& lt;i & "Blackbird singing in the dead of night... Take these broken wings and learn to fly... All your life... You were only waiting for this moment to arise." & lt;/i &
-- from "Blackbird,"
by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Jennifer Lauck's early childhood was the grimmest of Grimm's Fairy Tales. Her beautiful, Jackie Kennedy-esque mother died of a mysterious configuration of illnesses when she was barely a preschooler. Her father remarried a cold and ambitious woman with children of her own, not interested in mothering her new husband's dark-haired little girl. With nothing but her beloved Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an indifferent older brother and the memory of her mother's love to sustain her, Lauck wasn't prepared for what came next. Her father unexpectedly died, too, leaving Lauck at the mercy of her new stepmother, who promptly sent her to live with strangers in a communal house in L.A.
Even the darkest fairy tales, however, have something approximating a happy ending. Lauck, who reads at Auntie's Friday night, not only survived, but wrote one of this year's most striking books, Blackbird, which debuted at No. 15 on The New York Times bestseller list. When asked if she had any idea how well her book would be received, Lauck's laugh ripples across the telephone line and belies her difficult past.
"Are you kidding? I'm from Spokane," she laughs. "No, no, I really had no idea."
Although Blackbird takes place in Nevada and southern California during the 1970s, Lauck did, in fact, attend Mead High School and Spokane Falls Community College before going off to college. She now lives in Portland. While in Spokane, Lauck took a reporting job at KXLY a day after the disappearance of Julie Weflen and won an SPJ award for her follow-up story on how Weflen's husband was coping a year later. Although writing and reporting came easily to Lauck, she never considered writing her own story until the happiness she found as an adult was marred by her past.
"Things were finally really stable for me. I married this great Spokane guy, and he and I were talking about having a baby," says Lauck. "And it was the first time that I had slowed down a really chaotic life long enough, that it was like my past was always chasing me and then it kind of careened and slammed into me."
Lauck initially wrote her mother's story to piece together her own fragmented memories and to find out what had really killed her mother. She had been told it was cancer, but Lauck put her reporting skills to use and began collecting information from the hospital where her mother had died. What she discovered is not only that her mother had cancer, but that she had died from a botched resuscitation attempt, had suffered from paraplegia and numerous infections and had been effectively abandoned by her husband, Lauck's father, who had her institutionalized after an overdose.
"I'm still so mad at my dad," admits Lauck. "My mother's family, everybody, even the family doctor told him, 'She should not be institutionalized.' "
For Lauck, the process of sorting out her mother's story and placing her own childhood memories within that context was incredibly painful.
"All of these suppressed memories that I had, that I hadn't spent any time dealing with, just flooded out of me," she says. "I remembered her overdosing on the pills, I remembered her so sick and being so thin. It was so intense and so emotional. It was like I was a nut being cracked and the little pieces of tender stuff are being pulled out -- that's how I felt."
In Blackbird, Lauck employs a graceful and moving lyric simplicity to write of confusing and often ugly things. While writing in a child's voice, Lauck nevertheless keeps her hands on the wheel and never once veers into maudlin territory, even though she describes hair-raising scenes of abuse and neglect. The immediacy and power Lauck harnesses in Blackbird stem from a technique she learned from Tom Spanbauer, author of The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon.
"Tom teaches this technique in Portland called 'dangerous writing.' Dangerous writing is the use of physical detail -- that means the body, the sensations in the body and the sensations or physical expressions on other people's faces and bodies -- to convey meaning."
Lauck discovered a way to unearth her half-buried memories.
"When you use this technique with memory, the details just unfold naturally because you are going step by step by step -- the gesture that starts at the shoulder and goes to the elbow and moves through the muscle of the forearm to the wrist to the fingers -- you basically paint a picture with words and your memory has enough time to tell you its story."
Although her book has garnered significant literary acclaim and pretty phenomenal sales, Lauck is low-key about her remarkable story.
"I'd like to say I have these incredible resources other people don't have," Lauck laughs. "But I think we all are phenomenal, but we just don't know it. I think that people -- and I'm not unique -- have suffered a lot, and we're walking around. We're the walking wounded. And that may be another reason why a book like this touches the heart."
& & & lt;i & Jennifer Lauck reads from Blackbird at Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main on Friday, Nov. 24, at 7:30 pm. Call: 838-0206. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &