Jesmyn Ward's memoir of growing up in an impoverished African American community in south Mississippi and watching five young men in her life--including her only brother--die over a four-year period is sad in so many ways that it's hard to write about (I can't even imagine how sad it was to live and to write). Ward's parents had four children and a troubled relationship, separating and reconciling numerous times before they finally divorced. Her father dreamed of having his own martial arts school, and her mother supported that dream, working as a housekeeper to keep the family financially afloat while he unsuccessfully tried to launch the school. Despite her mother's best efforts, her father's infidelity and inability to stay focused on his family (he had six other children by four different women) brought the marriage to an end.
As the oldest child, Jesmyn was often responsible for taking care of her siblings, just as her mother had cared for younger siblings while her mother worked. Jesmyn "looked at my father and mother and understood dimly that was harder to be a girl, that boys had it easier." And yet, boys and young men also had it hard: "Men's bodies litter my family history. The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts."
Bullied by students in her public school, Jesmyn was offered the chance to attend a private school (her mother's employer volunteered to pay her expenses), where she was one of only a handful of black students and faced racism and the persistent experience of being "the other." Between her school life and her father's leaving the family, she felt herself to be worthless. And yet she worked hard at school, loved to read and write, and managed to leave Mississippi for an education at Stanford, work in New York, and a second advanced degree at Michigan.
The stories of the death of the five young men--one by a heart attack that may have been brought on by drug use, two in car accidents, one by suicide, and one the victim of an unsolved murder--are heartbreaking, particularly that of her beloved brother. After his death, Ward struggled mightily, considering suicide. The aspect of her story that I found most devastating was how Ward was constantly drawn back to her home town, where her depression and the community's culture led her to drink, get high, and hang out aimlessly, just as she might have had she not escaped to college. Of course, we know that she has become a very successful writer and professor, so she has indeed built a different life for herself, but she doesn't make clear how she managed to rise above the psychological damage that poverty, racism, lack of trust, and grief created.
Ward tells the story of her life chronologically, interspersed with chapters that briefly recount each young man's death, starting with the last death first. This structure is somewhat confusing but then suddenly seems to make sense when the two parts of the book converge at the time of her brother's death. I only wish we had the chapter of the book that takes place when she begins to heal.
What I did not understand then was that the same pressures were weighing on us all. My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn't trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.
How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?