(Wyncote, PA: Split/Lip Press, 2021)
A glance down the table of contents of The Part That Burns: A Memoir in Fragments, by Jeannine Ouellette, immediately shows the reader how Ouellette has chosen to organize her work. Here we see the material from which Ouellette has built a narrative and, in the process, attempted to unpack her trauma before it unraveled her. The chapter titles reveal the narrator’s love of animals: “Four Dogs, Maybe Five”—nature, “Tumbleweed”—her children, “Baby Girl.” There is also what might be called the book’s working thesis, “The Part That Burns,” which winds up being not a single burning part, but multiple parts, all of them intense and fiery: abuse, childbirth, unwanted but obligatory-seeming sex after childbirth, child-rearing, a mother’s betrayal, and, ultimately, the recognition that the human body can and does rise to the challenges it is given. After all, as the narrator reminds us, “The part that burns is the part that glows.”
Ouellette’s memoir deals with “Trauma” with a capital T, as well as with the myriad lower-case traumas that humans experience as part and parcel of being alive. In the exploration of the abuse, it has echoes of the memoirs of Mary Karr, Jeannette Walls, and Tara Westover, as well as the semi-autobiographical novel Bastard Out of Carolina, whose author, Dorothy Allison, is cited by Ouellette as an influence, and who has said the following about Ouellette’s work: “I love this book and am grateful it is in the world.” This reviewer agrees wholeheartedly.
Told in fragments with narrators that range from a young girl to a nervous ninth grader, from a brand-new wife and mother to an older, divorced woman with adult children, The Part That Burns is a meditation on healing and resiliency in the face of the harm and havoc wreaked by others—some intentional, some situational, all hurtful. In a particularly cutting scene, we witness Ouellette’s narrator being terrorized by her mother, who, at the point before Ouellette and her younger sister are taken to foster care, tells her daughter, “I should have aborted you when I had the chance.” The mother hurls a variety of kitchen objects at her daughter’s head: a ceramic jug, a cast-iron pan, an electric mixer. The Trauma with a capital T, it turns out, is not only the mother’s emotional and physical abuse: there is also the sexual abuse foisted upon Ouellette’s four-year-old by her mother’s second husband, a man they all call Mafia:
Mafia doesn’t like me, except for the tickling game. It goes like this: Mafia chases me, I run. He catches me, I yell and shriek. He tickles me—under my arms and behind my knees, under my chin and between my ribs. I shriek more. He pulls my clothes off and puts me on his lap and rubs his hands between my legs. When he stops, the game is over. That’s how it works.
That these narrators maintain such objectivity throughout the book is testament, no doubt, both to the extent of Ouellette’s healing and to her commitment to her craft, as whole passages beg to be read again and again for their lyricism, humility, and beauty:
Maybe healing, when it happens, is the result of a quantum entanglement, the swirling of a thousand winds. Maybe it comes when you give your daughter your own heart like another stuffed toy she will drag with her everywhere, clenching it in her baby fists whenever she screams in fear or sadness or pain, soaring through the air with it as she jumps from a swing at the highest possible point in the July sky, stuffing it into her backpack as she skulks off to high school on a bad day, locking herself away with it, broken, when her first love leaves her.
The younger and older narrators alike find solace in nature, and the book places the reader right in the middle of frigid, Minnesota winters—a frozen Lake Superior ringed with ice- and snow-swept beaches, sweating beneath heavy woolens on a city bus, a general urban slush—as well as the desolate stretches of Casper, Wyoming, where Jeannine is both repulsed and captivated by the humble tumbleweed. A tumbleweed, she writes, “is a plant known as a diaspore. Once mature, it dries and detaches from its root and tumbles away.” The young Ouellette is both the tumbleweed and the “tender [and] thirsty…baby grass” that her mother and Mafia expect her to keep alive after seeding their front yard. The narrator doesn’t push these metaphors, however. She is wise enough to leave them for the reader to draw her own painful conclusions—how this tender babe was as helpless as the grass, her needs similarly unmet, and how she was as as untethered as the tumbleweed, grasping at and wildly clinging to anything it found.
A clear, unflinching eye — whether aimed at the Trauma inflicted upon her or the trauma she extends to her husband and daughter—means the reader can trust this narrator. In one scene, when an adult Ouellette is trying to impress her still-neglectful mother with the successful trappings of her life—her new husband and their “galloping mare of a [toddler] daughter,” she also wants desperately for her mother to see how calmly she, as a new mother herself, deals with her daughter Sophie’s biting. But then she confesses to the reader:
And even on those few times when I have lost my temper and raised my voice, yelled that biting is not okay, is bad, and pulled Sophie off of me too roughly, yanked her doughy arm too hard, tried to hurt her just a little, I didn’t mean it, not at all, and I won’t ever defend myself for those times.
In the chapter about the dissolution of her marriage, she admits: “I used to emphasize how I didn’t have an affair. Technically, I didn’t. I used to emphasize that what happened was more than attraction. I fell in love. Now, I know that’s worse.” The narrator is as clear and unflinching here as she is in scenes of her own abuse, even though both narrator and reader know it’s a false parallel between the experiences.
The conclusion, written in alternating voices of the author and her daughter, reminds us of our interconnectedness — as mothers and daughters, yes, but also more broadly as humans, in the shared experiences of all beings. Traditional Buddhism teaches that trying to control our experiences—whether past or future—is not only impossible, but destructive. Rather, the goal of being human is to connect deeply to things as they are, and, in doing so, to work through individual pain to arrive at a most fundamental resting place of wholeness, love, and healing. As Ouellette’s narrator shows us, the work of healing ourselves is perhaps the greatest gift we can extend to others. Like a good meditation practice, it is the work of this book to observe the physical facts of a life without judgement, knowing that, if we can be patient, we will eventually find inner stability and acceptance, even when, or especially when, the external world erupts in chaos.
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Francesca Moroney is a mother, writer, teacher, and reader, living and working with her five teenagers and three large dogs in southwestern Illinois. After teaching composition to community college and GED students for most of her career, she now teaches memoir writing at The Writers Studio.