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Shakespeare's Niece:

By Kristen Skedgell DeVoe '86
Illustration by Kim Barnes

I am the daughter of a woman writer. Next to being the son of a rich man, there's nothing worse, creatively speaking. Easier to fit an airplane through the slot of a Zip drive than for someone like me to enter the kingdom. I am a woman writer's daughter. Not Einstein's daughter or Galileo's daughter or Ahab's wife. Not even Shakespeare's sister. I am Shakespeare's niece.

From the first time I stroked the soft palm-worn cloth of my mother's Modern Library Classics to the moment I opened her first published novel, I have wanted to write. I remember that moment as though it were this morning--the sound of the washing machine churning, Mom's footsteps on the basement stairs, plodding up and down with another basket, and me ensconced on her office couch, partaking of the forbidden fruit.

Mom's office was slightly larger than a walk-in closet, with a tattered Oriental rug and a worn corduroy couch beneath two windows that looked out onto our suburban street. The walls were covered with long shelves of cloth-bound books whose spines were the muted colors of desert vegetation--brown, beige, slate, ocher, and sage.

I was in the fourth grade, home with a sore throat. I knew I wasn't supposed to touch the shiny new books in the cardboard box next to Mom's desk. Oil from my fingerprints could mar the sky blue dustcovers. I wiped both palms on my pajama bottoms, took a deep breath, and picked one up. As daughter of the author, it was my filial duty to verify the spelling of her last name (also mine) on the cover, and to examine her picture on the back of the book jacket.

She looked completely different, exotic as a Russian spy from a James Bond movie. She was wearing the opossum-collared coat Dad had given her two Christmases ago, while he was still working, before the bottle totally took over his life; the one he bought on credit which Mom was still paying off with her part-time teaching job at the community college. The fur collar blended into her dark, stylishly coiffed hair and lapped up against her chin like the prickly tongue of a Siberian cat.

I nestled into soft cushions of the old couch and flipped through the pages of Mom's first published novel. I'm sure my mother didn't suspect I was in there and, unless she caught me pawing through her new book, she wouldn't care except to stand in the doorway of the office, laundry basket in her arms, and say, "I thought you said you were sick." Then she'd wearily walk away, not waiting to hear my brilliantly rehearsed defense. My whole childhood was full of questions she never waited around to hear the answers to. She drifted through our house like tumbleweed on the prairie, a disquieted spirit.

But then came her Book. Like a magnificent baby, a holy infant. The Savior. Mom's Book. One day, no baby --only piles of upside-down papers strewn across her desk. Next day, she was whisked off to the radio station and returned home with a brand-new Panasonic cassette recorder and a box full of promotional materials.

In the middle of the book, I found a two-page conversation, a refreshing break in the long blocks of text. I started to read. A woman and a man were sitting on a bed enveloped in cigarette smoke, discussing their bosses, children, and spouses when suddenly the man stuck his tongue in the woman's mouth and unzipped her dress. I dropped the book. Then I picked it up and reread the section several times.

I had had my first French kiss a few weeks earlier in the back row of a darkened theater during the Beatles' film Help. It was an apt title for the backdrop of my first grown-up kiss at age 10. I got a hickey, too--an ugly red blotch on the side of my neck, which I tried unsuccessfully to conceal under powder and a white turtleneck. Mom noticed it and asked where I got it as though it was something that had just arrived in the mail. She didn't wait around to hear the answer. She passed through the room with something else in her hands--a bag of groceries, a bucket of cleansers, a basket of folded laundry.

I continued to read but when the lady started lamenting her 40th birthday, I returned the book to its box. Since when did my mother know about French kissing and adultery? So this was what she'd been up to, all those months, tapping away behind closed doors. I gazed around the room at her bookshelves. Something was going on here. A conspiracy of sorts. What else was hidden between those deceptively plain covers? What other secrets? It made me want to read every book. It made me want to write one myself. I was only 10 but I had secrets, too. I was learning about the dark.

When I was 12, Mom and I were in the laundry room, folding clothes. "When I grow up," I said, "I'm going to be a writer." She snapped a pair of wrinkled jeans. "OK," she replied, "but don't study writing. Study life." Above all, I shouldn't waste my time in graduate school on a master's in English Lit. That was fine if I wanted to teach or be an editor, as she turned out to be, but it was a waste of time if I wanted to write. "Live your own life," she said. "Get your own material. Do your own research." Then I'd really have something to write about.

I listened to my mother. Adolescence is rife with material, and I was free to experiment with everything-- drugs, sex, alcohol, protesting of every conceivable cause. In the end, it was my mother's mind-bending equanimity that led me to embrace a right-wing Bible cult. In the summer of 1970, a renegade minister from Ohio rode into our town on the back of a raspberry Harley-Davidson and harvested a bumper crop of disaffected Hesse-reading high school students for the Lord. The Doctor, as he preferred to be called, guaranteed anyone over age 12 the answers to life's most troubling questions or their money back. And it worked. After 36 hours of monotone audiotapes, who cared whether or not the world was created in six days?

When I was growing up, literature was our religion and the Bible was merely part of that canon. Books, all books, were sacred. They were the only legitimate refuges from the brutishness of everyday life. They rescued me from my father's alcoholism and my mother's aloofness. Before I could pronounce the word "fascist," I was taught that book burning was one of the most heinous crimes on earth.

The Doctor believed in burning things--bridges, ballast, books. He held many uncommon beliefs, which I only discovered after I dropped out of Hopkins and followed him to Emporia, Kansas, home of the original Wizard of Oz. Once a year, we hauled our boxes, which we mostly lived out of, to an abandoned campground and cast our intellectual ballast into a seething bonfire. One year, I hurled The Feminine Mystique with a vague recollection of the autographed copy on Mom's bookshelf. Only years later did I read my mother's name in the "Acknowledgments" of that classic feminist text. The Doctor said bra burners were possessed. He also said the Holocaust never happened and an invisible East Coast elite, which included my parents, was conspiring to take over the world.

My mother's long literary silence between Book #1 and Book #2 might be attributed, in part, to the many hours she spent composing newsy letters peppered with philosophical diatribes designed to lure me away from the cult. Little of what she said in those letters stuck with me. In fact, I did everything I could to purge myself of her satanic influence. But one thing was constant and that was her admonition to me to write. Write stories, even if I only rehashed the Bible. Write poems. Write plays. Write her. She saved all my letters, even the ones in which I meticulously detailed her failures as a wife and mother. During those 15 years of separation, the most astonishing and beguiling aspect of her letters was that they continued to come at all.

By the time my mother's second book was accepted for publication, I had left the group and moved back home. Whatever fascination I had with the Doctor and his "Aw, shucks" megalomania left me so battered inside and out that when Mom flew to Oregon to meet her second grandchild, she ended up taking the three of us--two kids, and myself--back East. One of the first things I did when I arrived home was visit the local library. Mom was curious about the titles I brought back. Books were safe. We could talk about books. She recognized some of them, including Wife Beating, a groundbreaking study on domestic abuse. Mom edited that book.

So began my next phase of research. Recovery. Another 15 years' worth of anger, depression, confusion, and grief. Forgiveness. I returned to Hopkins, finished my degree and started therapy. Once I understood the disease of alcoholism, I stopped holding my mother and myself responsible for what my father had failed to give. And my white-hot fever of rage, the source of which every therapist traced to emotional neglect, in that very core was the cure. The fever to write.

When I understood my mother's passionate preoccupation with the written word, I was finally able to accept her most invaluable gift. My love of words came from her, my love of books, of dreaming and sifting and sorting out phrases, of sitting at my desk with the door closed, with children sleeping and laundry piling up and piles of face-down papers growing larger every day and of knowing, even in moments of suicidal despair, that some day, this, too, might make a good story. Books have given my mother and me a bridge we can now safely cross when the rivers of feeling rise and threaten to wash us away. Being a writer's daughter isn't easy. Neither is being a writer's mother. We each have our material. Thanks to her, I know what to do with it.

Kristen Skedgell DeVoe '86 is a psychiatric social worker in a maximum security prison in Connecticut. She has just completed her first novel.

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