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What memoir accomplishes in the hands of Gail Hovey is nothing short of exceptional. In this chronicle of a sixteen-year-old's seduction by her religious education teacher (and lengthy affair), the reader discovers not only the abuse of a teenage girl by an adult woman, but the life ever after--the subsequent years of guilt, remorse, conflicted identity, and a love lost, one poisoned by power under the raiment of religion. In the wake of memoir popularity, we've come to expect a range of sensational to solipsistic in this ever-popular genre. So much so that we may forget that memoir, unlike autobiography, may direct attention toward the live and actions of others, rather than just the narrator. Hovey promotes, through this genre, an "I" that is involved in the proceedings of others. Rather than solely subjective, Hovey's "I" is externalized and in dialog.
It's this externalizing of the subjective experience that allows us to come to know and perhaps at least begin a journey of understanding not only of the narrator's pain, but its complexity as related to an entire life story (the writer is in her late 70s), including her relationship to her parents, her husband and adopted son, her lovers, and the cultural landscapes of New York, South Africa, and Hawai'i. Most importantly, in this externalization, the writer is pulled and tugged into complex and contradictory self-positioning so that the narrator-audience relationship is renegotiated as Hovey works to develop new ways of being heard.
This is no niche memoir, conforming to the narrative of gender and sexuality, addiction, and recovery, for instance. It does confront the issues of sexual identification, sexual transformation, and coming of age. But coming out of the old stories of victimization is a shift to reclaiming the past rather than hiding it in secrecy and solitude. "For decades I've lived with invisible pain," Hovey writes in her epilogue. She recounts how, following her bout with cancer, she had to wear a black sleeve due to the swelling from lymphedema after the mastectomy. This becomes a physical metaphor: "It helped me that what I was going through was not hidden."
What she calls "a convoluted search for self" becomes more clearly the matter of "a colonized mind" as she patterns her adult life after Georgia's: attending seminary, marrying a minister, loving women. Her self-surveillance thus embodies cultural critique in the process of healing. Not only did Georgia's power as an adult religious teacher, as someone who had "chosen" her, confound Hovey's beliefs, but certain of Hovey's own regrettable acts as daughter, wife, mother, missionary show the repeated effects of abuse.
The book took approximately ten years to write; it subject matter, a lifetime. The agency that life-writing accords, in the hands of someone seeking a closer truth, is not merely scriptotherapy. In this crucial map for other sufferers, counselors, but also a general audience, she reclaims the past, shifting the story of victimization and self-loathing to examine how desire and fantasy may intersect with lost innocence. Hovey builds a new narrative in which externalizing includes the reader: "What happened to me," she ways, "keeps teaching me."
Does she wish anything from Georgia? Only the impossible--proof that she never harmed another child. What memoir reveals of the heart of Gail Hovey is nothing short of exceptional. --Shelley Armitage