Rick Emerson - 'Unmask Alice'
The first biography about Beatrice Sparks, the author of 'Go Ask Alice' and 'Jay's Journal'.
Why do I feel as though I’m writing a sad story, when my aim was to tell the story of a liberation?
Édouard Louis has written painfully stark autobiographical work in the past, notably The End of Eddy, where he wrote his family, friends, and fellow villagers into an explosive and all-too-common story about how he was expected to submit to traditional expectations: marry a girl, work at the local factory, and be like everybody else; the homosexual Eddy instead showed his family for what they were: racist, nationalistic, and homophobic.
Since then, things have changed. This book shows Louis both digging into his past and the present. He’s masterful at showing the scorn and malice that watermarked his parents’ relationship.
For example, he tells the story of the time when his mother decided that their family would go on holiday, which would only be possible if she’d register certain documents to get money from the state. Documents that the patriarch of the family held hidden.
She asked my father for the administrative documents that he had sorted out and filed away the previous year, but he replied that he couldn’t remember where he’d put them. He said it with a faint, cruel smile on his face.
So she waited. She waited for him to go to the café before rummaging through the chest of drawers. She didn’t just open them, she pulled the trays out completely and placed them on the floor, sitting next to them and taking out the piles of paper one after the other; she made phone calls, left messages, called back when she didn’t get a reply, crossed the street again, filled in yet more forms; until the day she told us that it was done, she had won. Her words smothered the noise of the TV: We’re going on vacation next summer. She smiled. (Your face suddenly became so luminous.) My father said that he wouldn’t go with us, that he was better off staying at home, chez lui, but nothing he said mattered to her at this stage: she looked down on him now, thanks to her victory over him.
Louis tells the book from two perspectives, that of his own and that of his mother’s. He reaches deeply into what made her tick and how.
The story of my mother starts with a dream: she was going to be a cook. An extension, most likely, of the reality of life around her: women had always done the cooking and served others. At sixteen she enrolled in the hospitality school in her region, but a year later she had to abandon her training; she was pregnant, about to give birth to my older brother, who would swiftly become alcoholic and violent, always in court or at the police station, either because he’d beaten his wife or set fire to the bus stop or the stands at the village stadium—I’ll come back to that. His father, a plumber whom my mother had met a few months earlier, asked her to keep the child. They married out of convenience and moved in together. He went to work, and at eighteen she was already a “stay-at-home mom,” as she put it. Perhaps, a bit later, she might have been able to pick up where she’d left off and pursue all her youthful dreams anew, but barely two years after the birth of her first child, the doctors told her she was pregnant again, and she brought a second child into the world: my older sister. At twenty, she found herself with two kids, no degree, and a husband she already hated after just a few years with him. He would come home drunk in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t know where he had spent the evening, and they’d argue. When she spoke to me about this more than twenty years later, she explained: I was stronger than him, I wasn’t going to be pushed around. But it wasn’t much of a life. I was tired—tired of living in a situation where I always had to be on my guard, ready to defend myself all the time.
There is a lot of evidence of what made Louis’s parents marriage a hateful and vindictive one, even though ther’s naturally ups and downs as in nearly all relationships.
Since her life was stripped of all interest, nothing could happen unless it involved my father. She no longer had a story of her own; her story could only be, ultimately, his story. One morning, the factory called to tell us that a heavy weight had fallen and crushed my father’s back while he was working. The doctors warned my mother that he would be paralyzed for several years. He would no longer receive a salary, only some benefits paid by the state as compensation. Both he and my mother went immediately from being poor to being destitute, and in order to earn some money she had to work as a home health aide, washing elderly people in the village, a job that exhausted her and that she hated.
One of Louis’s greater strengths as a writer lies in how he describes the mundane to reveal the harrowing.
When I announced to her that I was gay, she replied anxiously, Well, I just hope you’re not the woman when you’re in bed! It’s an anecdote that makes me laugh nowadays.
There’s both fantastically written rhythm and love in this book. Even though Louis rarely explains reasons for his actions, they’re evident; he treats the reader as intelligent and thereby reaches conclusions and actions that can be left unsaid; in here lies the rub, something that may frustrate readers who look for conclusions. When does life contain conclusions?
Unlike The End of Eddy, this book is different, due to a different age, where people naturally change, even in the most static of environs. There’s a lot of darkness in here, while there is a lot of breathing space as well. Even though some potential readers would discard Louis’s books for fear of the darkness, he’s got a tight rein of what makes us work, simply by being able to succinctly put his finger on what makes us not work. This book is a commendable piece of work.