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The Southern Literary Journal 36.2 (2004) 82-99

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Telling Stories in Dorothy Allison's Two or Three Things I Know For Sure

"Memory heals the scars of time. Photography documents the wounds."
—Michael Ignatieff

Dorothy Allison's strong and sustained autobiographical impulse is evident in much of her writing, including some of the poems in The Women Who Hate Me, the stories in Trash, her first novel Bastard Out of Carolina, many of the essays in Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature, and especially in her memoir, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure. Although Two or Three Things I Know For Sure carries the label "memoir" on its back cover, the text was originally a performance piece, and eventually became the subject of a documentary film.1 As she moved through the genres, from poetry to short fiction to novel to personal essay to performance piece, and finally to memoir, Allison's literary output consistently told the same story:

But what may be the central fact of my life is that I was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family, a girl who had left the seventh grade the year before, worked as a waitress, and was just a month past fifteen when she had me. That fact, the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it ("Question" 15). [End Page 82]

Given that she has spent so much of her literary energy on this basic narrative, which includes in all of its manifestations not only the story of her illegitimate birth and her early years in poverty, but also the additional story of physical beatings and incest by her stepfather, what considerations might lie behind her decision to narrate the story in both fictional and non-fictional forms? One answer might be the difficulty of telling such a humiliating story through autobiography, a genre which directly links the teller to the tale. Shifting the shame and rage to a fictive protagonist would naturally allow the author to distance her actual family from the stereotypes of "poor, white trash." As Leigh Gilmore notes:

Yet conventions about truth-telling, salutary as they are, can be inimical to the ways in which some writers bring trauma stories into language. The portals are too narrow and the demands too restrictive. Moreover, the judgments they invite may be too similar to forms in which trauma was experienced. When the contest is over who can tell the truth, the risk of being accused of lying (or malingering, or inflating, or whining) threatens the writer into continued silence. In this scenario, the autobiographical project may swerve from the form of autobiography even as it embraces the project of self-representation.

Seeking to represent her childhood trauma through narrative, Dorothy Allison naturally decided at first to write an autobiographical novel. Though she was always open in interviews about the direct connections between Bastard Out of Carolina and her own life, the novel is itself on the borderline between fiction and non-fiction. Why then would Allison choose to present the basic story in the non-fictional genre of memoir, after having received so much acclaim for the more familiar version of the novel? When she asserts that "the need to make my world believable to people who have never experienced it is part of why I write fiction. I know that some things must be felt to be understood, that despair, for example, can never be adequately analyzed; it must be lived" ("Question" 14), she seems to be telling us that in a fictional format she can best avoid what she calls "pseudo-porn," a narrative which produces a pornography of victimization through graphic and gratuitous detail (Strong 8). The final rape scene in the novel is presented...