As a child of four, author Jeannine Ouellette learned to run from the thick fingers and “tickling game” of her stepfather, Mafia, who smelled of “oil and something else, musty and chemical,” and from a mother whose protection she couldn’t trust. Her mother, who would appeal to her (“Jeanie-Beanie”) as she coiled up her thick hair in a pretty bun, could just as dexterously “kick her out of the family,” meaning banishment to the mildew-soaked basement for weeks on end, often after slapping “that look” off her face.
But dysfunction is not the whole story, which is why Ouellette lays it bare within the first 20 pages and chronicles her childhood spread between cold, hard, Duluth, Minnesota, and the boom-bust years of arid Wyoming. One prospective literary agent passed on the book because abuse turned up so early on the page. In her telling of the exchange, Ouellette counters with how it felt to have abuse turn up so early in her life. She persevered, calling The Part That Burns “a memoir in fragments” for its unorthodox structure as a collection of interrelated essays about belonging and becoming, told by a child raising her own consciousness. Ouellette has been rewriting this story her whole life, wrapping into it her first marriage and the birth of her three children, contemporary brain science surrounding abandonment and abuse, and her role in dismantling the seeming security she herself built to risk something . . . more. Many of the chapters stand alone with several having first appeared to acclaim in journals and anthologies.
Chapter by chapter, the reader learns how the essays share an ecosystem of people, places (specifically houses, apartments, and foster homes of Ouellette’s childhood), and domestic pets, leading to a fuller, if nonsequential, account of each. The narrator’s voice matures as she grows into awareness of the lack of a safe haven—the essential mothering—that is every child’s birthright. Set astray by these circumstances and doubtful of her own worth, she’s first a girl “trying my hardest to shape up for Mama,” then a young wife clamoring for the normalcy she always wanted, where she might bake bread and slather it with “creamy butter and raw honey, all the way to the crust.” She dreams of becoming a writer and a teacher, with grown children who also build bright hope with words. But to get there, she finds she has to go back to the beginning and bear witness.
Surviving is what her child-self was doing, Ouellette discovers, when she began looking for doorways, real or imagined. These include the bathroom door that her elementary-age self could lock against her stepfather’s certain “look,” as well as the ethereal portal, hidden behind a waterfall in a Wyoming canyon, which she searches by bicycle for her own Secret Garden. “I will trace my finger along the length of barbed wire that separates one plot from another,” she determines reflexively. “I will feel in the dark for that particular point, sharp and exact, where I turned.”
Recurring throughout the text is a lethal explosion Ouellette’s mother survived when Ouellette was an infant: utility gas (may have) ignited at a house party, killing some party-goers instantly, and launching Ouellette’s mother into the yard with one ear nearly torn off and many badly broken bones. Examining this trauma along her own long arc of survival, the author grows to confront the question of how much choice her mother had in parenting the way she did, and whether she herself could do any better. Anxiety spurs Ouellette into therapy when she begins reading about how memories are stored in our cells.
The article said cellular memories are passed along from one generation to another. It’s called intergenerational trauma. This means Mafia is not only inside me, but also inside Sophie. He’s in the new baby too, this creature not yet born, this creature who is, here in my therapist’s office, jamming a sharp miniature foot under my middle ribs. I didn’t know about cellular memories before I decided, recklessly, to allow babies into my body.
Still, Ouellette continues pulling herself through doorways, becoming masterful with the clinical dissociation she developed to survive abuse. “When I am fiery and floating,” she writes, “I watch myself from above. . . . I am connected to my body by a string.” Transposing this as a literary device, she displaces the intensity of her past so the reader can move on with her to make meaning devoid of bias or cliche. She divorces the father of her children, for example, but does not illustrate the long fight for custody. Instead: “I struck a match, and John poured the gas. That’s the simplest way to tell it, and the way I generally tell it now.” The rest we learn in pieces, beginning with the birth of their first-born daughter, the crossing-over Ouellette most desired. “This fathomless child was everything I had always known without knowing, everything I had ever grasped for in the dark; she was another world, humming and transparent, embracing and rocking us in her cradle of brine.”
The enduring craft of this memoir is language, lush and precise. But beyond it lies an astonishing, unhurried fidelity to uncertainty, grief, and healing. By circling back through memory, the author demonstrates how the brain takes up the same fragments again and again, to be sure of their substance and place them where they will bear the weight of questioning. “Here’s the truth about brokenness,” she writes. “You can tear a thing apart and tape it back together, and it will still be torn and whole. There is no other way. Scars don’t lose their feeling. They become more tender to the touch.”
Ouellette has long been the accomplished teacher, writer, and mother she determined to be, but she says this manuscript drove her to earn her first college degree in her late forties, a master’s in creative writing. With it, she recounts, her perspective widened permanently to see how her most vulnerable parts are also valuable.
Maybe healing, when it happens, is a result of quantum entanglement, the swirling of a thousand winds. Maybe it comes when you give your daughter your own heart like another plush toy and she will drag it with her everywhere, clenching it in her baby fists whenever she screams in fear or sadness or pain, soaring through the air with it as she jumps from a swing at the highest possible point in the July sky, stuffing it into her backpack as she skulks off to high school on a bad day, locking herself away with it, broken, when her first love leaves her.
This book reveals Ouellette as a torch bearer, intuiting and believing in her own worth and ability to mother without becoming her mother, despite the still-smoldering sabotage of abuse. Today, as a teacher in prison writing workshops and also offering her own retreat programs, Ouellette guides students to “find the heat,” the places in their writing where their truth is both the fuel and the flame, the destruction and the light. The Part That Burns is Ouellette putting her hand to a door on fire, and even as the blaze blooms, pushing through.