When Jeannine Ouellette was 24 years old, five months pregnant with her second child, she looked up counseling in the Center City, Minn., yellow pages, and picked a name from the list. Once she explained the reason for her visit, the therapist told her she should join a support group for survivors of incest and childhood sexual abuse. She did, but after just a few meetings she could no longer bear the raw misery and the awful stories and she stopped going.
As a reader, I am leery of memoirs on the topic of childhood sexual abuse for pretty much the same reason, so am pleased to report that Ouellette's debut memoir, "The Part That Burns," is calm, engaging and affecting without being devastating. The details of her abuse at a very young age by her stepfather are treated with a reasonable amount of delicacy, and like the cult classic "The Chronology of Water," by Lidia Yuknavitch, which has a similar subject, the memoir is beautifully written and interestingly constructed.
The book's epigraph, from essayist André Aciman, is "There is no past; there are just versions of the past." This could be a description of Ouellette's method, as she tells and retells her story, starting at different points and from different angles. The first version begins in the voice of a child — "What happens after Easter is mostly bad" — and is divided in sections for the five dogs she had from age 4 on. Threaded through the biographies of the dogs is the story of a childhood spent constantly moving household, changing schools and dealing with the chaotic relationship between her mother and her stepfather.
The cruelty of her father's second wife is balanced by the kindness of a neighbor and a teacher. She mentions an autobiography she wrote for her ninth-grade English class; later in the book, this heartbreakingly upbeat document appears in toto.
The second chapter is also organized into subsections, these named for various species: Western Jackalope, Tumbleweeds, Western Meadowlark, Mother, Jimmy Carter. By the third chapter, we're beginning to hear the story of her first, very early, marriage; later sections will go back and explore a terrible incident in her mother's past and a trip to Mexico we've been wondering about for a while. In the final chapters, she moves toward the present, mentioning a second marriage; the penultimate section is written as a collaboration with her daughter, now grown.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant, said Emily Dickinson — another way of describing what Ouellette accomplishes here. All the truth, and many slants, like the angles of sun through the hours of a day.
Marion Winik is a Baltimore-based book critic and member of the National Book Critics Circle board.
The Part That Burns
By: Jeannine Ouellette.
Publisher: Split Lip Press, 172 pages, $16.