A Review of Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This

April 19, 2017 § 3 Comments

Cover+2c+new+skyline-01+(2).jpgBy Emily Heiden

Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This is a book about abandonment. Through Radtke’s beautiful and bruising images, we consider the ways we leave places and people, and the ways they leave us. We feel these departures deeply because of Radtke’s painstaking drawings, which allow us to experience the story for ourselves with an immediacy that narrative alone often struggles to achieve.

As someone who had no inherent interest in abandoned landscapes, I was surprised to find myself so drawn in by Radtke’s renderings of them on the page. When the book begins, she and her college boyfriend, Andrew, go on a trip to the defunct town of Gary, Indiana, to explore, and we discover with them its disrepair. I was especially struck by a depiction of an abandoned movie theater. There was something savage about it, something wild. How could society allow such decay to exist? In my too-suburban mind, cities are tidy. What doesn’t work out is bulldozed to the ground and resurrected as high-rise condos. These black and white images, therefore, provide one of the first encounters I’d ever had with a full-on departure—the decision of a community to simply pack up and go.

As the narration moves on, we also experience abandonment through Radtke’s relationships. The death of her Uncle Danno is her first true loss, and one she explores powerfully through words and visual images. Months after Danno dies of complications due to heart surgery, Radtke discovers a cassette tape of an interview she conducted with him when she was in elementary school. She heads to the garage, climbs into a truck, and presses play. Her uncle’s voice begins blaring from the player, his words stabbing at the reader and Radtke’s heart when he joyfully proclaims: “I mean…look at me—I beat heart disease!”

Many of Radtke’s images and stories express the desire for and illusion of permanence. The interview with her uncle preserved a piece of him; his voice is still present on the tape; she can access it whenever she presses play. But this experience makes her and the reader feel her uncle’s absence even more poignantly, knowing that’s he’s gone. When Danno proclaims his triumph over the disease we know eventually killed him, we confront the fleeting nature of life.

The book’s most engaging moments deal with her only concerted attempt to commit to a person or place: her relationship with Andrew and their house in Chicago. Together they undertake what she calls “a first pass at adulthood”—getting a kitten; paying utility bills—in essence, playing house. This partnership is an important sojourn in the trajectory of her life, but not the destination. Radtke becomes restless and leaves the country. Andrew clings to their love, eventually proposing to her in Europe. The proposal is the stuff of fairytale; the ring is beautiful; the backdrop an idyllic European town along a river. Radtke accepts, and immediately finds herself staring at the ring warily. After the engagement, she tells us “Every city we visited…began to feel like the stock backdrop for some stagnant future, our imaginary kids stomping up the stairs next to photos of us twenty years younger, holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

Radtke’s account of her relationship with and engagement to Andrew ring especially true for me: my own college relationship culminated in a move to Iowa with a boyfriend I too tried to play house with. When he proposed, I cried, nodded yes, let him put the ring on my finger, then walked in a daze to the bathroom, where I stared at the stone, feeling the same mounting pressure Radtke felt. I too pictured our future children, and myself as a soccer mom. I knew the engagement would keep me stuck in one place, when I wanted to experience all of them. Like Radtke, I knew I had to move on.

Both Radtke and I indicted ourselves for leaving those loves. She makes statements throughout the book like “To abandon something beautiful is where the crime rests,” and laments her lack of “…ability to claim something with ferocity.” This capacity to grab hold of a love, a land, a home, is something she praises in others and questions in herself, asking: “Am I supposed to want children who will mourn me or husbands I will watch lowered into the ground or houses I will endure in their emptiness?”

She sees the end in the beginning, her brain always fast-forwarding to ruin, abandonment, and decay. Radtke concludes the book by envisioning the prophesied flooding of New York City, telling us “we forget that everything will become no longer ours”–a pronouncement that asks us to question the stability of our everyday surroundings. The book, finally, is Radtke’s desire to hold on to what she cannot bring herself to believe will remain.
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Emily Heiden is pursuing a Ph.D. in literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Long River Review, and Juked Magazine.

A Review of B.J. Hollars’ Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds

April 17, 2017 § 2 Comments

download.jpgBy Scott Russell Morris

A “spark bird,” I learned from B.J. Hollars’ Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds, is the bird that gets one interested in birding. Presumably, it takes you beyond casual observation and into impassioned enthusiasm. In Hollars’ case, his spark bird leads him into an exploration of extinct birds, which leads him to investigating the lives of bird experts, living and dead, many of whom have made significant contributions to environmental causes, which of course, he discusses in relation to the fact that most extinct birds are so because of us humans. While I have never experienced a spark bird, and while I’ll admit that even after reading Flock Together, I’m only slightly more interested in the birds themselves, I can say that I’ve experienced a spark squirrel. I was nineteen, I had recently moved from California to Maryland to be a Mormon missionary, and I was walking through a suburban neighborhood when I noticed a squirrel leaping in the trees above. While it certainly wasn’t the first squirrel I’d even seen, there was something about the grace of that moment that caught my eye and my imagination. I can—somewhat sheepishly—admit that the quiet, gray moment with a gray squirrel leaping against a gray sky felt something like a religious experience, a world of wonder opening up before me. I became obsessed with squirrels. Just watching them frolic brought me pleasure, learning about their habits became endlessly fascinating. Like many other enthusiasts, I dedicated a great deal of time thinking about them. I started collecting squirrel t-shirts. They became the focus of my MFA thesis. When my girlfriend and I broke up, she listed squirrels (among other things) in her list of concerns, and when that girlfriend and I got married there was a squirrel-themed scavenger hunt at our reception. I eventually found myself in England, hiking for hours a day, finally seeing a single endangered red squirrel after two months of extensive looking.

Hollars accounts a similar progression (though of course the details are slightly different.) He sees a bird, the then researches birds. His research, which is both the narrative and the substance of Flock Together, takes him into quite a few museums, where he finds various relics of extinct birds, especially following the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, also called the Lord God Bird, which went extinct early in the last century and then was (probably) mistakenly claimed to still be alive at the later end of the century, raising the hopes and dreams of many ornithologists. He befriends prominent experts. He travels into the wild to count birds and to look for the remnants of a famous birding hermit’s cabin. I felt especially akin with him when he recounts dragging his family away from a vacation to seek out birding lore.

For a long time I thought I might be just a little crazy to have fallen for something so common in such a simple moment, but knowing that the birding community has a name for such an event, even for the creature itself, is relieving. Flock Together spends a good amount of time—in fact, more than in directly talking about the birds—talking about those who are infatuated with birds. Besides getting to know Hollars, we also get meet Steve Betchkal, a modern bird expert, and Francis Zirrer and Bill Schorger, unlikely friends corresponding in the 1940s, as well as a smattering of museum curators who share Hollars’ fascination with the birds that were once alive but aren’t now. As the subtitle of the book suggests, the birds themselves aren’t really the subject matter: it is the love affair that felt more interesting to me, with whom or what was secondary. And for each of the love-stricken characters, including Hollars himself, I was much more taken in by their dedication, enthusiasm, and sometimes even irrationality than I was by the birds themselves.

For those of us who are writers, which is to say, professional enthusiasts, intense fascination is nothing new. While not every spark needs to become a lifelong obsession like it is in Flock Together, it can be enough to start an essayist going on a project. As Alexander Smith said, “A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit, are all that the essayist requires to start business with” (emphasis mine.) What’s more, there is enjoyment in that watching. Hollars tells us this while watching some crows,

“The crows brought me no joy, but my noticing did.

And what I noticed was all I’d missed noticing.”

There are all sorts of common things in this world that can catch our “ear and eye,” which lead us from that first sighting to things subtler and more infinite. Though the sparks may be different for each writer—spark animals, spark books, spark injustices, spark happenstances—the progression tends to be the same: from common to common to common until we find the less common, the rare, the practically unattainable, the endangered and then the extinct, finding out about everything we can because we’ve found that we now care immensely about some smaller corner of the world we didn’t even know about last year, and we need to name its parts because “when we don’t know the names of things, we don’t have a problem forgetting they exist” (Hollars quoting Betchkel). Then, we must share those names with our readers because we realize soon enough, as I did when looking for squirrels in England, as Hollars does as he contemplates the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, that the things we love are fleeting, if not already gone.

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Scott Russell Morris is an English PhD candidate at Texas Tech University, where he also teaching creative writing and literature. He has an MFA from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, The Chattahoochee Review, Superstition Review, Proximity, and elsewhere.

A Review of Phillip Lopate’s A Mother’s Tale

April 13, 2017 § 1 Comment

zz lopate00_By Debbie Hagan

In the fall of 2005, my thirteen-year-old son tried to hang himself by using a leather belt that held up the pants of his Easter suit. By some miracle, the belt ripped in two, throwing my son to the floor, leaving him breathless but alive.

Since then, I’ve come to see death and life separated by a thin, quivering line. One minute you’re standing at the stove, cooking spaghetti for your family, picturing them laughing and talking around mouthfuls of Italian bread. The next, you’re racing to the emergency room, angry with yourself for minimizing your son’s depression.

I’ve learned as well that mother-son relationships are complicated. What’s more, wherever there’s love, there’s bound to be some pain too.

In part, this is what Phillip Lopate addresses in his slim new book A Mother’s Tale.   He possesses a deep love and respect for his mother, Fran Lopate. But she’s a hard woman to love—jealous, narcissistic, and needy.

In 1984, Lopate conducted a series of taped interviews with her, which became sort of a stage for his mother on which she tells her life story of being orphaned at age eleven, raised by sisters who didn’t want her, trapped in a loveless marriage, and then bound to a life of domestic drudgery. All this prevented her from pursuing what she perceived as her true calling: the theater. (At age fifty, though, she launched a somewhat successful acting and singing career, and might be remembered from the iconic Alka Selzter commercial, “Mama Mia, That’s a Spicy Meatball!”)

After the interviews, Lopate put the tapes away and didn’t play them for thirty years.

On the tape, Fran Lopate tells us, “I had a modicum of talent. I wanted to do something more with my life…. It seems that when I was younger, every time I tried something I was ridiculed. I was put down. Nothing I did was ever good enough.”

After hearing this, Lopate says, “…she had been frustrated at every turn: thwarted, thwarted, thwarted. Well, she certainly was thwarted, so why do I feel like mocking this assertion? I guess because it doesn’t take into account that it was she who dropped out of high school, she who chose to obey her sister, she who opted to marry my father, and not pursue her dream, etc., etc.”

A master of voice, Lopate plays two key parts in this book. He’s the in-the-moment, younger interviewer, who’s debating with his mother, challenging her “truth.” Interceding is the older Lopate, who’s less judgmental and more reflective.

The climax occurs when the younger Lopate and his mother argue about his suicide attempt. “Any time a mother sees a son in a state like that, unless she’s crazy, is going to feel guilty,” says the mother. “And I felt guilty. There’s nothing I could do to help you.”

In the next breath, however, she scolds him for not calling sooner, not letting her know until the next day that he was in the hospital.

“Well, I was in a coma—“

Lopate doesn’t reveal much more about this. Instead we hear the mother blame him for being distant—not reaching out, not calling regularly, not sharing his problems.

“I don’t understand how I could have come to you with my problems when you always had seemed so troubled to me,” replies Lopate on the tape. “Even when I was young, you had come to me with your problems….”

In fact, the mother confided in him, as if he were one of her girlfriends, about her various affairs, abortions, and immense disdain of his father.

Obviously Fran Lopate was not the perfect mother, but then again, who is? Children often come (especially during her time) when they’re young, naïve, and selfishly craving freedom and adventure.

“Listening to these tapes impressed upon me how often even an intelligent person can fail to observe the truth about herself,” says Lopate, who after three decades returns to the tapes less reactionary, softer, and more forgiving. This combination of voices and perspectives provides a more resonant truth about family dynamics and more importantly the tenuous and curiously malleable nature of love.

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Debbie Hagan is the mother of two practically grown sons who recall being forced into wearing tortuous bow ties and suits for every holiday. In addition to writing and editing book reviews for Brevity, she writes for Hyperallergic and her essays have been published in Pleiades, Superstition Review, Don’t Take Pictures, Brain, Child, Boston Globe Magazine, Dime Story, and elsewhere. She is also a visiting lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

A Review of Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System

March 21, 2017 § 1 Comment

huber_frontby Vivian Wagner

This is a book about pain. Chronic, searing, never-ending pain—a pain that’s shaped Sonya Huber’s life for years. It’s also a book about the language of pain, the discourse of pain, and her gradual movement toward being able to talk and write about her experience with this mysterious thing that dominates her life.

As someone who hasn’t yet experienced chronic pain, I relied on Huber to draw me into her world, to show me what it feels like, to allow me to begin to understand an experience that many of us will, eventually, know first-hand. And she takes on this project masterfully, introducing her readers to pain just as she might introduce a family member. By the end of the book, I’d begun to see my current pain-free state as an aberration, as a temporary fiction, and I was grateful that she’d facilitated my entry into a world that is, in many ways, more real than the one I inhabit.

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System is fragmented and disjointed, much like pain itself. She circles around her subject, assaying it, exploring it. Reading the book, therefore, offers an almost visceral experience. To shape this experience, the essays are filled with metaphors. In the first essay, for instance, “Lava Lamp of Pain,” pain is compared to “evil pink evening gloves,” a predatory bird, and a criminal.

Pain, though, exceeds the boundaries of metaphors and, ultimately, language itself. Huber wants to describe and delineate this experience, but it always escapes her grasp. Chronic pain, we learn through these lilting, lyrical essays, remains mysterious, even though it’s indelibly and inescapably connected to her body and sense of self.

Huber also emphasizes that eventually, pain is part of most of our lives. It is, in this way, more constant and reliable than a lack of pain. In “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick,” she examines and interrogates the constancy and steadiness of pain. The essay opens with the following line: “When I am ill, only the kingdom of the ill is of comfort.” The kingdom of the ill, she says, is paradoxically more predictable and grounded than the kingdom of the healthy:

What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokenness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible.

In other words, far from being illusory, the kingdom of the ill is, in a way, more “real” than the kingdom of the well. As she says “We are real, and only illness reveals the true bedrock of illness. It is not imaginary. This land is the most reliable and most vast of the human experience.” As she grapples with feeling abnormal for being in chronic pain, Huber comes to realize that there’s nothing more normal, ultimately, than pain.

The arc of this collection moves toward the final essay, “Inside the Nautilus,” which is a moving account of Huber’s introduction to the McGill Pain Questionnaire. Unlike other pain rating systems, she finds that this questionnaire gets closest to providing a language for describing pain. It asks, for instance, “what does your pain feel like?” and then offers what she calls a “transfixing list of words.” Under the category of brightness, it suggests “itchy, tingling, smarting, and stinging.” Elsewhere, the questionnaire allows the respondent to choose from the following descriptors: “punishing, grueling, cruel, vicious, and killing.”

Immediately, Huber loves this questionnaire, because it provides a language for expressing her pain. During much of her experience with pain, she describes feeling marginalized and shunned, but when she discovers this questionnaire she feels validated. The questionnaire provides a kind of poetry of pain, and it lends a sense of reality to her experience. As she says, “I savored the form with a quiet outpouring of affection one reserves for sensitive thinkers and researchers whose work plumbs the core of human experience.”

Finally, it’s not so much the questionnaire, but this essay collection itself that allows Huber to develop her own pain discourse. Through these essays, she speaks the unspeakable. She gives form to the formless. She shapes the difficult reality of her daily life into a narrative that ties her experience with the broader human condition. And ultimately, through writing, she finds what she calls at the end of her final essay a “poetry within.”

A few weeks after finishing the book, I had surgery to remove a spot of cancer from my nose, and in the temporary pain of the recovery process, I found myself thinking of Huber’s essays. I caught a brief glimpse of someone I’d gotten to know through her writing—someone who will, most likely, become a more constant companion as I age. And this, ultimately, is Huber’s gift with Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. She recognizes our shared frailty, and she offers compassionate encouragement to tell its story.

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Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and a poetry collection, The Village.

Review of Lisa Knopp’s Bread: A Memoir of Hunger

March 17, 2017 § 1 Comment

ProductImageHandlerBy Sierra Dickey

Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, with its yeast-bubble cover art, screams anorexia memoir from all surfaces. In fact, when I found myself carrying it around one evening with a to-go slice of chocolate cake in my other hand, I realized I might have looked a bit troubled, or, oppositely, totally recovered and beyond reproach. This teeter-tot line between disorder and recovery, or malady and remission, is the liminal space Knopp inhabits best in her book.

Bread is much more a full life memoir than an eating disorder memoir. Writing comes up often, and spirituality is everywhere.

With her title “a memoir of hunger,” Knopp doesn’t mean just the hunger I feel now because it’s late in the day and I ate lunch early. She means all of our human hungers: for justice, for love, for meaning. The first chapters make an inventory of longings, and bit by bit, Knopp slowly shows us how she’s come to satiate herself.

I haven’t experienced the “malady” of disordered eating as deeply and consistently as Knopp has. However, early in the book, when she describes the quiet “click and shift” that happened in her brain the first time she began to enjoy and succeed at restricting food, I remembered the summer after my junior year of high school when I dropped 10 pounds in a month.

That summer, I brought Ziploc bags of red things to the beach with me, and a towering Nalgene of water. The red things in separate bags were strawberry Twizzlers and slices of sweet red pepper. I relished the count: a single Twizzler contains 5 calories, a single slice of sweet pepper far less. That summer, too, I ran 2.5 miles every evening and lugged a nearly 50-pound stand-up paddle board to the shore every morning, giddily awaiting the next day’s upper body ache.

I can identify with the somewhat sublime process of extreme dieting, and I suspect many women who read Knopp’s memoir will find her food and body image intricacies familiar. All readers will appreciate the sharp analysis Knopp brings to historic and current research on disordered eating. Bread is the kind of socio-cultural memoir that will change how you look at your friends, especially those who are “on a diet.”

Though Knopp draws lots of fascinating points and parallels from her lit-review, she occasionally stacks the pile of articles perilously high. In “Chapter Six: Hardwired,” nine pages of recounted university studies make the chapter begin to lose its punch. Knopp’s focus on the biological causes and symptoms of anorexia and bulimia also felt to me like a negation of the absurd social contexts that birthed these diseases in the first place. Why not point more rage toward the patriarchy and media machines?

As with all things culture, and all things mental health, it was just more complicated than that. Indeed, the most unexpected insight of Bread is that for those with disordered eating histories, the “malady” is the rage at the machine. It is the protest and the concession both at once. As Knopp writes, “Part of my identification with my malady is that I’m so drawn to the metaphors, the contradictions, and the striking tensions associated with it: restricting as the problem and solution, as refuge and prison….”

Out of all, bread the food is Knopp’s favorite high-tension metaphor, and she does an exquisite job of excavating its historical meanings for us along the way. In “Chapter Two: White Bread,” we enter her Iowan childhood just in time for the rise of Wonder Bread, and other ingestible “industrial marvels.” Using a cue taken from her writing heroine Annie Dillard, Knopp succeeds at transforming bread from a plain fact to a “symbolic fact,” one that stands for all the “tantalizing paradoxes” of her life.
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Sierra Dickey writes, walks, and organizes from Brattleboro, Vermont. Find her on Twitter @DierraSickey, or read her work in Coming of Age at the End of Nature from Trinity University Press.

About a Microwave

March 16, 2017 § 11 Comments

31qKXbCJokLBy Dinty W. Moore

I am reviewing a blank book.  The pages are entirely empty – not a single word.  That makes it nonfiction, yes?

Because there is no fiction printed within.

And the title is Alternative Facts.

Facts are nonfiction, yes?

This is important, because the Brevity blog only reviews books of nonfiction.

So here is my review:

It is an interesting book. A quick read. The paper is nice. The cover feels solid. The entire package fits neatly in your hand.

By the way, royalties from sales of the book are being donated to ProPublica by the publisher, Abrams. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

So there we go.  More facts. More nonfiction.

61Pta82itsLI am beginning to feel pretty good about my book review. I might write some of my good feelings down – in the book, on the blank pages (shown to the left).

Something like this:

“I’m feeling very good about my review.”

Except, hold your horses. (Not literally! “Hold your horses” is just a metaphor.)

But it seems I’ve told a lie here.

So is this review now fiction?

Or is it back to nonfiction, as soon as I admit to the lie.

I don’t know. Ask D’Agata.

But there are, after all, words in this book, but only a very few, printed on the very last page:

Two days into the Trump presidency, the thesaurus gained a new synonym for falsehoods, lies, distortion, deception, and total BS (take your pick). The phrase “alternative facts” has sparked laughter at its absurdity, but also disbelief and fear that this administration shows no hesitation in blatantly rewriting the truth to fit its narrative.

In response, this journal offers the opportunity to ground yourself in reality, to collect and record in writing whatever you wish, and to record your own alternative facts.

Pretty cool, huh?

Here’s an Alternative Fact: I am being spied upon, at this very moment, by my microwave. Someone in Russia is watching me write this review. He or she, I can’t be sure, is quite bored by it all.

Dobroye utro!

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Dinty W. Moore is founding editor of Brevity magazine and this blog as well. He is being spied upon, at this very moment, by his microwave

A Review of Ariel Leve’s An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir

March 13, 2017 § 3 Comments

zz leve_By Jennifer Ochstein

When my brother and I acted out as children, my mother threatened us with exile. If we fought, she said she’d drop us on our father’s doorstep. And if we were really bad, say, if we refused to eat our cheeseburger-flavored Hamburger Helper, she’d leave us with our maternal grandmother, Barb. She said she loved us, but if we couldn’t shape up she’d be left with no alternative. If we refused to be civil with each other or woke her up before noon on a Saturday morning or were disgusted by congealed fake cheese and greasy meat, clearly we didn’t love her or want to live with her. At least this is how I, as a seven-year-old, translated her adult-speak.

In my mind, being left with my father was equivalent to being left with someone who clearly didn’t want us since, my mother said, he refused to pay child support. I didn’t think I was assuming too much. After all, we never saw him. Who knows where we’d end up if left in his care? On the other hand, being left with Barb was far worse. She’d knock our heads together. We didn’t know how good we had it, my mother warned. Barb had beaten her so badly she couldn’t lie down on her back for a week. Rather than beat us herself, she’d leave it to her mother.

It turned out I had good reason to believe my mother would leave us. Once, when I was eight, she left us for six months with my best friend’s family. From there, we lived with my father for four months. I thought my brother and I had finally gone too far; we’d finally chased our mother away for good. I didn’t find out until later that we were suddenly homeless, and my mother couldn’t bear the thought of my brother and I sleeping in a freezing car with her that night. She’d had no other choice.

What becomes of children with unstable parents? This might be the central question of Ariel Leve’s 2016 memoir, An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir. In a conversation between forty-five-year-old Leve and her father, Leve’s father asks, “‘Why can’t you just beat those demons and destroy them?’” Leve responds, “‘You mean why can’t I just get over it.’”

Leve writes, “It’s illogical to him that I would be a thinking person who can’t control my thoughts.”

Her father goes on to say, “‘Or if you can’t get over it, then deal with it in a rational, sensible mature way. Which you’re capable of doing with other kinds of decisions.’”

The “why-can’t-you-get-over-it” question dogs some people. For others, like a novelist that Leve interviews, the experience of childhood abuse and instability is an exercise in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, which Leve suggests, is “intolerant of any alternative.” Leve takes the opposite view with the novelist: “‘There are certain people who have been front-loaded with trauma that shapes who they are. They are disabled. Psychologically. And this does not make them victims. It makes them soldiers.’”

Leve seems to become a kind of soldier in her memoir. She recounts brief snapshots, memories with her mother. These memories are like individual bullets that whiz over her head: the time when her mother told her that when she was dead, Leve would be all alone because her father wouldn’t want her; playing a game called “Being Born,” in which Leve’s mother literally re-enacts young Ariel’s birth; the times when her mother told her that if Leve didn’t behave she’d have a nervous breakdown and end up in Bellevue or that she’d commit suicide. Leve ducks to avoid getting her head blown off, but she lives with invisible post-traumatic stress.

One therapist reveals that Leve likely has brain damage. “‘There are parts of your brain that did not develop the way they should have. And the way you function is a consequence,’” the therapist tells her. Leve writes that she’s incredulous, but she wonders, “how does a child build a foundation on quicksand?”

Ultimately, Leve discovers, in part, that children learn adaptive coping mechanisms that don’t often translate well into adulthood. For example, Leve discovers that because she’s protected herself “from feeling the horrible things,” she’s often numb to the good.

She has to learn to live differently with her damaged brain. Leve watches and learns from the young daughters of the man with whom she is in a relationship. In order to help them grow emotionally mature, she is careful when she speaks to them, allowing them to feel and express their full range of emotions so that they can learn how to control those emotions in productive ways. In juxtaposing her experience with those little girls, Leve’s memoir itself becomes a redemptive act of emotional freedom that allows her to remember the instability and trauma of her childhood as she gives herself the permission to simply feel. She writes, “We tell our stories to be heard. Sometimes those stories free us. Sometimes they free others. When they are not told, they free no one.”
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Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Cresset, Connotation Press, and Evening Street Review. Like many other creative nonfiction writers, she’s working on a memoir about her mother, and she’s discovered it takes just as long to process that relationship as it has to live with it.

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