The Part That Burns, by Jeannine Ouellette. Split/Lip Press, February 2021. 172 pages. $16.00, paper.
This beautifully written book feels as much like a novel as a memoir. In it Jeannine Ouellette narrates the arc of a difficult life from childhood to the memoir’s present, about age fifty. By book’s end, Ouellette’s three children have grown up, moved out, and begun lives of their own.
Ouellette suffers such unkindness as a child her survival into adulthood is a surprise. After being tossed back and forth between her mother’s and her estranged father’s homes (where she is made to sleep alone in a windowless basement two levels below ground), Ouellette says she didn’t want to live with her father or her mother, or at all. The words come as no surprise. Ouellette’s life is one most of us would rather leave than live.
Much of the memoir covers the thorny (or knife-strewn) path of Ouellette’s traumatized childhood. For the first thirty pages Jeannine is a little girl suffering the agonies of a life without love. She is abandoned—literally left on a bridge—by a mother who travels from town to town and boyfriend to boyfriend without any ability to care for her children. Her childhood is Cain-marked by molestation by “Mafia,” her mother’s first boyfriend, a trauma that leaves Ouellette ruined and broken for life. Instead of protecting her, Ouellette’s mother calls her a bitch, slaps her, and finally ejects her into the world as a penniless orphan.
Once expelled from her mother’s house, Ouellette finds a series of temporary homes with neighbors, teachers, and eventually a foster home. She passes through the arms of various ne’er-do-well boyfriends, and at eighteen, marries a self-absorbed Middle School Social Studies teacher with whom she has three children. In a relatively happy ending she marries a kinder man with whom she raises six children—three of his, three of hers—in a late-life marriage that sounds surprisingly normal, coming to unhappiness only when the last child leaves and the couple is left to sleep alone inside the ribs of an empty house.
The book’s overall journey is from sickness to healing. The source of Ouellette’s original wound is an unloving mother and in the end it is motherhood and motherhood alone that truly saves her. “I was afraid to grow a child in my body because of Mafia,” she writes. “What he did to me all those years. The oiliness of him, his callouses and fingernails. 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.”
The book’s last fifty pages are a paean to mother-love. Beautifully; lyrically, Ouellette sings the heart’s song in birth’s midst; the love a woman can feel for her newborn children; the oneness, the blurring of self-hoods; the use of words in storytelling—the passionate desire to entertain one’s child and to see one’s child never suffer because, in the end, it is mothering—being a mother, and being mothered by a child—that heals Ouellette. One of Ouellette’s daughter’s takes her mother’s face in her hands and says: “I’ll take care of you when you’re old, Mom.” It’s a being taken care of that never occurred for the younger Ouellette.
In form, the book departs from convention in at least three ways: in time framing; in prosaic interludes; and in fragmentation (the book’s subtitle is “a memoir in fragments”).
Aristotle famously says that every story is built through a sequence of beginning, middle, and end, but what happens when your intact psyche is blown to smithereens by having sex at age five with your mother’s boyfriend? While for the most part the book progresses linearly, it also sometimes pendulums back and forth in time, leaving us confused, wondering what part of Ouellette’s life she is walking through. The back and forth jarring, now present, now past, may at times go too far—but it arguably delivers at least two striking postmodern narrative effects: first, the experience of time in the human psyche where past and present appear simultaneously; and second and more compellingly, the confusions of a smashed mind trying to piece itself back together.
In a second type of break from narrative convention, the narrator sometimes leaves the main road of her story to follow interesting little scientific cul-de-sacs that read like brief disquisitions on various topics: dogs, flowers, trees, birds, the effect of trauma on human genes. In these chillier asides the narrator seems to rise above the memoir with a scientist’s eye to pause and look disembodied down upon her life. It may be these narrative off roads are a meta-discourse, mimicking the way victims of sexual trauma leave their bodies to escape pain, but they also provide a helpful fence to protect even us from too much pain.
Fragmentation, Ouellette’s central structuring device, is used throughout, but it achieves its apotheosis in the book’s last eighteen pages where the memoir is consummated in an almost choral rendering of a mother-child duet: a series of fragments told in two voices: the voice of the third daughter, the very intelligent scientist Lillian, now grown, and the voice of the now late-forties Jeannine. The fragments seesaw back and forth in a dialogue that seems almost to emanate from dead people calling to each other behind screens: “Remember that headache you had, or was it I that had the headache? It hurt me so much. ‘Mama has a headache,’ you cried, clutching your own head between your hands. ‘And it’s hurting me. Hurting me!’” In this final sequence the consciousness, the very being of the mother and the daughter, are exchanged.
On page seventy Ouellette writes that she is not her body, but the “part that burns.” The part that burns is the sum of all her sufferings, as sharp and knifelike as the wound received from a sadistic obstetrician, who made the horseshoe-shaped cut in the muscles of her vaginal wall in a type of episiotomy rarely practiced in the United States anymore; a wound administered again and again in the difficulty she had walking afterwards, and made worse by a husband more interested in “coming like a train” inside her after the birth than in being the thoughtful caretaker of that suffering—I almost want to say—at the speaker’s vaginal core: the “part that burns.”
They say time heals all wounds. In this book, the idea is articulated beautifully. The first one hundred pages makes us a spectator of cruelty almost unbearable to watch; the last fifty offer time and distance. The final page, which I read three times, offers a final extended metaphor of relief from pain. This final metaphor says in a different way than Revelations or “Lycidas” that in the end all suffering endured is wiped, like tears, away.
I slid down this memoir quickly, from the first word, in a state of unconscious absorption, unaware of time, not putting it down. Now that I am done; now that I have landed on the ground, I am left in a daze, sitting stunned and still, listening to the buzz of flies, trying to make sense of a painful world I have just passed through. And, more or less, wanting to start at the top and read it all over again.
Lisa Elaine Low’s poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Valparaiso Poetry Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, American Journal of Poetry, Delmarva Review, Tusculum, Evening Street Review, Free State Review, Neologism Poetry Journal, Straight Forward Poetry, The Virginia Normal, Spillway, Good Works Review, Phoebe, The Potomac Review, Crack the Spine, Broken Plate, BoomerLitMag, Litbreak Magazine, Streetlight, and Spillway, among others. She is co-editor with Anthony Harding of Milton, the Metaphysicals, and Romanticism (Cambridge University Press in 1994). She received her doctorate in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and spent twenty years as an English professor, teaching at Cornell College; Colby College; and Pace University. In addition to her work as an educator, Low has been a film and theatre critic for Christian Science Monitor. Visit her at lisalowwrites.com.