Do evil stepmothers really exist? Can a much-loved copy of the fairy tale Snow White serve as a metaphorical survival guide? Can one arrive at the truth about oneself, the facts be damned? These and many other questions are asked and answered via the literary Ouija Board that is Jennifer Lauck's debut book, her childhood memoir (part one, we're assured), Blackbird.
In Blackbird, Jennifer tells us of her pre-adolescence. Her experiences read like a syllabus developed by John Irving and Charles Dickens for their class on twentieth-century, middle-class American tragedy.
The book begins with Jennifer watching her loving mother slowly die from a variety of diseases. It is Nevada, 1969, and even though we already know from an introductory insert that her mother's death is two years away, what follows is continually surprising.
As the story progresses, Lauck perfectly captures the point of view of a five-year-old, the memories and assumptions and priorities. We readers do not know what her mother and father, or anyone else in the story, were really like; the young Jennifer is necessarily an unreliable detailist. But we do know what she thought they were like and how she experienced them. Lauck doesn't let the fact trees obscure the truth forest.
Lauck is pleased with that. In writing this book, she sought the truth beneath the facts. As she told the Independent in a telephone interview from her home in Oregon, "There's an emotional truth to be sought out and that will come into contradiction with what some people would say is the actual truth. Like eight people can watch a car wreck, and all see it differently. It's through the lens of our own psyches that we determine truth."
Instead of writing passages informed by her retrospective adult knowledge, Lauck writes passages such as the following, about her mother's waste: The bag hooks to a plastic tube and the tube runs up there, into the place where Momma has black hairs that look just like the legs of daddy long-legged spiders. I hate spiders. ... Flushing the toilet, I rinse the bag in hot, hot water. Daddy says the water should almost burn your hands so it kills any Germans in the bag. I like the way he says that, Germans instead of germs. Daddy says it's an old war joke even though it's not really that funny since we're mostly German.
With this type of description, Lauck is able to convey a child taking on the responsibility of an adult without the awareness of an adult, all the while setting aside the writer's adult awareness. Lauck is able to consistently pull off this Zen-riddlelike task through her approach of trying to revive physical memory rather than brain memory. Lauck explained that "Tom (Spanbauer -- Lauck's writing teacher in Portland, Oregon, and the author of books such as The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon) would say, 'Put it on the body.' When you get lost, go to the physical sensations: What's going on in the gut, what's going on in the gestures, what are the smells like? Then you can get your clues about what's being spoken. This was incredibly freeing; from there the story unfolded."
What is also freeing for Lauck is a publishing atmosphere that has reluctantly embraced a form of writing known as creative nonfiction through recent publications including Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, and Frank McCourt's two memoirs. "No one can really say that this is verbatim factual truth, but it is truth of the life and the essence of the spirit," Lauck said. "It becomes their truth, and it is really very cool."
Lauck acknowledges that with this power comes responsibility: "Hopefully you have integrity when you do this work. You [ask yourself], 'Am I being fair, am I being balanced, am I telling all the truth that is required to give these human beings dimension, am I making myself into a hero I don't deserve to be?'" However, she maintains, "I'm no different from you. If something's unbelievable, I'm not going to buy it. I know what's true and what's not true. I know that what I write is true. Unfortunately."
Unfortunately is right. The years of Lauck's mother's dying reveal themselves to be idyllic compared to what follows. Her father (a man Jennifer idolizes, but who comes across in this book as, at best, highly neglectful) remarries a shrew of a woman named Deb. Deb and her three awful children create a psychic prison for Jennifer.
Lauck captures this trapped feeling masterfully. It is hard to read this book without absolutely feeling what Lauck felt. This type of empathic writing is rarely achieved in any form, and is ultimately what makes this book rise above what might otherwise be just an interesting, though possibly self-indulgent, story. The writing, with its realistic dialogue, is as gripping as that in any novel.
Lauck attributes her successful voice to the help of Spanbauer. "I went with the first-person, present-tense form," explained Lauck. "It cracked open the voice. It slowed me down in a way that narrative can't. There was none of this adult meandering. It was all present, present, present. I don't like memoirs that move into the adult voice. I don't necessarily feel as deeply if I'm pulled out of a scene. I like when you can be right in the moment.
"That's the tool that keeps you feeling this urgency."
Jennifer becomes lonelier and more alienated as the book progresses. Deb has taken control of Jennifer's life as her father becomes increasingly absent. Deb's life has become more and more controlled by a cultish organization, the "Freedom Community Church." At one point, Jennifer is about to be tested into the church. A dignitary has arrived at the house: "Deb, Mr. Gray, and me go upstairs to Daddy and Deb's bedroom and I've never been in here before." She had never been in her father's bedroom? Jennifer is saved from the indoctrination thanks to her father's fatal heart attack.
During the interview, Lauck revealed that the "Freedom Community Church" is a pseudonym, as is Deb's name and the names of her children. Lauck apparently wants to protect the guilty, so as "not to penalize them for the rest of their lives," as she said. "I personally don't want to hold anyone responsible for bad decisions made over a couple of years of their lives." But her hate for Deb, from the point-of-view of the young Jennifer, is practically a physical presence, and it is hard to read the book and not wish horrible things upon the evil stepmother. Such is the power of Lauck's writing.
Memoirs are getting a bad rap lately. There is a perception that the memoir is written masturbation, serving the author's need to show off or to vent, rather than to provide some greater service. Lauck survived her childhood, clinging to fetishistic items from her father -- a copy of Snow White (the Brothers Grimm version) and a princess bedroom -- as if they were life preservers. Yes, Lauck wrote this book as an attempt to make sense of her childhood, to heal herself. But what sets the book apart is its literary value. "A great story is a great story," said Lauck, "and when people see themselves reflected in that great story, that hits home. That's the full circle of storytelling." Blackbird is a great story.