A Review of Jeannine Ouellette’s The Part That Burns
February 5, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Jody Keisner
When my oldest daughter was small, she erupted in frantic physical tantrums that afterward left both of us exhausted, huddling on the floor together, crying, unsure of what had just happened. Her anger, it seemed, came from someplace deep inside of her, or maybe from someplace beyond her. So little it took to upset her back then and so disproportionate were her responses, it was as if she was born with anger much bigger than herself and her short time on earth. It was as if she’d inherited my anger. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I’d endured my father’s verbal and mental abuse, my face and body pliant, while fury pooled inside of my chest. I never allowed myself to express any of it, instead shoving my uglier emotions down into my gut, where they stayed for two more decades and I finally had a reckoning with my father. Or so I thought.
Then I came across Jeannine Ouellette’s stunning essay, “Bent: Daughterhood Recalled Through Skin and Bone,” co-written with her youngest daughter Lillian Ouellette-Howitz and first published in CALYX. In “Bent,” mother and daughter converse remembering the stories of abuse they’ve lived, witnessed, or told each other—or possibly inherited. Referencing epigenetic theory and intergenerational trauma, Ouellette writes, “Trauma, they say, is coded into our genes, mapped into our DNA. Trauma, they say, shapes us and our children for generations to come. Still, I had you. Still, I have you.” While it’s the penultimate chapter in Ouellette’s debut memoir The Part That Burns, the questions “Bent” raises are examined throughout the book: Can the genetic markers of trauma be passed down to our children, influencing the choices they make and who they become? Have our parents’ experiences affected the expression of our genes, too? These are frightening prospects for Ouellette when so much of her life has been characterized by volatile relationships and repeated upheavals from home, yet Ouellette is less afraid than she is determined to look at the truth of her own girlhood, motherhood, marriage, and survival.
Spanning a few decades, from when Ouellette was four years old to when her own three children are grown, her book takes place in dozens of homes and apartments—including two foster homes—across Minnesota and Wyoming. Often circling back around to emotional cuts she’s suffered in earlier pages, Ouellette structures most of her chapters as flash, segmented, and braided essays, with sub-headings that function as symbols or metaphors that point to painful truths.
In the opening segmented chapter, “Four Dogs, Maybe Five,” for example, Ouellette reveals the abuse she suffered from her mentally unstable mother and her sexually predatory stepfather when she was a child, and then she skips ahead to her failing first marriage—all through the focal point of the dogs her family has kept and lost. The dangers and neglect the dogs endure parallel the dangers and neglect in Ouellette’s life. The effect is gut-wrenching: One dog gets hit by a car, another disappears with her stepfather after he has a brutal fight with her mother, one’s jaw is torn off during a brawl with another animal, and yet another gets sent to the pound, etc. Her mother’s attitude toward loss is callous: “But when big things go missing—men, houses, dogs—you don’t ask questions. You don’t mention it again. You simply move on.”
Her mother doesn’t ask questions either when her husband sexually assaults four-year-old Ouellette, instead choosing to ignore it and kick Ouellette out of the house when she’s aggravated. “I should have aborted you when I had the chance,” she tells her after a violent argument that results after Ouellette, a teenager, and her younger sister order the wrong pizza topping. Despite this, Ouellette shows compassion toward her mother, alluding to reasons for her brokenness.
At times Ouellette’s luscious, feral prose left me dizzy. In “Big Blue,” a chapter about how the places we’ve lived stay with us after we’ve left them, even if it was vital to our happiness to flee, Ouellete captures the texture of Minneapolis in one long-sentence:
A city crammed with beauty and filth, fields like amber oceans and blighted summer parking lots soft as dough, clover and creeping thistle under chain link, winter snow melting into gutters, and most of all, people, people with their mouths full of food and gum and each other’s tongues, acid-washed jeans and men’s wool overcoats from the surplus store reeking of mothballs and old sweat, hair stiff with gel, red Solo cups and warm skin.
Ouellette is discovering who and what to get away from and when to stay. She accepts her mother back into her life when she has children of her own, but she dissociates from her body—“fiery and floating”—while having sex with her first husband, a reliable family man who helps around the house but blames their lackluster love life on her being “frigid.”
The book’s title takes on symbolic significance in many chapters, of course, but not in the ways I could have anticipated. Ouellette writes of those times she leaves her body: “My body is not me. I am the part that burns.” And she evokes the imagery of fiery explosions to describe giving birth to her first child at twenty-two: “Somehow the walls did not buckle and fall, the floor and ceiling did not blow out, though she expanded everywhere, like sea, like sky.” The descriptions here echo a startling tragedy from the past and caused by her mother, then eighteen and in love with Ouellette’s father, but I won’t say more because part of the pleasure of reading The Part That Burns is in discovering these interwoven metaphors and realizing how they connect and spread like wildfire within seemingly disparate memories.
Reading Ouellette’s memoir-in-essays, I thought about the scientific plausibility of my own fury leaving a chemical mark on the genes I passed down to my daughter, who I’m happy to say, has learned healthier ways of expressing her anger. “Scientists say our cells hold everything forever,” Ouellette writes, “But also, cells are constantly dying and regenerating. Sometimes cellular regeneration hurts, but not always.” Honestly, The Part That Burns is going to hurt readers a little, too, especially when Ouellette’s younger narrative persona describes moments of abuse, clear-eyed and unsentimental, or when she unexpectedly merges with the adult narrative voice during an unsettling scene. Ultimately, though, Ouellette’s story is one of truth and beauty, full of lyrical language and images, and filled with moments of awe and wonder between Ouellette and her children.
Jody Keisner’s essays and stories have appeared in Fourth Genre, Cimarron Review, Post Road, Brevity, The Rumpus, The Normal School, and many other literary journals and magazines. Her first book, Under My Bed and Other Essays, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. You can read more of her work at http://www.jodykeisner.com.