In 1973 Clifford Geertz introduced the term “thick description” to ethnographic studies, recognizing that “culture is a knotty and often mysterious thing, made up of layers upon layers of intertwined symbols and signs.” The researcher produces detail-rich accounts of his or her research, identifies patterns and relationships and contexts for meaning.
It is this penetrating cast of mind that Nancy Owen Nelson brings to her memoir, Divine Aphasia, a detail-rich memoir that, at its heart, is about patterns, relationships, and contexts of meaning. I would also liken her work in this book to an archeological dig, as she searches and asserts the meaning of her lived experience over the past decades.
Central to this account is the experience of displacement, her reckoning with the ever shifting cardinal points on her interior map of self. In the heart-rending opening chapters, Nelson describes growing up in a military family, moving every 2-3 years, in some cases even more frequently, as assignments take her father from Alabama to Indiana, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska, Missouri, and back to Michigan. Along the way she names friends and teachers and repeats the continuing ritual of goodbye. “I cried when I left that day,” she remarks after a going away party in Houston. “I had just begun to feel at home.” The heading of chapter 7, “Finding a Home, Regardless,” captures the fugitive quality of this childhood.
There are, throughout, striking details of remembrance: walking through the underground tunnels in Fairbanks Alaska airbase where her father served; her mother chopping frozen milk, again in Alaska, to sprinkle over a bowl of Cheerios (“my teeth hurt when I crunch[ed] the icy milk”); hearing jets overhead on her eighth birthday and seeing, when her father invites her outside the house, her name in skywriting, NANCY. Along with these happy moments is the growing awareness of her father withdrawing affection, receding into a cocoon of bitterness, isolation, and alcoholism. “I want him to see me,” Nelson writes. “His eyes look straight in front of him. I am invisible.” And always, the recurring fact of life, dislocation. “Always another move away from this place where I felt at home.”
In adult life, there are husbands; substitutes, surrogates. Marriage promises to provide what she has missed growing up. Before marrying the first time, she muses: “At least he wants me. A marriage to him will be stable. That should be enough.” It’s not enough. Marriage is a void filling a void. A second marriage holds promise. “I wanted to know the secrets and lusting of a dark bedroom,” she writes, “ to experience “the heart’s longings for an impossible love.” A promise not fulfilled. Transitioning to her next phase of life, as a graduate student, Nelson has a vision of her father, now long dead, seeing him in a dream, “tall, renewed.” In her imagination he’s checking on her, making sure she’s safe. In a third marriage, as a wife and now a mother, there is the prospect of a settled life, of stasis.
Safety will elude her. The security and stability of marriage will elude her, as this memoir takes up the defining struggle of her adult and professional life. Here the title, Divine Aphasia, comes into play: A fourth marriage, to a man who will suffer a stroke and lose his way with words. Their years together are an ongoing nightmare, a continuous confrontation with loss of meaning, with absurdity. (Divine Aphasia, Nelson explains, refers to Becket’s Waiting for Godot.) Despite her heroic efforts to make things work, in the end her efforts lead to chaos and suffering.
Can chaos have a kind of clarity? Here it does, thanks to the depth and breadth of Nelson’s memory, her emotional courage, her drive to understand and make meaning. The passion and honesty of this book are striking. You will wonder, Then what? Given her drive, this reader assumes the answer to the question is coming.
Published by Ardent Writer Press, LLC, The (June 30, 2021).
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