by Catherine McCall
Seal Press, 2009
Review by Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis, Ph.D. on Feb 9th 2010
Some books take forever to be written not because of procrastination or lack of materials, but because of a "block" that actually defines the authors' existence. Yet, sooner or later, these books have to come out of the depths of that traumatic experience which has blotted the sense of being for their writers over many years. Incest and child sexual abuse, unlike the style of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, seem to be at the heart of a significant number of life writings today.
In the past ten -- fifteen years I have been struck by the proliferation of memoirs of incest and sexual abuse by writers from various walks of life. One does not have to look so far back as to Freud's encounter with Dora any more; a quick check of the appropriate shelves in the bookshops will confirm the view that more and more people, celebrities included, feel the need -- and I hope (rather naively, for sure) -- the sincere need to write about it all. And the reading audience for such memoirs? Oh, it is so complicated to discuss here why we read, why one reads this kind of writing? For example, an article in the April 9, 2007 issue of the Times by Carol Sarler starkly entitled "This Sick Trade in Childhood Memoirs Is an Abuse, Too" argues that "there is something unsettling about the relish with which sexual abuse is turned into sheer entertainment and then enjoyed as such." While I do not accept Sarler's radical view, I need to preface in a way the review of Catherine McCall's When the Piano Stops, a Memoir of Healing from Sexual Abuse.
It is quite obvious that even among such memoirs the inevitable "quality of writing" issue differentiates the good ones from the bad ones. The bad ones read like sensational bits airing the family's dirty little secrets, while the good ones emphasize the healing experience rather than the actual abuse. One thing is for sure, though: there cannot be a healing proper if the writer does not lift the barriers that the mind has erected on the traumatic experience through the utmost exercise of language and, also, if the reader is too squeamish in reading such language. As the good texts show, the lifting of barriers has been already in place for a significant time, a working-through achieved with the help of psychoanalysts.
With this in mind, Catherine McCall's When the Piano Stops is an extremely sincere account of the author's sexual abuse by her father and her mother's alcoholism and compliance, honest to the point that at places it feels like a hit in the groin for a lack of better imagery. McCall, in her early sixties now, is a licensed marriage and family therapist working in Atlanta, Georgia. The vivid description of the failing family dynamics, the painful accounts of numerous acts of physical and psychological abuse, the relationship with her husband, all these make a rough ride of a reading, an experience far from being what is considered "enjoyable." I remembered myself having the same bitter taste while reading Louise Wisechild's The Obsidian Mirror (1998) and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss (1997), as well as Sylvia Fraser's My Father's House (1989). Then one might ask in what ways is McCall's memoir different than these three mentioned? The answer for me is it is not different at the core, probably only in its sad variations. These good memoirs are written in earnest and they care for the reader in a special way: they do not simply phrase what has been buried for years to make an entertaining exposure of twisted families; quite on the contrary -- they read as a documented suffering, as a trauma finally dressed up in a language whose meaning we know how to share, even if we do not know how to accept.
I do not want to quote even a single passage from the memoir itself -- it will be a gruesome experience to excerpt from a text which has managed to embed so well the trauma and horror of sexual abuse. Yet the concluding words from the practical appendix provided by McCall at the end of her work seem to be extremely relevant here: "I implore you to become proactive. Help me to help my memoir become a call to arms -- loving arms, the only kind of arms that should ever touch a child. Take what you've read, what you've learned , what you've been emotionally moved by, and let it motivate you to contribute to the safety of children, the healing of sexual abuse survivors, and the restoration of virtue." (259)
McCall's book When the Piano Stops is a memoir which demands from the readers a responsible engagement with the issues of incest and sexual abuse in the family. If it speaks emphatically to those who may have or may not have experienced such an abuse, it has achieved its aim. I am afraid those in search of cheap entertainment have to look at other shelves in the bookshops.
© 2010 Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis
Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, specializing in modern British and American literatures, psychoanalysis, and continental philosophy.