Friday, May 22, 2009

Title Thirty Nine: Driving with Dead People by Monica Holloway

Hey, y'all. Did you miss me? I've been real busy.

Anyway, I need to tell you something. I think I have memoir ennui. I mean, we should have realized that this was going to happen, right? I feed on other people's stories like a leech. Eventually I'd meet one that I'd close and say, "Huh. I should feel more than I do, but I don't."

That book is Driving with Dead People. Please don't misunderstand me; I felt for Monica. She got a raw deal. Her parents were both shitty. Her father splurged his goodwill on being a good guy in public, at his hardware store and Elks barbecues, while he made his kids' lives a living hell, treating them with cruelty and violence and going out of his way to humiliate them. Her mother was a selfish bitch who pretty much abandoned her kids when she figured out she didn't want to play house anymore and decided to go back to school, where she got her own apartment and hooked up with a married guy that she would later take on as a second husband. In the meantime, Monica, her sisters Becky and Jo Ann, and her brother Jamie were kind of left to fend for themselves, and they all turned out about as fucked up as you could imagine they would. Not much is told of Becky's story, and Holloway hints strongly at a sort of estrangement that grew from childhood between the girls, so I got the impression that she's left out mostly because Becky doesn't want to be a part of Monica's life and "lawsuit" can be a sweet word when family is on the outs. (Of course, that's just my take on it. Maybe Monica wanted to give Becky some modicum of privacy.)

Monica does a decent job of essentially raising herself, and forges a strong friendship with Julie Kilner, whose father owns the local funeral home (and by whose family and family business Monica is fascinated; hence the title). The girls create a bond and Monica is amazed by a family where knocking over your glass at the dinner table won't get you knocked off your chair. Monica's father has an obsession with gruesome accidents and death, filming them with the family movie camera, and Monica often wishes she were dead. She's not exactly suicidal; she just sees death as a sort of peaceful place to be, and this feeds her interest in the Kilner mortuary. In their teens, Monica and Julie pick up extra money by fetching bodies from the airport in the hearse, but the book is about so much more than that. It's about how a kid who has the deck stacked against her turns out all right, and how, just when she thinks she's figured out her life - Holloway put herself through college and became an actress, even though she's spent a lot of her time scrabbling from day to day and engaging in disastrous love affairs - one thing comes along and knocks her sideways. You're going to get spoiled, so don't read further if you want to wait and see for yourself.

One Christmas, Jo Ann tells Monica that she's not going home for the annual family celebration. Apparently, now that the kids are all grown up and no longer in need of mothering, Mom likes to pretend happy family at the holidays. Monica stops off to see Jo Ann on her way home, and Jo Ann reveals that she remembers being molested by her father throughout her childhood. It's both shocking and yet not; I had a simultaneous feeling of "Seriously? Something else happened to these kids, on top of the rest?" and "Well, in a family that messed up, I guess it makes sense." The rest of the book deals with Monica trying to come to terms and remember if she, too, was a victim of sexual abuse. Their mother patently refuses to believe that such a thing happened, but Monica recalls her mother's insistence that the girls sleep in nightgowns without underwear to "air themselves out" and slathering their privates with Vaseline at night. Also, all three girls slept in the same room for years, so Monica must have borne witness, mustn't she? Could she really not have known this was going on? Was her mother complicit in the most vile of crimes? Becky refuses to discuss it; Monica and her mother stop speaking; Jamie is too far gone down a road of self-loathing and alcohol abuse to be present; Jo Ann becomes suicidal and is hospitalized. Monica cuts off the oddly congenial relationship she's fostered with her father while trying to figure out her own truth. Then, one day, like an ice pick to the chest, her father inadvertently confesses his guilt: Monica phones him after Jo Ann's suicide attempt and tells him that he must help her support her sister while she recovers, and that Jo Ann left her a suicide note that she has yet to open. Her father tells her not to open it, and when she presses him about it (there is no such note) he screams into the phone, "I never touched that girl!" With that, the entire house of cards falls to the ground. Monica remembers the sensation of orgasm from her childhood, when she would lie still and pretend to sleep while a finger probed her. Her already horrible memories are forever smeared by a layer of filth that can never come clean.

One thing that jarred me, very much, was that in the epilogue Holloway describes a conversation she has years later with Julie Kilner, who still lives in her hometown. Julie recounts that the last time she saw Monica's father and asked about the girls, he responded that as far as he knows, they're not dead yet. For some inexplicable reason, this compels Monica to send her estranged father flowers with a note that says that she misses him every day and loves him. That was my what the fuck moment, when I officially stopped caring about this book. How do you write such an exposing tale of your life and end it by saying that you sent a monster an arrangement from 1-800-Flowers? What does that even mean? How can I be expected to feel anything but ambivalence for a woman who clearly doesn't even know how she feels about the situation?

Maybe I'm being unfair. I don't know. I was just disgusted by that. I respect Holloway for sharing her story with the world, but it left me feeling hollow and vaguely repulsed in its entirety. I need a few rounds of fiction to cleanse my palate.

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