I just finished a book. A short book. Ninety four pages in all, and actually a work that I would characterize as one long personal essay, a memoir, rather than anything else.
I just read “Two Or Three Things I Know For Sure” by Dorothy Allison. You can find a bio about Allison here, but in short she is a feminist, activist, lesbian, story-teller, speaker, and educator. Originally from South Carolina, Allison weaves words into tales that focus on gender, class, violence and sexual orientation.
This book came to me from a list I have compiled for some time. In those oft moments of weakness, when I am searching for meaning and identity and I contemplate returning yet again to take on more college courses and an advanced degree, I spend copious amounts of time checking out the courses offered by perspective universities. Usually those courses fall into social science categories, yet more often they fall under women’s studies programs. When I have managed to talk myself down from the need to return to school, and before I delete the bookmarks to the amazing programs that have called to me yet again, I usually jot down, if available, the textbooks and readings associated with the courses I have imagined myself a member of. Reading lists are great things.
Allison’s book came to me as one in the list of required reading for a women’s literature course that looked promising. I’ve taken women’s lit before, but this particular course struck me because it didn’t require the same classic readings typically listed for women’s lit.
I shouldn’t have read this book.
I am so very glad that I did read this book.
I shouldn’t have read this because the call of ‘student status’ is strong once more, and god help me I do not need that right now.
I am utterly overjoyed that I did read this book because it was true, honest, and open.
It portrayed the history of a woman; of women perhaps like yourself, or perhaps like the women in your family. I don’t mean this post to be a book review. It is not, although I think that you should read this book.
I write this blog post because this book touched something within me. First, let me share a few things, a few assumptions. When I read the title of this book, and perhaps because I have taken women’s lit before and was basing my assumptions of typical texts on books used in earlier courses, and perhaps because this author lived in rural South Carolina, and perhaps because of the cover introduction detailed women’s history, oral history, and abuse, I assumed that Allison was black. I was wrong. I also dislike myself for making these assumptions.
So yes, white, southern Dorothy Allison writes about being poor, and even implies that she was very familiar with the stigma associated with a label of poor white trash. She writes about women whose only destiny is to marry, to house babies like incubators – over and over – until birth, and then spend their lives doing the best that they can to keep those babies safe, and fed, and alive. She writes about the commonality of abuse, both domestic and sexual, as if it is as routine as childhood chores forced upon the young by those very same women who endured, and continue to endure, because it is life in the rural south. Allison writes about knowing, what others know and what she as a woman, a woman tied to her history yet compelled to make her own history, knows. She writes of shaping her own story, so different from her mother, her aunts, her sisters – yet so familiar. She writes also about sex, and sexuality and how rape and feminism do not make a woman a lesbian, despite being told repeatedly that those three must go together.
Why does any of this resonate with me? My background is much different from the background of Allison. I was not born into poverty. I was not raped. I am not a lesbian. I feel no sexual attraction toward women yet wonder often these days about love, about what it takes to sustain love, with anyone. I wonder about the ease of delusion between sex and attraction and love. I wonder, because I believe so many women never share their stories, their history, just what it is, those two or three or ten thousand things that we who define as female don’t know for sure.
I began to read Allison’s words, especially the words she shared of the women in her family and her life, and lines in her text jumped out at me, claiming my name and identity.
“I walked and I told myself stories…because when I walked, I talked–story-talked, out loud–assuming identities I made up. Sometimes I was myself…sometimes I became people I had seen on television or read about in books, did things that no one I knew had ever done, particularly things that girls were not supposed to do. In the world as I remade it, nothing was forbidden; everything was possible.”
“The story of what happened, or what did not happen but should have–that story can become a curtain drawn shut, a piece of insulation, a disguise, a razor, a tool that changes every time it is used and sometimes becomes something other than we intended. The story becomes the thing needed.”
Allison speaks of Aunt Dot, just one of the women in her family who did not run as the legendary women in fairy tales run away from pain and hardship. Aunt Dot stayed, and along with many women in Allison’s family, learned determination, and how to be resilient, and how to compromise. Aunt Dot always said that “there’s two or three things I know for sure,” and throughout this memoir Allison takes up this line, detailing elegantly those things that she comes to know for sure.
I am just beginning to understand what it means to be resilient, what it means to make compromises. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the women from my own past. My mother, my grandmothers, my aunts and the women I was told to call aunt, but who weren’t, my sisters who grow ever more distant. Allison’s words made me yearn to know for sure what their stories are because at present I can only interpret their past from my own unfinished story. I know that all of these women made choices and compromised. This we have in common. Many of them were amazing in their resilience, that I am sure I know. Yet I want to know more and I am afraid that I never will. Actually this I know for sure: I will never have the real story of the women who make my history. They are all but gone and because I don’t have that connection, cannot hear their words and learn how those words weave a path to the choices I have made, I am sad. I lament what I can only imagine was. My throat aches with the need to cry for the not knowing. I curse the inadequacy of the not knowing. I seek identity through those women from long ago and my reality is that I must continue with the storytelling that Allison describes in the quoted text. The pretending is all that I have, and my story will forever be the things I need, not the things I know for sure.
*All quoted text from “Two Or Three Things I Know For Sure” by Dorothy Allison, 1995, Plume/Penguin Books.
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