Professor Kathleen Donegan: “Finding the Story”

This past November, Professor Kathleen Donegan was asked by a student of hers who was serving as the President of the Prytanean Women’s Honor Society to speak to the society on finding a balance between life and work as a female academic. Speaking at the Gender Equity Resource Center, Professor Donegan designed her talk as a continuation of the thread of the conversations she had had with the students in her course on early American women writers. Thinking about the forces that shaped the narratives which these early American women told about their lives, she contributed a story of her own, the narrative of the poignant intersection of her life as both an English professor and as a woman and mother.

When women talk about a career/life balance, we often step away from figurative language and toward a language of figuring. We are rightly skeptical about cultural messages that come wrapped in the words of “value,” “worth,” and the final “measure” of a life, and turn instead to a different model of “accounting” for ourselves: costs and benefits, sacrifices and investments, opting-in or opting-out, and always, always management. To chart our paths, we get good at making charts, and learning how to follow them.

So tonight, I am going to take a bit of a risk in turning back to the figurative. It’s not that I don’t live by lists and charts and calendars, because I do. Even if my “five-year plan” changes, there’s a part of my mind that’s always set in the future, and operating backwards. (As in: If I want to accomplish “X” by 2010, what do I need to do be working on right now?) But tonight I want to talk about what might happen if one loses confidence in the accounting and the balance sheets; loses a sense of the bottom line: loses, perhaps, the very story of one’s life.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I came across a phrase that I had no art to decipher, but that nonetheless made a little knot in my memory. In her book One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty says that the job of the writer is “to find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.” Maybe it was the rhythm, the way the words swerved and swayed innocently into a dark place – and then stood still. “To find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.”

The whole quotation is this: “Writing fiction,” Welty says, “has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, to find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is lost.”

Since I wanted to be a writer, I took this mystery as my charge, and knowing nothing of persistence, or clarity, or anything beyond an overwhelming desire to go deep, I threw myself into the tangle with all my heart and soul. A career path it wasn’t.

For many years, if I wasn’t actually finding a story, stories were finding me. And losing me too. Some of those stories protected me, and some surprised me. Some I clung to, and some I fought fiercely. Many were not about me. Many were not even true but, believe me, the tangle was thick with them. Getting older, one is tempted to refer to whole swatches of the complicated past by a single name. Here I’ll give in to that temptation, and call this time of remitting pursuit of the tangle: “my twenties.”

Later, in graduate school, there was a certain real thicket where two of my important life stories collided. I was at Yale in the American Studies Department, and I was working on the early periods of contact and settlement in the Americas. The “unknown in a human lifetime” long ago won my abiding respect, and I found in the archive of the New World a place where the unknown was the central experience to an extraordinary, and fascinating, degree. I was 30 year old as I finished my coursework; I’d been married for four years; and I wanted to have a baby.

Now I had this largely figured out. I’d entered graduate school late, and would probably not receive my degree until I was over 35. If I got a job right away, and received tenure as soon as possible, I could be tenured at 42. I knew I wanted three children. So, plugging those imaginary babies into this projected formula, there were a few outcomes. I could finish my dissertation quickly, get a job, and then have “the children” close together during my assistant professor years. Or, I could wait until I got tenure and then have perhaps fewer children, but as a securely employed, if older, mother. Or, I could just start now, at 30, and see what happened. That’s the one I chose.

In the third year of graduate school, my job was to study for oral examinations. My four fields were: Early American Literature, 19th Century American Literature, American Women’s History, and Colonial American History. So, my thinking was this: be pregnant while reading for orals (when most students fell out of sight anyways), take the exams, have the baby, stay home with the baby for the next few months (when most students are just recovering from their exams anyway), slide through the summer, and be ready to go again in September. The baby would be six months old, and I’d be back in action. It would be like a stealth maneuver. I’d finish coursework with my class, and emerge in a year’s time with orals passed and a baby in tow.

What I didn’t fully anticipate was that this marvelous agenda placed me sitting for my oral examinations when I was nine months pregnant. The whole plan actually hinged on this convergence, when the transition to candidacy for the PhD came at the exact time as the transition to motherhood.

My methods of accounting could not account for this: being entirely and extravagantly embodied as a woman at the very moment when my future capacity as a scholar – the depth, reach, and promise of my individual intellect – was ritually examined and evaluated. On entering the room, and lowering myself into a chair, I made a small joke – something about being glad I was supposed to sit there for two hours because I was afraid I might not be able to get back up. A titter, a laugh – enough to both acknowledge and distract from the insistent reality of my condition, and my choices. But despite this deflection there emerged, in the thick of that particular tangle, an undeniably clear line that persisted. It was me in that chair – all body, all mind, copious language pouring in and out of me, the steady galloping beat of another heart inside me – never before had I been so large, so full.

I had three children before I finished graduate school. Zeke was born in 1998, Leo in 2001, and Mercy in 2003. I received my Ph.D. in 2006, my dissertation won national recognition, and in 2007 I began as an assistant professor in Berkeley’s English Department – my first job. No doubt: I had found the story I wanted and it was incredible, and it was true.

Except that this is not really a true story. Because in my true story, the balance between my work and my life has very little to do with figuring things out, and everything to do with the unknown.

Let me approach things this way: There are moments in one’s writing when one feels the work shift its direction. The language begins leading
the argument into a different territory. For me, one of these moments came in my dissertation when I was writing about the early years of the settlement of Plymouth Colony. After narrating some basic history of the settlement, I commented: “While this account is factual, it is not true.” The sentence surprised me. I could anticipate history professors and future editors making unpleasant comments in the margins of my manuscript. But in the act of writing that sentence, I knew I was committed to following out the mysteries of its claim, regardless.

Here I was, asserting that the facts about early Plymouth Colony, as we have understood and transmitted them historically, were not in dispute. But they masked a greater truth. Just a moment ago I gave you a series of dates and names and places that summed up my life/work narrative, and those were the plain facts. But those facts are different from truth, different from finding the clear line that persists. And in my experience, being willing – or being forced – to let go of the story you’re following is what brings you closer to that line. One day after my son Leo was born, he died. And I was forced to let go of my story.

I think the words “forced to let go of my story” are not right. No language is right, but maybe this: The story of my life burned hot in my hands, seared my chest, and then flew away from me like a meteor, scorching, roaring, blazing across the sky. Gone. A split-second that lasted forever. The losses involved in Leo’s death were, are, unaccountable. I know more about them than anyone, and they remain deeply unknown. But even to speak of losses implies the biggest lie of all – that somewhere, sometime, a “balance” of “gain” will be found. Where? … in wisdom, in compassion; in the sheer courage of surviving; in healing; in the miracle of another child; in places deepened by sorrow being filled with joy? Fine; but any narrative I tried to figure out missed a big truth. Learning how to be Leo’s mother – and that is a very long story – I had to stop looking for balance, or at least looking for any comfort there.

How? Just one story for tonight. Every year on the anniversary of Leo’s death, my husband David and I would go down to the ocean where we scattered his ashes, and repeat the prayers and poems we read at his memorial. Ring the chimes that we rang then, say the words that we said then, let the waves splash up onto our shins like we did then. Then we would turn around, walk back up the beach, and return (almost) to our lives. On the fourth year, it was different. Our other children, Zeke and Mercy, were with us – still very young. Walking down to the surf, I just turned to David and said, “I’m going in.” And I did, all the way in to where the waves were breaking, and beyond that to where waves broke that never reached the shore. And I fought them, and ducked them, and let them crash on me. I battled the ocean. I cursed it. I got turned around in it, and got pulled under by it, and then pushed back up and still buoyed along. Whether or not I liked it. And I floated on top of some waves and dove under others, and rode on some, and threw myself against others until I was exhausted. And I said – I yelled to no one – “I give up. You win.” Back on shore there was my family, and I swam toward them. Back at home, I had wet sand stuck to my body, like you always do after a day at the beach. I showered and put on clean clothes. That was the last time I needed to mark – in time – the day I lost Leo.

When I was asked to give this talk, I didn’t know I would share this with you. But I suggested the title “Finding the Story” because Eudora Welty’s phrase immediately leapt to mind: “to find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.” Revisiting the passage, other phrases led me deeper in: “an abiding respect for the unknown,” “where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect,” and finally this: “The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is lost.” I realize that my work, the honor of my work, is to not ignore the knots, but to find and follow and connect what might be there in the tangle. Not only in my own story, but in the stories of countless, countless others. When I read, I need to ask: What if this is not the story I think it is? What else might be true? How might this story want to be told? Pursuing these questions requires going in deep – to archives, to texts, to histories, to memory itself. In order to read so that nothing is lost on me, some stories need to unravel.

How does this translate into scholarly practice? Again, just one story for tonight. In that example of Plymouth Colony, Governor William Bradford recounted that during first winter in the settlement, so many died that “the living could scarce bury the dead.” Given the numbers, it was not just a figure of speech. Bradford’s words have famously settled those first colonists’ suffering into an image of hardship and survival, but who else might have told the story differently? Native peoples, of course: the Patuxet, Wampanoags, and other groups in the eastern woodlands, but where would we find it? Where would a Native record of deaths in Plymouth exist when many of these groups themselves were suffering catastrophic mortality in response to European diseases, and contending with the social, political, cultural, and spiritual upheaval that followed? Who else told this story? Knowing that early New England court records often included long narrative depositions, I began searching there, and found a story about Plymouth told by a man named Phineas Pratt, four decades later, in 1662.

Pratt was not part of the Plymouth colony initially, but belonged to another group of Englishmen at a place called Wessagussett, whose colony had failed in a disaster of starvation and horrid violence. Pratt alone escaped to Plymouth. Much later, in a court case about land claims, Phineas Pratt was asked to narrate his earliest memories of the planting Plymouth settlement. Having barely survived Wessaguestt, Pratt remembered being shocked at the diminished population of Plymouth, and asking “where were all the people that had come over in the Ship.” He was told that they had died. And moreover, that the colony was so weakened, the people “so distressed with sickness” that, “fearing the savages should know it, [they] had set up their sick men with their muskets upon their Rests and the backs leaning against trees.”

Although Pratt’s testimony was confirmed by the court, it was completely expunged from later accounts. Other colonial writers quoted Pratt verbatim right up until the moment he talks about “men with their muskets and their backs leaning against trees,” and then cut him off. And, of course, future histories followed suit.

So: here is another image entirely that lays buried deep in old court records, one to answer and complete Bradford’s own. Those pilgrims who were scarce able to bury their dead also propped their sick men up in the forest, a ghostly sentinel, hoping that the silhouettes of the dying might look like an armed force when seen from the other side of the woods. Now suddenly, many other bodies, and many other stories, become visible. The dead men at Wessagussett, lost to history. The native scouts looking in at the English settlement, venturing out from weakened Indian villages whose strength the English still feared. The sick at Plymouth taking up this final and unlikely post, staking themselves against tree trunks in act that could only confirm they had entered a wilderness of spirit as well as form. All these hidden acts of witness and display and denial. Suddenly there is much more to read, a truth upon which factual accounting is content to cast only the merest glance, and then look away.

The point is to not look away. Sometimes not looking away comes like this, through doing more research. Sometimes it is by teasing at small threads that, when tugged, start to change the whole fab
ric of a text. Sometimes it means finding a story by piecing together elements of a life that have been scattered, carelessly, elsewhere. Sometimes it is simply refusing to move on from something mysterious. A woman named Mary Rowlandson, returned from Indian captivity, lies in bed at night. She is the only one awake in a house that is asleep. “I can remember the time,” she writes, “when I used to lay whole nights together without workings in my thoughts. Now it is other ways with me.” These are the sentences that started my study of early America.

After all, what if it is true? What if it is true that: “to the memory, nothing is lost.” Surely, then, a different type of accounting is necessary, because we have to chart our courses two ways at once: back, back into a past, and on into a future.

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