Patron saint of battered women writes, forgives

February 8, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Dorothy Allison, author of "Bastard Out of Carolina," is the patron saint of battered women. She spoke at UC Davis in January to an enthusiastic crowd made up primarily of women and those supporting the creation of a new women's shelter in South Davis.

Allison, the first of four women writers invited to Davis for this fund-raising series, speaks for victims of abuse. She grew up in an abusive, out-of-control home.

"Someone should have taken us out of that house," said Allison about her mother and sisters.

But in those early years, 1959-63, there were no women's shelters, no rape crisis centers. Families just endured or split apart.

Allison's first novel, "Bastard" (1992), takes an intense look at how one family finally split apart. It's about incest, it's about women in the South, it's about how they cope with rough lives and rotten men. But the shocker comes at the end of the book when the mother has to choose between her daughters and her lover. She knows that her husband, the girls' stepfather, has raped her eldest daughter. Does she take the girls and flee? Does she file for divorce? No, she abandons her daughter and leaves with her husband.

Her second novel, "Cavedweller," is due out this spring. In it, Allison continues exploring the motivations of women and wives and issues of forgiveness and redemption.

"I wanted to write about a woman who does the unforgivable," Allison said. "I wanted to write a book about a woman who runs away and leaves her girls. I wanted to write a book about redemption but I'm not sure I believe in it. I have a Zen Baptist approach: You want it to happen and believe it will but you won't be disappointed if it doesn't."

In "Cavedweller," the mother, Delia Byrd, comes back from Los Angeles to Georgia to reclaim the two daughters she'd abandoned years earlier.

"I write about families in trouble," said Allison, 48, pushing her long red hair out of her face. "It's my territory. I have been in trouble and sinned against the ones I loved. I believe in forgiveness. But I had to write about a woman who would not forgive. I want to write stories that make sense about everything in my life that does not make sense. Do you understand?"

Allison seems to have forgiven her own mother and found a way, through forgiveness, to placate her demons. She had to ask herself some hard questions and find her own answers.

"How do you forgive a mother who has not protected you?" she asked. "We believe the woman to be the greater sinner than the (abusive) man who has murdered the soul of a child. I understand my mother because I am a fiction writer."

To be the kind of stunning fiction writer that Allison is, you have to completely inhabit the soul of your subject. And that is what Allison did.

"We live in a time when we all think we're so healthy," she said. "As if we know everything."

We feel entirely free to condemn others, Allison suggests. But the real trick is to move past condemnation.

"I remember my mother getting up at 5 a.m. every morning to put her makeup on and drive to a diner so she could serve other people breakfast. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have just enough money to have bill collectors scream at me on a weekly basis, without a book to tell me how to fix my life. There were no women's shelters, no sexual assault centers, no rape crisis centers.

"How do you forgive someone for not saving you on one particular day when she saved you on five others? How do you forgive someone for not saving you when I lied to her and everyone lied to her? Women in impossible situations manage to perform miracles repeatedly, " she said.

"In 'Cavedweller' I wanted to write about how people forgive each other," she said. After all, redemption has made the difference in Allison's life.

"I'm supposed to be deeply broken, incapable of emotion, but I survived," she said. She lives in San Francisco with her lover, a woman she's been with for 10 years. They are raising a son, Wolf, age 5.

"There is a concept in American literature that talking about your life is confessional and therefore for women," said Allison. "But all fiction writers use everything. We steal people and stories. And if life has messed with you repeatedly, then you ought to write it down. Everyone in the world has a story, a secret, a sneaky desire for vengeance."

Allison said she was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, much less go to college. She knew, even as a small child, that she wanted to write.

"But it never would have happened if not for the women's movement," she said. "When I was 24 I fell in love with militant feminists. They said: 'Well, why not write?' "

And fortunately for us, she did.

The next writer in the UC Davis Women's Center writers series will be Chitra Divakaruni on Feb. 25. For tickets, phone (530) 752-1915.

Picture of Dorthy Allison Dorothy Allison, author of "Bastard Out of Carolina," is the patron saint of battered women. She spoke at UC Davis in January of 1998. Allison, the first of four women writers invited to Davis for a fund-raising series of lectures, speaks for victims of abuse. Read Elisabeth Sherwin's recounting of Allison's words about her life and works in "Patron saint of battered women writes, forgives," the February 8, 1998 PRINTED MATTER column.

Photos and captions by courtesy.

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