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"G" is for Grafton
The World of Kinsey Millhone Revised and Updated
By Natalie Hevener Kaufman, Carol McGinnis Kay
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2000 Natalie Hevener Kaufman and Carol McGinnis Kay
All rights reserved.
"I like my history just as it is."
Sue Grafton says she lets Kinsey Millhone's personal history unfold from novel to novel at the pace Kinsey chooses. In some novels we learn more about her life than in others. Now that Grafton is more than halfway through the alphabet, the biography we can assemble is amazingly consistent, psychologically coherent, and richly detailed. From the fifteen novels, a vivid picture emerges — like a Polaroid taken at a family picnic — of the past Kinsey who shaped the present Kinsey we like so much.
Looming above everything else in Kinsey's life is the death of her parents when she was a young child. She herself sees the event as pivotal: "In many ways, my whole sense of myself was embedded in the fact of my parents' death in an automobile wreck when I was five" (J 32). The trauma of this event and her subsequent eccentric rearing by her Aunt Virginia have affected virtually everything about who she is now and how she lives.
From bits and pieces in the novels from A to O, we can put together a narrative of the car accident in which Kinsey's parents, Randy and Rita Millhone, were killed. On Memorial Day weekend, 1955, Kinsey was barely five years old (b. May 5, 1950). She was in the backseat of the family car, her father was driving, and her mother was in the front passenger seat. They were en route to Lompoc, California, when a boulder crashed down the mountainside and struck the car. Her father lost control of the vehicle and was killed in the crash. Kinsey was "thrust down against the floorboards on impact, wedged in by the crushed frame" (C 64). She carefully "reached around the edge of the front seat, where I found my father's hand, unresisting, passive, and soft. I tucked my fingers around his, not understanding he was dead, simply thinking everything would be all right as long as I had him" (F260). Kinsey couldn't reach her mother, who died after several hours of weeping. She remembers, "My mother cried for a while and then she stopped. I still hear it sometimes in my sleep. Not the sobs. The silence after that" (A 142). It took six hours for rescuers from the fire department and the police department to pry Kinsey from the "wreckage, trapped there with the dead whom I loved who had left me for all time" (C 65).
In every novel, Kinsey refers to the deaths of her parents, sometimes only in passing and sometimes for a page or two. The lengthier passages always focus on the same details: the boulder, the immediacy of her father's death, the crying and then the silence from her mother, the lengthy entrapment, and the sense of abandonment. One of the more recent accounts focuses on Kinsey's ambivalence at the sight of those "big guys with their guns and nightsticks" who pulled her from the wreckage: the five-year-old was torn between "horror" and "relief" by their appearance, triggering, Kinsey realizes, a lifetime of difficulty in dealing with authority figures (N 217).
Significantly, in every account, long and short, Kinsey mentions her own age at the time of the accident. Five is a highly vulnerable and impressionable age at which to endure such an overwhelming loss. Such a child is still greatly dependent on adults for meeting the most basic physical and emotional needs. The impact of so big a loss at so young an age must be great, essentially reshaping the adult that the child becomes. It's no wonder that as late as "O" Is for Outlaw, Kinsey will still be struggling with fear of abandonment in all of her personal relationships.
Kinsey doesn't tell us much about the days following the wreck except that she "felt cold and little" (G 76). She refers once to the funeral service (C 104), but she never tells us anything about the service nor does she mention shedding any tears. She went to live with her mother's sister, Virginia Kinsey, a secretary at California Fidelity Insurance in Santa Teresa, who was unmarried and unprepared, financially or emotionally, for suddenly acquiring a child. We must assume she was also in deep grief herself, since she and Rita had been close. There is no description of the aunt and niece adjusting to each other. Instead, totally ignoring her aunt, who, she later realizes, must have hovered nearby, worried and concerned, Kinsey "established a separate residence in an oversize cardboard box" (I 48). Kinsey remembers: "I created a little world for myself in a cardboard box, filled with blankets and pillows, lighted by a table lamp with a sixty-watt bulb. I was very particular about what I ate. I would make sandwiches for myself, cheese and pickle, or Kraft olive pimento cheese, cut in four equal fingers, which I would arrange on a plate. I had to do everything myself, and it all had to be just so [in "I" Is for Innocent she explains that she made the sandwiches exactly the way her mother had, 48].... I would take my food and crawl into my container, where I would look at picture books and nibble, stare at the cardboard ceiling, hum to myself, and sleep. For four months, maybe five, I withdrew into that ecosphere of artificial warmth, that cocoon of grief" (J 133).
Inside "this small corrugated refuge," Kinsey taught herself to read and to tie her own shoelaces (J 133). She amused herself with shadow puppets and "endless picture books" filled with fantasies and stories about exotic places (I 48). She ran her own "home cinema" of mental projections of her parents (J 133). She looked after herself — preparing food, eating, sleeping, teaching, and entertaining herself — inside an enclosed space under her exclusive control. Kinsey used her "little closed-circuit system designed to deal with grief" quite effectively (I 48). She learned in a few lonely months to parent herself, another way of saying she grew up. Of course, this was not the healthy maturation of a child who gradually learns to internalize lessons from trusted parent-figures and to develop a sense of independence throughout childhood and teenage years. This was an abrupt and brutal transition that forced Kinsey into adult responsibility for her own physical and emotional needs before she had the skills necessary to meet either need fully.
With this traumatic childhood experience, there can be little surprise that the adult Kinsey has "a special weakness for small, enclosed spaces, a barely disguised longing to return to the womb" (I 48). Just as the five-year-old sought refuge in the cardboard box and just as Kinsey made "'houses' ... using blankets draped over tabletops and chairs" throughout her childhood (O 236), the adult likes her small one-room apartment, her small office without a secretary, her small VW bug, and in the early novels she often sleeps naked, wrapped in a quilt on her sofa. Neither are we surprised that the only food we see Kinsey prepare is a variety of egg, cheese, or peanut-butter sandwiches. Above all, we are not surprised that this self-contained child becomes a self-contained adult who values independence, autonomy, and privacy more than almost everything else.
Out of pain has come enormous adult strength. The young Kinsey established an important lifelong pattern of behavior, one that characterizes much of her later success both as a human being and as a detective. She learned to find the solution within the problem itself. Plus, she learned to find the solution herself, without turning to others for solace or assistance. These strengths, though, have come at a high price, and they come freighted with a sense of vulnerability and self-doubt that many readers see increasing in the later novels.
The outside world into which the child finally emerged was the cold of her aunt's trailer and the terrors of kindergarten (J 133–34). (Kinsey often says they lived in trailers all the time, but in Evidence, she says she grew up in a tiny stucco bungalow , one of the few inconsistencies in the series — but even that reference stresses the small size.) She and her aunt had a relationship that "entailed more theory than affection" (H 16). There was clearly mutual respect, trust, and commitment, but not much of the cuddling or playfulness that most small children need. Kinsey says, "I was raised by a no-nonsense aunt who had done her best, who had loved me deeply, but with a matter-of-factness that had failed to nourish some part of me" (C 65).
Two of the more painful stories of life with her aunt occur in a conversation with Robert Dietz in "G" Is for Gumshoe and in her musings about her remodeled apartment in "H" Is for Homicide. When Dietz says he knows nothing about her, Kinsey's response is predictably couched in terms of the accident, as though the only way to know her is to know her loss. "I was raised by my mother's sister. My folks were killed in an accident and I went to live with her when I was five. This is the first thing she ever said to me ... 'Rule number one, Kinsey ... rule number one ...' — and here she pointed her finger right up in my face — 'No sniveling'" (G 95, emphasis added).
Dietz replies, "Jesus," to which Kinsey responds, "It wasn't so bad. I'm only slightly warped" (G 95). Kinsey may defend her aunt, but it still sounds pretty bad. Telling a child who has lost both parents and been trapped inside the car with their bodies for six hours not to cry — indeed, to trivialize such grief by calling it "sniveling" — is extremely tough. No depth of grief felt by Aunt Virginia can justify the impact on the newly orphaned Kinsey of being greeted by this directive and its accompaniment — a forefinger wagged in her face.
Later, in Homicide, Kinsey tells the reader why she loves her apartment, newly remodeled by her landlord especially for her, and why she feels at home and secure for the first time in her life. She recalls going to live with her aunt: "Without ever actually saying so, she conveyed the impression that I was there on approval, like a mattress, subject to return if the lumps didn't smooth out. To give her credit, her notions of child raising, if eccentric, were sound, and what she taught me in the way of worldly truths has served me well. Still, for most of my life, I've felt like an intruder and a transient, merely marking time until I was asked to move on" (16–17). (We note with interest that Kinsey has lived most of her life in a series of trailer parks, and now, during the novels, she lives in an apartment converted from garage space, both settings associated with travel and impermanence.)
And what are these "worldly truths" imparted to Kinsey by her aunt? Some of them relate to the minutiae of daily life. There is a whole cadre of social no-nos: no pierced ears, no chewing gum in public, no red nail polish, no dingy bra straps (H 208), and no beauty care except for "an occasional swipe of cold cream" (F 12). And there are household hints galore: "Spring clean every three months.... Beat all the throw rugs. Line-dry the sheets" (I 125). Always use an upright vacuum cleaner, rather than a "useless" canister (J 105). The fact that Kinsey, in times of stress, will clean her apartment ("like Cinderella on uppers") is a direct consequence of her aunt's focus on cleanliness (I 207).
There were no cooking lessons, however, because cooking is boring, and it only encourages the cook to become fat (D 102). (Virginia's name for Kinsey's home ec class was "Home Ick," D 102.) The only food Kinsey mentions Aunt Gin making is sticky buns, which she remembers with fondness (O 14). Instead, Kinsey's aunt taught her to knit (A 28) at the age of six (O 113) and to crochet (B 149), allegedly in order to learn "patience and an eye for detail" (D 102), but Kinsey now suspects both were intended "to distract me in the early evening hours" (O 113). Virginia also taught her to shoot a pistol, so that she might learn safety, accuracy, and good hand-eye coordination (D 102). Her aunt considered reading, exercise, and good dental care to be essential, but since she believed that "two out of three illnesses would cure themselves. ... Doctors could generally be ignored except in case of accident" (D 102).
Kinsey has a sense of having missed something important while she was growing up. In "C" Is for Corpse, Bobby Callahan tells Kinsey about the days following his own near-fatal car crash, when his mother virtually willed him back to life, staying at his bedside twenty-four hours a day and telling him he could not leave them. Kinsey thinks, "Jesus, what must it be like to have a mother who could love you that way?" This plaintive question is immediately followed by Kinsey's recall of her parents' deaths. This reminder of what she has missed elicits such "envy" for Bobby's having been the object of "a love of such magnitude" that her eyes well up with tears (64–65).
Tiny things may spark a fleeting sense of loss for Kinsey. Inside Jorden's, a specialty kitchen shop, Kinsey observes, "The air smelled of chocolate and made me wish I had a mother," who, unlike her aunt, presumably would cook (D 83). The kindness of a woman physician makes tears come to Kinsey's eyes because it prompts a memory of her own mother's compassion when Kinsey had a raw throat from a tonsillectomy at the age of four (E 133). Another "one of the few concrete memories" Kinsey has of her mother is also a picture of maternal comfort during illness. For childhood colds, she remembers her mother rubbing her chest "with Vicks VapoRub, then covering it with a square of pink rose-sprigged flannel, secured to my pajama top with safety pins" (J 41).
As an adult, Kinsey tries to mother herself in the same way. She relishes the luxury of staying home with a cold, wrapped in a quilt, reading a book, and having a legitimate excuse to take "NyQuil in fully authorized nightly doses" (J 36). She keeps a "flannel nightie" just to wear when she's sick (J 37). In addition, she knows where to go to get "mothering" from someone else. When Kinsey is distraught because her car has been broken into and her aunt's semiautomatic stolen, the first thing she does is go to Rosie's Tavern.
Ensconced in her favorite booth near the back, Kinsey opens the conversation with Rosie with a bald announcement of all of her bad news of the day. Like a beneficently dictatorial mother, Rosie tells her in elaborate detail exactly what she will eat for dinner, ending with a special dessert "If you're good and clean up your plate." She concludes her maternal diatribe with, "If you had a good man in your life, this would never happen to you and that's all I'm gonna say." Kinsey's response is one of pure joy. She says, "I laughed for the first time in days" (D 104). The independent, grown-up Kinsey may not have any intention of putting a man in her life, but when she's hurting, she goes to the place where she knows she will be "mothered" shamelessly — even to the point of being told to eat her vegetables.
Kinsey is very aware of Rosie's place in her life. Just after she has solved the case and is heartsick over what she has discovered in "E" Is for Evidence, she plans to persuade Rosie to let her into the tavern early: "I needed a heavy Hungarian dinner, a glass of white wine, and someone to fuss at me like a mother" (217).
Interestingly, Kinsey appears to let a number of women, usually either older or bigger than she, "fuss at" her for some perceived inadequacy, usually involving her appearance. After Rosie, the most frequent scold in the early novels is Vera Lipton, Kinsey's good friend and a claims adjustor at California Fidelity Insurance. Vera is always badgering her about her poor fashion sense and even lends her a dressy black silk jumpsuit and does her makeup for the retirement dinner in "G" Is for Gumshoe. Ida Ruth, Kingman and Ives' secretary, berates her about her failure to take vitamin C for her cold and for missing a local tourist attraction when she went to Mexico (J44). Lyda Case wants to do a complete makeover (E 96). Danielle Rivers, a prostitute, thinks her hair is so bad that she gives Kinsey a haircut (K 167–70). Bibianna Diaz does a quick makeover of Kinsey's hair and dress in the rest room at the Meat Locker (H 55–56). Olive Kohler is so afraid Kinsey won't have an appropriate dress for her New Year's Eve party that she gives her one from her own closet (E 108).
Now, let's be realistic. Kinsey is an intelligent, grown woman, fully capable of learning about makeup and planning her own wardrobe, but she does not choose to do so. She also does not seem to mind all this motherly fussing over her. We can conclude that there must be something highly satisfying about all the attention, or Kinsey would not allow it to happen over and over. The implication that Kinsey is filling in the gaps from her childhood is strong.
Excerpted from "G" is for Grafton by Natalie Hevener Kaufman, Carol McGinnis Kay. Copyright © 2000 Natalie Hevener Kaufman and Carol McGinnis Kay. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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