Mon November 15, 2004
Just Beneath My Skin: Autobiography and Self-Discovery
In her first memoir, All the Lost Girls, Foster told of her mother, as a girl, having been raped by her own brother. Now Foster has written volume two: Just Beneath My Skin, a linked collection of autobiographical essays.
By Don Noble
The typical memoir is the memoir of childhood. The writer tells of her or his growing up and the forces that shaped him. More often than not that there is some real unpleasantness.
Angela?s Ashes and All Over But the Shoutin? and Change Me into Zeus?s Daughter contain alcoholic fathers, and what follows is poverty, hunger, deprivation, usually some shame, and, finally, maturity, survival, escape, and maybe success. Much more problematical is volume two of an author?s memoirs, because here the writer is an adult, writing of choices he has made. And even allowing for the permanent effects of having your twig badly bent, the adult has agency, some decision-making power.
In her first memoir, All the Lost Girls, Foster told of her mother, as a girl, having been raped by her own brother. There?s a piece of Southern Gothic for you. But then her mother rallies, gets an education at the U of A and marries a physician. Patricia is raised the daughter of the town doctor in Foley, Alabama, with music lessons in Fairhope and a panoply of other privileges.
But she is a divided, tormented soul. Her parents want her to be both ambitious and a Southern belle, both National Honor Society and queen of the shrimp festival. It?s all too much, and Foster writes of her distress in never being able to be everything to everybody.
This kind of memoir has its problems. The children of privilege feel pain, too, and it is always a sin to be contemptuous of someone else?s pain, but, after all, anxiety over piano recitals or ballet lessons is not the same thing as being raped by your stepfather.
Now Foster has written volume two: Just Beneath My Skin, a linked collection of autobiographical essays. She writes of her first, failed marriage, her nervous breakdown, and her graduate schoolwork in art and then a Ph.D. in English. She writes very well of the craft of autobiography and is well aware of the pitfalls in the genre.
In one essay, she is teaching at the University of Nice, France, on the Riviera, when she has a fight with her second husband over whether or not to buy a bottle of ketchup. He likes ketchup; she doesn?t. She writes: ?Here I am, the envy of my friends, in idyllic France, feeling lost and miserable.? Yes, that is a dilemma.
Elsewhere, in writing about her black childhood housemaid, paid four dollars a day for her labors, in the late fifties and sixties, and raising a child, Foster writes, ?My own life looks plump and privileged by comparison.? Yes, it does.
And yet Foster has much to say. She is insightful about the Baldwin County culture of her childhood. She analyzes with skill the dilemma of the independent, artistic, childless, creative female in a society that is mad for soccer moms with expensive clothes and SUVs and polished toenails. She stands in front of her mirror and weeps because her hair is too thin and her breasts too small to be the cute and seductive female she doesn?t want to be anyway.
The dilemma is real, and a lot of female readers will get a lot out of this work, seeing themselves in it, torn between wanting to be irresistible to men and feeling wretched and guilty about even considering such a prefeminist stance. It ain?t easy being female, but I suspect a major difference between the sexes is, in fact, the question of extensive introspection, self-analysis, bringing all these issues to the surface of consciousness.
Men usually don?t. Men might stand naked in front of a mirror and not be entirely delighted by the size and shape of everything they see, but they rarely discuss it or write it up. Foster?s mother tells her, ?You take things too hard.? Pat answers, ?Of course. Of course. Because that is exactly what a woman must do.? I rather agree with Pat?s mother.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.