn’t write this book just because I have a story to tell. This isn’t just therapy.” And yes, the book has a greater purpose than just telling—it wants to shut down the possibility of any other revival, of other people trying to convince Gifford to go back into ice cream. But it also is a wish. He thinks of a life without the shop haunting him, “in that other world, maybe everything at home would have been different for me.” To Gifford, his family’s business is not forever tied to profit or taste. It is tied to the desire for something better, a legacy he would be prouder of.