A riveting literary debut about the cost of keeping quiet
Amy Jo Burns grew up in Mercury, Pennsylvania, an industrial town humbled by the steel collapse of the 1980s. Instead of the construction booms and twelve-hour shifts her parents’ generation had known, the Mercury Amy Jo knew was marred by empty houses, old strip mines, and vacant lots. It wasn’t quite a ghost town—only because many people had no choice but to stay.
The year Burns turned ten, this sleepy town suddenly woke up. Howard Lotte, its beloved piano teacher, was accused of sexually assaulting his female students. Among the countless girls questioned, only seven came forward. For telling the truth, the town ostracized these girls and accused them of trying to smear a good man’s reputation. As for the remaining girls—well, they were smarter. They lied. Burns was one of them.
But such a lie has its own consequences. Against a backdrop of fire and steel, shame and redemption, Burns tells of the boys she ran from and toward, the friends she abandoned, and the endless performances she gave to please a town that never trusted girls in the first place.
This is the story of growing up in a town that both worshipped and sacrificed its youth—a town that believed being a good girl meant being a quiet one—and the long road Burns took toward forgiving her ten-year-old self. Cinderland is an elegy to that young girl’s innocence, as well as a praise song to the curative powers of breaking a long silence.
|Product dimensions:||8.10(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Amy Jo Burns teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton and writes for Ploughshares. She lives in Franklin Park, New Jersey. This is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
By the time the police entered our houses uninvited throughout the fall of 1991, our mothers had already commanded each of us to tell the truth about Howard Lotte, and we’d already decided to lie. It was too impossible for anyone to conceive, even those of us who had sat with Mr. Lotte and his feckless hands through seasons of weeknight piano lessons, that such a man could commit something so unholy, even if he was a little bit fat. Everyone in Mercury knew which girls had already snitched. We saw what it had cost them. The best hope for the rest of us, we thought then, was to remain anonymous until winter arrived and all the talk turned to idle chatter before it disappeared altogether.
But the gossip about Mr. Lotte would not be squelched, and so the police launched a formal investigation to put the rumors to rest. Making a uniform circuit around town, the squad stopped at the homes of each of Mr. Lotte’s peach-faced, preteen protégés. Some of the homes were split level and some were Victorian, but none of them were trailers. Mr. Lotte didn’t seem to take on those kinds of girls. Anyone who was anyone took lessons from Mr. Lotte—if you were female, of course.
When each of our turns came to be questioned, the lies spilled out so easily we suspected they’d been planted long ago. There were few girls—seven, to be exact—bold enough to tell the truth, but their soft voiced protests were almost drowned out by those of us unable to defy a town rallying behind one of its own. Though we were just ten, eleven, twelve years old, it became quite clear that men like Mr. Lotte secured a kind of protection that girls like us never could.
The police supplied the questions, and we offered the answers we thought they wanted to hear. Like a swooping she-owl, our voices raised into an echoing chorus as mothers drew the shades for the night and the distant five o’clock bell signaled a shift change at the mill.
Did he put his hands on you?
No, Officer. No, he didn’t. No no no no no.
The sound found its way to the woods by the edge of the school yard where an old basketball hoop had been torn from the ground and laid prone some time ago, the same spot where lovesick boys dared to press their burning palms against a girl’s. Then the sound moved toward the courthouse at the center of town where Mr. Lotte wouldn’t get the opportunity to appear before a jury of his peers. Our voices only weakened once they reached Mercury’s city limits, where the highway cut us off from the rest of the world.
Now the town itself haunts us more than Mr. Lotte, even more than our own lies. It seems a story like this couldn’t happen anywhere but Mercury, a place that had become its own needy planet, a town we loved for its empty houses, abandoned buildings, and vacant lots. The people of Mercury liked their trucks, their Iron City beer, and the stench of burning leaves. They knew how to work with their hands—how to sew a quilt, how to fix a carburetor, how to patch a roof. They knew how to wait out a tough winter.
Together we all lived in the afterlife of a city that was once a titan. A very long time ago, Andrew Carnegie evangelized the steel gospel. He followed a simple formula: Contain the coal. Set it on fire. Strip away the impurities. Dispose of the slag.
This was how a legion of unstoppable steel rods was sired. But then came the Steel Apocalypse, and Pittsburgh’s satellite cities didn’t all become ghost towns only because many people had no choice but to stay. Instead, the loss of our lifeblood slowed everything to a pace that was barely detectable, and the era of waking sleep began.
Workers who used to pull twelve-hour shifts in the mill at Cooper Bessemer Steel in the next town over now had nowhere to go. The roads once clogged with commuters became open highways. Mostly, people just sat. And the children, of whom we were some, watched. We remember now how people around town used to float through the amniotic air. Pumping gas. Ordering pizza. Waiting in line at the drive-through ATM. Pushing the shopping cart through the dog food aisle at Rip’s Sunrise Market. Taking long pauses in the middle of sentences. Not bothering to finish them. They used to think nothing could surprise them any more until Mr. Lotte proved them wrong. He proved us all wrong.
Who are we? We are the girls who lied about Mr. Lotte when others told the truth and most of Mercury hated them for it. We performed for a fickle crowd and lost ourselves in the charade. From the moment we chose to protect a criminal, we also chose to forget everything that had happened. It was our best chance for survival. Even so, our lives were never the same. Our town was never the same.
Our memories threaten to make a scandal of us, so we keep them to ourselves. We still remain in disguise (even from each other), but there’s one thing we know. Our Sunday school teachers had always taught us that an honest answer was like a kiss on the lips, and we were not the kissing kind.
Table of Contents
PART I: SPOTLIGHT
Hide and Seek
Breaking and Entering
PART II: SIMON SAYS
PART III: ALL THE PRETTIEST GIRLS
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Cinderland is a surprisingly complex little story, and it's easy to miss it. Cinderland recounts the experiences of Amy Jo Burns as she comes of age in a small town and grapples with her experience of molestation by a trusted community figure and the enduring effects of her silence. Unlike many memoirs, which seek to provide an objective review of past events or cast a broad narrative arc, this memoir focuses almost exclusively on the author's psychological experience. Though it is grounded in the events which take place in the community (and drastically shaped by them), the real focus is how the author's understanding of herself and her relationship to the world change. And in that task, Cinderland excels. The greatest strength of this novel is how well it displays the insidious nature of abuse and trauma. Unlike more dramatic memoirs, the abuse in Cinderland is always simmering just under the surface. At first this might seem boring or even teasing; several other reviews I've seen lament the lack of a clear description of the abuse and it's consequences. These reviewers miss the greater picture - the vast majority of abuse looks like this, not the dramatic unfoldings we see on TV. The abuse is incremental, hidden, vague, and both present in every moment and impossible to pin down. As chapters recount otherwise mundane aspects of being a teen - sexual tension at the swimming pool, dating, finding an identity - everything is colored by the lens of abuse and it's legacy. Similarly, the author does a good job of addressing the ostracization, stigma, guilt and insecurity associated with being a victim. By illustrating the effects of the town's doubt, the pressure to stay silent, the guilt in not supporting those who came forward, the structural pressures by the school and church, and the way people's off-handed thoughts and comments (e.g., "I bet those girls are just saying it for attention") undermine the emotional life of the narrator, she captures something that's often acknowledged but rarely embodied in writing about trauma. I find the comments from another reviewer - who also was raised in the same town but did not experience the same trauma - who dismisses the book and accuses the author of exaggeration to be an interesting illustration of this process. The psychological aspect of the book is reflected in the author's ever changing ways of acknowledging and processing the abuse. In the earliest chapters, it's often a footnote or an aside; here's what happened on Tuesday, and also there is a trial going on. As the memoir progresses we see greater depth and emotional connection - feelings of betrayal, anxiety, guilt, anger, and loss. Later, we begin to see the author turning her abuse into a catalyst for growth, and we see her pushing to find a way out of the town and into the world. I also appreciate that the level of understanding reflected in the memoir is roughly consistent with the narrator's developmental age; earlier memories are foggier and more abstract, while later entries are more abstract and socially contextual.
It is difficult to write a review of a memoir, due in part to it being someone's life story that was partially laid out for them by circumstances of birth, as well as the fact that the author is an inherently flawed narrator by only having their thoughts to base it upon. In fiction, even if written in first-person, at least the author has an idea of what is going on in the other characters. "Cinderland: A Memoir" is particularly difficult due to the subject of molestation. Anyone being able to write about it deserves credit for that alone. That all being said, this review took me days to finish, and I finally decided to review as I would any other story, fictional or not. It is based upon a complimentary copy provided through the Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for an honest review. The positive of "Cinderland" is that it does an excellent job of exploring the feelings that stay with abuse victims throughout their lives. It takes an emotional and developmental toll. It was also extremely honest in terms of the guilt the author felt over not having spoken out about the abuse she suffered, leaving the fallout to the other girls who did speak out. As uncomfortable as it is to read, I feel that it's very important to expose the way people blame victims, even if it is unintentional. Unfortunately, the author comes across as someone who feels like those around her are beneath her in some way, especially those who have no goals to get out of the town. While she admits to loving to the town, it is implied that those who are content there have no ambition and are trapped. It is as though she never begins to think that they may love living there and want that life. In keeping with this trend, while she writes that the need for the spotlight was to hide what she was truly feeling, it is very obvious she was smart and popular. That is not a bad thing, but again, there was a feeling of dismissal of those who were content to be in the background of things. In spite of this, the positives would have led me to give "Cinderland" four stars. That is, until the part that dealt more with Aaron. For someone who meant so much to her, his deepest scars were revealed with very little empathy and absolutely no follow-up. I could understand if it was a protection of privacy, but if that was the case, his secrets should have been left out entirely. The broken-hearted boy who was obviously being taken advantage in a relationship by someone in a position of power, physically abused, and had stood by her throughout her life with not much acknowledgement until the end of high school, was in my opinion the most sympathetic character in the book. As it was written he was used by and disposable. Of all people, she should have understood his hurt, but all that was written was what he did for her. Unlike what the author wrote, leaving a town does not mean having to make a clean break from those you love. I am not afraid to admit that I searched the thank you notes hoping that "Aaron" would have been mentioned. He helped her through, but apparently did not even warrant that. The disregard for those around her are what makes me absolutely not recommend this book. It reads like a self-congratulatory slap on the back and is, quite frankly, grating.