I’M THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY
by Andrea Jarrell
She Writes Press, 153 pages
reviewed by Helen Armstrong
Do you catch yourself peering into other people’s windows at night? Perhaps you were driving by in the dark and wanted to catch a glimpse of how other people live. Do they sit down to eat together? What are they watching on the TV? The drive-by look is a quick wondering that’s satiated by seeing that they, too, are watching the football game, which you’re going home to watch. You must be normal, because they’re normal, because you don’t know about their dysfunctions.
Reading Andrea Jarrell’s memoir felt like I was squatting in the bushes outside of her house, fingers perched on the windowsill, watching and listening as her life unfolded, taking comfort in her family’s dysfunctions which mirrored my own in asymmetric ways. Being from a dysfunctional family myself, I take some sick comfort from seeing crying children in grocery stores, their mothers looking like they’ve reached their wits’ end. I thrive on overhearing family fights in restaurants, because for so long, it was my family who were making heads turn. Once, at a rest stop in Delaware, my younger brother pelted my mother and I with chicken nuggets from the booth across the aisle while my father yelled at him, and ultimately, dragged him from the McDonald’s. I suspect most of our families are dysfunctional, and it’s the job of our adult selves to use all of that dysfunctional material we’re sitting on to become something good. That, or we allow the cycle to repeat. But how does one heal from childhood? How does one become better than our parents? These are central questions in Andrea Jarrell’s haunting memoir I’m the One Who Got Away.
In 2012, The New York Times published an essay, “A Measure of Desire,” by Jarrell in the newspaper’s Modern Love column. Unflinchingly honest, Jarrell stripped off her clothes and stood, naked, before the jury. The essay begins, “We moved from Los Angeles to Maine with four years of sobriety under our belts, a 2-year-old daughter and another baby on the way.” Here she captivated readers with her strong, simple language. “By Christmas,” she says, “we placed single candles in each window instead of stringing colored lights the way we would have back in L.A., and I gave birth in an ice storm.”
The essay dives into both her sex life and her relationship with her husband. She describes jealousy, looking at women in town and choosing “replacement” wives, women she feels would be better for her husband than her. “In my new L. L. Bean sweaters and loafers, I began to feel around in the darkness of our relationship, wondering if my husband was still there, wondering what kind of job I would get if he left me and knowing that if he did, I would end up living with my mother.” After jealousy comes Jarrell’s decision to reclaim her own desire and to see herself as worthy of her husband. This essay would become one of the final chapters in the book.
Several chapters, in fact, were published prior to being bound together into a memoir. Cleaver Magazine published the third chapter, “Miracle Mile,” in 2013. A sweltering look at summer in Los Angeles and the relationship between mother and daughter, at the heart of the piece lies a shocking moment that Jarrell and her mother witness. A woman on the street is being taunted by young boys, and she chooses to lift her skirt at them. The moment shocks both Jarrell and her mother: “I saw what [the boy] saw—the woman’s dark pubic hair beneath her lifted skirt—a grownup eyeful he had not bargained on,” she writes. Other chapters were previously published as well, in publications including Full Grown People, Memoir Journal, and Motherwell Magazine. Jarrell wrote an essay for Cleaver about the process of turning short fiction into a memoir: “Becoming an Outlaw, Or: How My Short Fiction Became a Memoir.” She explains that she didn’t start out writing memoir, but instead, writing short stories, freezing moments of her life and fictionalizing them.
Inspired by Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, a nonfiction collection of stories, she began to write “lyrical essay[s] crafted entirely from life.” Once she began to collect and string these stories together as memoir, she started to ask her mother questions. After one of them, her mother replied, “This book is about your life—right?” Jarrell writes, “By then, I knew that my parents’ story might be an embedded folktale within mine, but not my memoir’s dramatic trigger.”
I’m the One That Got Away begins with a haunting story of one of Jarrell’s neighbors, Susannah, a single mother, who is killed by a man she’s been seeing. The murder hits close to home for Jarrell, and she realizes that she’s been peering through Susannah’s window herself, horrified by the similarities, wishing for a better life for her neighbor than her mother was granted. Susannah’s story ends with death, and from here, Jarrell allows readers to pivot—now it’s her window we peer through, watching her story unfold slowly. She tells us the story of her parents, and we see echoes of Susannah in Jarrell’s mother.
Jarrell’s parents met when her mother was sixteen, and her father Nick was twenty. She traded in her college scholarships for an engagement ring. She would have become a photojournalist or graphic designer, but instead married the Southern charmer at age seventeen. Nick had dreams of being a movie star, and moved her from her small town in Colorado to Texas, where they were engulfed by a group of family and friends of his. She had left all of her ties in Colorado. He then got a job selling advertising for the Las Vegas Sun, so they moved again.
A charming alcoholic prone to rage, Nick slept with a gun under his pillow. In Las Vegas he began to rub elbows with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and Lindsay Crosby. This is where the story turns familiar—it smacks of Harvey Weinstein, of Bill Cosby, of Casey Affleck. The men who run our entertainment industry while committing horrendous acts of sexual harassment and assault, and all of their friends who look the other way. Perhaps one of the most chilling aspects of the book is its timeliness. As women swarm the Internet and bravely write that they, too, have experienced sexual harassment and assault, we’ve begun to catch a glimpse of just how massive this problem is. Like an iceberg we weren’t able to see until it’s scraped the hull of our ship, we now have a sense of the magnitude of it—but can we ever heal?
Reading Jarrell’s story may make readers think of their own experiences with abuse, or even sexual harassment. It reminded me of the time a boy felt my boobs in front of my boyfriend, and my boyfriend did nothing. Or being forced to console him when he felt he was being a bad boyfriend, instead of agreeing that it was wrong to tell me he was going to fuck his neighbor while I was away on vacation. These experiences are reflected back at us by all of the people sharing their own stories similar to, and worse than, our own.
Jarrell writes about Nick’s twenty-second birthday. Several friends come to Vegas from Texas to celebrate, and the whole night, Nick keeps a close watch on his wife. When a friend holds out a chair for her, he’s there in an instant, telling the other man smoothly, “Thanks so much for keeping an eye out for her.” The situation escalates from there, with Nick trying to get the friend to agree that his wife is attractive, and the friend agreeing, only to have it nearly come to blows. The scene embarrassed his wife in front of everyone and ensured that none of his friends would speak to or show her kindness for the rest of the night.
She covered her black eyes with makeup, got a job at a casino, and made a life for herself alongside Nick. It was only once she became pregnant that she began to formulate a plan to leave him, to protect both herself and her baby.
She escaped, and this is the beginning of Andrea’s story. In vignettes, she tells us of her and her mother’s trips across Europe, of her childhood in Los Angeles, of Nick’s return into their lives, of her own loves, failures, and successes. She talks about her marriage, too. “[My husband] would not love me unconditionally—and he didn’t expect me to love him that way either,” she writes. “We would need to try, day by day, to be people worthy of each other’s love.” Here Jarrell pivots from her younger self who begins the book, shocked by the death of a neighbor that mirrors so well the path of her own mother’s life but with a gunshot ending, to the more confident Jarrell that narrates the end. When she writes about finally reclaiming her desire, she says, “It was where we skated on a frozen lake without falling through and dove into its liquid depths when the leafy summer arrived. I know it was there that I finally realized my husband, my babies, and those dormer windows were truly mine.” The book is a purge, a healing process, Jarrell’s own #metoo.
The scenes hang before you, just out of reach, because you are always aware that this is not your story. You’re peering through the window. When you put the book down, the lights are turned off in the house, and you can see your own reflection in the window. You see, perhaps, your own Nick, or memories of him. But this time, you do it with Jarrell and her mother by your side. You remember that you aren’t alone, that women all around you have felt this particularly bitter sting. You think of Susannah, of Jarrell, of her mother. You think of the women of Hollywood who are silent no longer. You go on, because they did.
Helen Armstrong is a senior at Arcadia University. She currently serves as editor-in-chief of the online lifestyle magazine, Loco Mag. She loves to travel and enjoys writing fiction and poetry, mostly about sexuality and feminism. Her work appears in Catfish Creek and Quiddity. Follow her on twitter @helenkarmstrong.
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