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  • Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing by Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall
  • Catherine Brist (bio)
Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing
Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall
Fordham University Press, 2019, 146 pp. ISBN 9780823285488, $95.00 hardcover, $25.00 paperback.

In the years since the #MeToo movement gained widespread media attention, critics have speculated that we are witnessing a sea change in public responses to stories about trauma. In their new book Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing, Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall offer a different view, suggesting that rather than provoking a transformation, #MeToo has instead illuminated life writing’s long investment in stories about childhood and trauma. Outlining their approach, Gilmore and Marshall write that “Witnessing Girlhood offers a genealogy of the child’s centrality to struggles for justice, especially antiracist, feminist, labor, and human rights movements, and the significance within these movements of life writing as a means to spur activism through the representation of childhood” (5). As they describe this genealogy, they deliberately center writing by women of color, emphasizing how claims about childhood innocence elide early experiences of racial and sexual injustice.

Gilmore and Marshall open Witnessing Girlhood with a discussion of Rachael Denhollander’s testimony against former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. When Denhollander and others testified, they relied on their authority as adults to seek justice for their victimized childhood selves, creating “a collective forum of witness” (2). Describing this example, Gilmore and Marshall introduce a key [End Page 822] critical term, “accompaniment,” which they use to describe an adult narrator’s intervention to speak alongside her childhood self. As they define this term, Gilmore and Marshall draw on Sharon Marcus’s notion of a “survivor positionality,” characterized by an individual’s ability to change over time: by narrating childhood trauma with the perspective of an adult, authors “accompany” their younger selves and illustrate that victimization is not a permanent state (3). Gilmore and Marshall argue that accompaniment is an especially powerful strategy for narrating trauma because it enables authors to describe childhood pain without portraying themselves as innocent or in need of rescue. Instead, accompaniment lets authors position themselves as political beings, agents who will one day become the adult narrators who tell their stories in pursuit of justice. This move also offers narrators emotional protection, allowing them to describe past suffering without succumbing to it.

Life narrative scholars will notice many throughlines between Witnessing Girlhood and the earlier work of both Gilmore and Marshall. Like Gilmore’s Tainted Witness, Witnessing Girlhood is interested in the testimonial circumstances that allow female narrators to make themselves legible before unsympathetic audiences. Witnessing Girlhood explores this issue in detail in its first chapter, “Girls in Crisis,” which discusses the narrative choices adopted by Harriet Jacobs, Rigoberta Menchú, and Marjane Satrapi to “motivate readers toward ethical witness and activism” (8). In addition to accompaniment, these choices include the decision to blend their coming-of-age narratives with parallel narratives of political awakening, a move that encourages readers to understand their stories through the lens of geo-politics. Marshall’s expertise on visual writings about childhood also shines through, particularly in the third and fourth chapters, which focus on graphic novels and picture books. These chapters share concerns with Marshall’s Graphic Girlhoods, which discusses how violence shapes girls’ experiences with education. The authors’ distinct areas of expertise come together beautifully, illuminating the way trauma marks childhood as a site of contested meaning.

One major strength of Witnessing Girlhood comes from the diversity of texts the authors analyze. The works they consider cover a variety of topics—illness, violence, imperialism, war—and span a variety of genres. Their fourth chapter, “Teaching Dissent through Picture Books,” is especially compelling, discussing Junko Morimoto’s My Hiroshima and Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirt-waist Makers’ Strike of 1909. As Gilmore and Marshall note, books aimed at children have been under-analyzed in life narrative studies, perhaps because they are believed to be less complex than stories written for adults. However, as they also remind us, “picture books are neither innocent nor simple and by design...