Kelle Groom’s wrenching memoir I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl is a tough book to get through, not because it’s especially long or dense, but because the emotional terrain it covers is so harrowing. Groom recounts a narrative of loss, pain and poor choices with only occasional diversions into kinder, less troubled territory, and the cumulative effect is crushing. She is to be commended for facing her past with flinty-eyed honesty and an absence of cheap sentiment, but this does little to reduce the emotional trauma she expresses. If anything, it augments it.
Groom was just 19 years old and already possessed of a long history of alcohol and drug abuse—not to mention bad judgment in her choice of boyfriends and sex partners—when she gave up her newborn son for adoption. This experience, detailed in the first chapter, lays out the empotional ground that the rest of the book will cover: the sense of pain and loss at parting with her son after holding him for the first and only time, and the experience of hearing him crying as he is carried off by Groom’s aunt and uncle, the boy’s adoptive parents.
This would be a tough enough situation in itself, but what we learn within just a few pages is that Groom’s son Tommy would die before his second birthday of an illness which might have been related to conditions in his adoptive home.
The balance of the book traces Groom’s long struggle to come to terms with events, assuming that such a thing is even possible. Predictably, she undergoes a relapse—several of them—into alcohol abuse. She moves frequently, to college and elsewhere, and works a variety of jobs to hold herself together. Her parents support her as best they can, financially and otherwise. She attends AA meetings and tentatively makes friends, some of whom die. She begins drinking again. She enrolls in poetry-writing classes and receives encouragement from her professors. She quits jobs and takes on new ones, tries to find out what happened to her son without talking about it directly. A reader gets the impression that, in Groom’s family, there’s a great deal that is not spoken of directly.
Perhaps the single wisest choice the author makes in the writing of this book—apart from peeling her skin off, emotionally, to expose the rawness beneath—is to tell her story in a nonlinear manner. One can imagine how the conventional structure of an ordinary story might go: girl gives up child, child passes away, girl spirals downward, hits rock bottom, claws her way toward sobriety and redemption.
Apart from the sheer yawn-inducing familiarity of such a presentation, there is a kind of dishonesty in this predictable narrative arc. Groom avoids this patness by jumbling her chronology throughout the story, resulting in a shoebox-of-snapshots style of storytelling, a collection of vignettes that moves the reader toward a resolution, but which avoids the easy-to-digest ABC of conventional storytelling (or conventional memoir-writing).
Thus the reader bounces from the first-chapter adoption to scenes that take place years earlier, or years later, or after Groom has dropped out of AA, or before she started, or when she was still drinking or when she wasn’t, when she lived in Florida or Australia or Cape Cod, when she was seeing this guy or that guy or no guy at all.
The effect is disorienting, and I for one couldn’t reconstruct this chronology if my life depended on it. More important, though, is the thematic effect of this compulsive time-shifting: the sense that the past is irrevocably whirled up with the present, that choices and events from years ago are still with us, that future events will be colored by what happened two years ago and yesterday and right now. This is true, of course, but I’ve rarely seen the idea so subtly expressed in a nonfiction memoir. Tommy has always just died in this story; he’s always about to be taken away; he’s always being held for the first time. The effect is harrowing.
On the sentence level, Groom manages to convey intensity of feeling while eschewing melodrama—no easy task when discussing events such as the death of a child. “Since I gave birth, I can’t drink enough fast enough,” we are told early on. “I drink twelve to fourteen shots a night. Beer is too slow. Every night I’m just trying to get somewhere, and the only thing that stops me is passing out or throwing up. There’s no reason to stop.”
Later, when she visits his grave, “I buried my silver fish ring with the turquoise eyes in the dirt. It was the closest thing I had to a toy… I tried to hide my head behind the stone, so my family couldn’t see me, so I could be unseen with my son.” Such matter-of-factness in the face of intense pain only lends strength to this already admirably strong book.
I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl isn’t an easy book but it’s an honest and compelling one. It deserves to be read.
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