Wednesday, July 1, 2015

One Year, Two Essays: Marcia Aldrich and Ann Hood

I recently came across two essays that independently evoke and explore the summers of 1976 and '77, the year David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz terrorized the New York boroughs. One afternoon I read Marcia Aldrich's "The Blue Dress" in Hotel Amerika, and the next day Ann Hood's "Summer" in The Normal School, struck by their intersections and their disparities. (Disclosure: I'm a Contributing Editor at The Normal School.) Hood writes about those summers as she spent them in Rhode Island (and, for brief periods, in Chicago), an innocent far from Berkowitz's spree yet close enough to feel spooked and unsafe. She grew analogously aware of her own proximity to danger as a young woman kissing men in cars and falling in and out of love, the potential for random violence always around her. Aldrich was living in a dilapidated apartment in Greenwich Village during the infamous summer of '77, working at a deadening clerical job and recognizing her anger at the city's violence as well as her own incompleteness, complex family dynamics, and vexed romantic past—much of this made metaphoric in a form-fitting dress she buys and wears for the bracing if finite sense of power and attention it gives her. Berkowitz is a common thread in both "The Blue Dress" and "Summer," his derangement acting as plot, setting, and theme at once, explicitly in Hood's essay, abstractly in Aldrich's. Both writers explore sexuality, the body's promises, and the lurid thrills and disheartening limits found between temptation and danger; both essays are terrific, engrossing and powerful.

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the memoirs Girl Rearing and Companion to an Untold Story, which won the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She teaches creative writing at Michigan State University, and from 2008 to 2011 edited Fourth Genre, one of the premiere literary journals featuring personal essays and memoirs. Ann Hood's many books include the novels An Italian Wife and The Obituary Writer, and the memoirs The Knitting Circle and Comfort. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, O, Bon Appetit, Tin House, and The Atlantic Monthly. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

Recently, I virtually sat down with Aldrich and Hood to discuss their "Son of Sam" essays and those essays' unintended correspondences.

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Marcia Aldrich
"The Blue Dress" and "Summer" both touch upon violence against women, fear, and danger. Could you each talk about how your essay originated? Was it in an idea, an image, a recollection?

Marcia Aldrich: Teaching a unit on writing in the second person, we were looking at Dinah Lenney’s “Little Black Dress,” in which she revisits aspects of her past through the specific focus of her dress and my own creative impulses were triggered. Two dresses popped up from my memory bank, one a red dress like a candy striper’s uniform, an outfit I associated with young motherhood, and the blue dress, a dress purchased during a time of feeling unbearably vulnerable. Both dresses hang in my closet in the attic. I was compelled to write about the blue dress and was surprised by the volatile emotional currents unleashed.

Ann Hood: I write a true crime column for The Normal School and when it was time to write my next one, I thought of Son of Sam. I have a list of what crimes I'd like to write about and he has always been on it. I made a list of true crimes that affected me somehow, albeit tangentially. For the reasons I wrote about in the essay, Son of Sam scared the bejesus out of me as a young woman. In many ways, he threatened sexuality and freedom. How many parked cars did I kiss in during that same time? And here was a man who killed people doing just that.

You both use the "Summers of Sam" as a kind of prism through which you explore your own past, which is tangentially related to the murders. Was that an idea from the start of your essay or did the piece evolve to and discover that?

AH: I had that idea from the start. I like to use iconic images or events as gateways into the personal story.

MA: I did not mention the Son of Sam in the first drafts. At first I only included details that pertained to me. But later in the writing process I wanted to create a larger context for my fear and my sense of being preyed upon, to establish that my own personal narrative reflected the larger currents of the time. At first I added too much historical material about the blackout, Son of Sam, garbage strikes and had to scale that material back. It seemed like an information dump and didn’t fit with the lyrical essay I was writing. In the end I hope I’ve given just enough. Finding the right balance was something I had to work on.

In Juliana Gray's essay "My Soldier," about the time an older teen humiliated Gray when she was thirteen and the subsequent revengeful "black magic spell" she cast on him, she writes, "I was angry, and that felt like power." Is anger power? Can you talk about that in relation toy your essay, and/or to female experience in general?

MA: This is a huge subject! Anger in women’s writing is elusive, complex, and defies easy interpretation. I grew up encountering a dismissive response towards any vestige of anger in women’s writing. For example, I heard it said over and over that Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” was written by a woman who hadn’t controlled or transcended her anger and that made the poem flawed. Yet for me the poem performs a mad fury that I love and embrace even as I know it is not always admired or understood. Still the desire to be through with any number of possible figures in that poem—her father, her mother, her husband, even herself—is for me as good as poetry gets. But anger is a two-edged sword as Adrienne Rich’s poem about Marie Curie “Power” suggests in its conclusion: “her wounds came from the same source as her power.” 

AH: Anger can be power, but it can also be the opposite. It can destroy a person, I think, unless she uses it well, not for revenge or destruction but for something that creates change--internally or externally.

Ann Hood
Did anything surprise, challenge, or test you as you wrote? How did you respond to that?

MA: My answer to this is connected to my answer above. Once I tapped into anger, I wasn’t sure I could turn it away from myself. I didn’t want to ride my anger right over the cliff. Performing that mini-rant-litany was exhausting. That’s when I remembered the red-bellied woodpecker and thought she was an objective correlative to the action of my anger, the way my anger turned back on me. That was key to the essay—seeing that anger isn’t just directed outward towards a target and isn’t a simple answer to powerlessness.

AH: I was surprised how I'd remembered so many details wrong about the crimes. And once I had all the facts I had to reconstruct my own experiences at those dates and times, which was challenging.

What do you feel is the current cultural state or value of autobiography?

AH: I think there's a difference between autobiography and memoir, though both forms have a cultural value. Autobiography is more of a complete record of a well known person--Bill Clinton, Keith Richard, the pope. It covers that life from birth. Whereas memoir focuses on one part of a ordinary person's life--the summer of Son of Sam, for example. Both add to our cultural experience, memoir by illuminating the extraordinary or universal in the ordinary.

MA: Clearly it is no longer a small specialization. For me it is the area of the greatest innovation and vitality, though I hasten to add I don’t want to pit the growth of literary nonfiction against fiction or poetry. I have little interest in debates that make claims that the novel is dying. It isn’t. I am perhaps not alone in being compelled by writing that is reckoning with experiences that really happened and aren’t hypothetical or just possible.

Finally, I'd like you each to choose a favorite sentence or passage from the other's essay. 

MA: The passage I particularly admire is the one that closes the gap between the publicly reported threats in New York City and the vulnerability of the girls in Rhode Island. The public events of the Son of Sam do not frame Ann’s essay, they form the texture of its body. I admire how Ann braids the history or the account of his crimes together with her history during that time so seamlessly that you can’t tear one from the other. This interweaving is more than skillful, it’s artful. I also admire how she shifts from an I in this passage to a We. She wasn’t alone in her experience, her feeling unsafe. I wondered whether the braiding was as effortless as the final essay makes it look.

Here’s the passage (I haven’t quoted the whole paragraph): 
Suddenly, New York City didn’t seem so far away. Over dinners and on the way to classes that snowy winter, girls worried out loud. Even if he wasn’t headed for Rhode Island, we realized how vulnerable we all were, sitting in cars, dizzy from kissing, our shirts unbuttoned, our bras unclasped, just a window protecting us from danger.
AH: "The dress is more of a wound than a dress."

That's the first sentence, and it immediately draws you in. The idea of a dress as a wound is so evocative. And somehow also completely understandable.

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Volume 13, 2015
Volume Eight, Number One, 2015

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