Jennifer Lauck had a rough childhood. I'm not talking about the kind where she was bullied by classmates or where she'd just as soon avoid her family during the holidays. No, what we're talking about here is a bad childhood of near-Sophoclean proportions. Her mother dies when she is 7. Her father remarries, giving young Jennifer and her brother Bryan a stepmother, "Deb." But like a stepmother straight out of the Brothers Grimm, Deb is particularly cold and unfriendly to the young girl. Then, her father dies. Her brother goes to live with relatives. Jennifer struggles to deal with adapting to a strange new family where she is clearly not wanted. Unbelievably, days after her tenth birthday, Jennifer is packed up and sent to live by herself with a bunch of adults in a communal house owned by Deb's church. Before things get even worse, however, the young girl is rescued and sent to live with her grandparents. This is where Jennifer Lauck's memoir, Blackbird, ends.
Blackbird was one of the phenomenal publishing stories of 2000. Lauck, an unknown, first-time author who grew up in Los Angeles, Reno, St. Helens, Ore., and Spokane, spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Her book was touted on both Oprah and The Rosie O'Donnell Show, has been published in 15 languages, and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards nonfiction book of the year. Authors Frank McCourt (who knows a thing or two about rough childhoods himself), Hope Edelman and Tom Spanbauer have all penned glowing blurbs.
While Blackbird might have made news in 2000, the book continued to make news of a much different nature in the last months of 2001. In December, Salon.com ran a story that put Lauck in the center of a literary scandal second only perhaps to Jonathan Franzen's "snub" of Oprah earlier in the fall or allegations that Stephen Ambrose "borrowed" passages from another author for a recent book. The article, published a few months after the release of Blackbird's sequel, Still Waters, delved into serious allegations by Lauck's stepbrother, Jonathan Lantry, that Lauck's work contains enough departures from the truth as to be classified as fiction. According to the Salon article and an earlier story in Willamette Week, Lantry wants to clear his mother's name and collect enough evidence to force the book's publisher, Pocket Books, to reclassify the book as fiction. At issue is the very definition of "memoir" and the extent to which one person's memory can vary from another's and still connect with the truth.
"Memoir is a writer's memory. It is very important to remember one person's memory will almost always differ from another," Lauck asserts, from her home in Portland, Ore. "Take the classic example of a car wreck. Ten people will see two cars crash, and each of them will have a different story to tell based on their personal perspective. Memoir allows the author the freedom to use the tools of literature (i.e., scene, narrative, dialogue) in order to tell the deeper story of the emotional memory."
Lauck goes on to point out that she did her homework. With a background in investigative reporting, she spent a total of six years doing the research for Blackbird and Still Waters, traveling across the United States and conducting hours of interviews with family members, acquaintances and even medical personnel. She was not, however, all that surprised when her stepbrother came forward.
"My books talk about being betrayed, abused, used. In a perfect world, those responsible for these abuses would come forward and say, 'We are so sorry,' but that's not very realistic," she says. "I fully expected those from my past to say my story wasn't true."
Blackbird describes not only the pain of a young girl losing her mother and father, but also the broad lapses that occur in such a chaotic upbringing. Lauck is molested by a camp counselor, becomes estranged from her brother and endures from her stepmother a frightening mix of abuse and neglect. And unfortunately, the quiet misery of Lauck's life as described in Blackbird continues in Still Waters. One would think this installment of her life would be happier, but it's not, at least for a good long while.
Lauck lives for a time with her grandparents, and then goes to live in the tiny town of St. Helens with her aunt and uncle. In Still Waters, the prose is as beautiful and effective as it was in Blackbird, but she describes being treated not as a member of the family but a sort of domestic servant for their young daughter Kimmy. The family moves, just a few months before the May 18, 1980, eruption to Spokane, where Lauck attends Mead High School and SFCC before transferring to EWU's journalism program. It's at this point in the book that she finds out that her brother Bryan, now a seminary student in Oklahoma, has committed suicide.
The new book details how she subsequently tried to lose herself in her work as a reporter and producer for KXLY-TV (where she worked from August 1987 to April 1989), but even though she finds some measure of success (including winning two Society of Professional Journalist awards), she describes feeling ambivalent about her profession and the direction of her life. It isn't until her second marriage, the birth of her first child and a move to Portland that she begins to examine her own history.
Writing at first as a way to purge old emotions and piece together the truth behind her memories, Lauck's original intention was not about publication, bestseller lists or critical acclaim. Ironically, there are even passages in Still Waters where she expresses doubt about her own recollections and their unpleasantness.
"Part of the struggle of being human is that we desperately want to belong and when we are faced with being rejected -- even by people who lie to us -- we will always doubt ourselves or even try to change in order to fit in," she explains. "This is the destructive cycle of being abused, and sometimes, it never gets broken. In writing Still Waters, this is part of my own struggle, and so I wrote about it without hesitation."
Although Lauck visited Spokane as part of her tour for Blackbird, there are no scheduled local stops for Still Waters. When asked if she's had any feedback or reactions similar to that of her stepbrother from the area, she seems unconcerned about another round of backlash.
"When I did my research, I made contact with some people who I wrote about and asked if they would like to have their names and identities changed. Other than that, I've had no real feedback from people in Spokane."
Lauck's publicist at Pocket Books, Louise Braverman, says that there have been no new developments in Lantry's crusade to have the book reclassified. To Lauck perhaps, it doesn't even seem to matter as much as the larger picture. The intensely personal nature of her books has more to do with emotional "truth" and a child's perception than with historical accuracy and precision.
"We may not agree with the memories of our children, but to say, 'That's not what happened' doesn't change the bottom line within each person," she says. "Memory generates feeling and that feeling is the most important thing to be compassionate about. No one can change my memory of my life, it is what it is, and with strength and conviction, I have learned to hold onto what I remember in order to understand myself and as a result, be a more understanding mother, friend and person. I hope both my books can be seen as part of an important journey inward."
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