In stirring, hypnotic prose, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl explores the most painful aspects of Kelle’s addiction and loss with unflinching honesty and bold determination. Urgent and vital, exquisite and raw, her story is as much about maternal love as it is about survival, as much about acceptance as it is about forgiveness. Kelle’s longing for her son remains twenty-five years after his death. It is an ache intensified, as she lost him twice—first to adoption and then to cancer. In this inspiring portrait of redemption, Kelle charts the journey that led her to accept her addiction and grief and to learn how to live in the world.
Through her family’s history and the story of her son’s cancer, Kelle traces with clarity and breathtaking grace the forces that shape a life, a death, and a literary voice.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Morphine makes me weightless, airborne. Like a spider. I rest in a corner of the high ceiling, look down on my body on the white hospital bed. It is just one shot, one needle through my skin. But even nine months pregnant, my frame is small—the weight all baby. So the effect of the drug is a flood in my veins. I'd like to walk down the street feeling this light. I'd like to be a passenger in a dusty car on a dirt road, and see a veil of trees, the clearing inside. Graveyard of cars arranged in a kind of circle. All the engines lifted out, windows dull with dirt. In that clearing I know I could find evidence of things unseen. Me on the bed waiting for my cervix to be effaced. Waiting to open like a door, ten centimeters. Then I can push.
"I can't believe you did this twice," I say to my mother after I come down from the ceiling, and a truck stuck in the sand guns it below my belly button. Digs in, stalls, digs. My mother laughs. "You forget," she says. Pulls her chair closer. We're both mothers now. In the circle that the bed makes for us, she's not mad at me for not marrying, not appalled by my sexuality, my basic biology, my lack of restraint. She's helping me count contractions, her knees a few inches away from me in her beige pantsuit. One of the outfits she wears to teach first grade. At school, the children all sit in a circle around her. Once, her school gave her an award; they took her picture as she leaned against a tree, smiling. Now it's 1981. Despite the pain, I'm happy to be here with her. There's an easiness, as if we're on a brief vacation together, like friends. She's younger than I am now, about to hold her first grandchild, about to let me give him away. My mom will never touch him again. She'll blow up the snapshot of my son that my aunt and uncle will mail to us, frame it, place it on the dresser in her bedroom. The enlarging process increasing the light in the photo, so that he's surrounded by glowing circles, like snow is falling on him at night.
My son has his eyes closed now. He's close to leaving my nineteen- year-old body. Ripples wash over his skin that no one has ever touched, except me. We're still together. My darkness keeps him safe, fed. My body does everything right: carrying, feeding, singing a water song. My heart counted on like a lullaby. In the outside world, my practical skills are limited—I don't know how to keep house or manage money, sometimes I can barely speak. But in my son's world, my body has everything he needs. I belong to him.
I'd had an overwhelming need to push for what felt like a long time, but the nurses kept saying it was too early, "Don't push." When a nurse looks between my legs, she's surprised. "The baby's coming," she says. "Push." Her tone is controlled but urgent. They need to move fast. The medical people still have to get me into the delivery room. They scoot me onto a rolling bed, push me down the hall into another room. My mother goes to sit with my dad in the waiting room. I don't know who decides I'm going to do this alone. Even my own doctor isn't on duty. The hands that lift me are speedy, rushed. My bare feet are put into cold metal stirrups, which feels frightening. As if something is about to happen that I will not be able to stand unless I am restrained. A lamp is floodlight bright. I'm glad to push. A couple of minutes go by. I scream once. It's a surprise—no planning, no slow intake of breath. The pain is surprising; my skin about to rip open from my baby's head pushing out. The threshold keeps being raised. I scream again when I tear. And my son is in the world. I thought he would be red with blood or white or wrinkled. Maybe they washed him before I saw him? His skin looks like the skin on apricots. It might have been all the carrot juice I drank. He looks as if he's had a lifetime of good meals.
Then, they take him away. It's probably strange to him too, the first time we've parted since he was an unseen spiral twirling inside. A doctor takes a needle and thread and sews me up. I've been given a numbing shot, but I can still feel the tug of each stitch. The way he makes it tight.
Nurses lift me onto a rolling bed again, take me into a ward of the Navy hospital. One side of the hall is maternity; the other side for women with gynecological problems. Our side is lit up, shining. I fall asleep. But in a few hours, a nurse wakes me up. "Your baby's hungry." My body weeps as if a horse had kicked me between my legs, or bitten me with its huge horse teeth. I am sure that no one in my state should stand up. "You need to stand up," the nurse repeats. "Your baby needs to eat. It's been four hours." My hospital gown is a bloom around my body. I sit up. My feet hang off the bed, and the nurse gives me her arm. She doesn't smile. She's a Navy nurse, a member of the military. I can feel a pool inside my body, a slosh of blood. My breasts leak through my gown. I clutch the nurse's arm. My feet cold on the floor. She walks.
I follow her down the middle of the hall to a room of glass, where we turn right, until we come to a room without glass, a door. I stand inside, teetering beside a sink. Rocking chairs behind me against the wall. "Wait here." She leaves. She comes back with my baby. He is wrapped in a white blanket, that material that feels as if it has clouds in it, hilly and airy at the same time. Someone has wrapped my baby's hands in white gauze, so he won't scratch his face with his fingernails. The nurse points to the sink, the pHisoderm. I soap myself, rinse. Pat my hands dry with a brown paper towel.
My baby's eyes are still closed, and they're big. The arc of his eyelids are little beds where I rest my eyes. He's the most peaceful baby I have ever seen. It's Mom, I want him to know without my saying so. The nurse doesn't know he's being adopted. She doesn't know the mistake she's making. The doctor will come to me later and say I can't hold my baby again, can't feed him. "It could cause you permanent emotional damage," he says. I'm in the TV room when he walks in to tell me this. It's night. The doctor's day is done, but he wants to let me know this now, so I won't expect to feed my son again. The Greatest American Hero is on the TV screen. The actor has the curly yellow hair of an angel, flying around to help people out. "Can I still look at him through the glass?" I ask. The doctor acquiesces. "But just once a day," he says. I'm in the hospital for three days. And it's only this day, this morning, that the nurse will say, "Hold your arms like this," as she holds my son close to her chest. And then she holds him out to me.
Her arms are like bridges, transporting my son to me in this breathing world. I feel as though my vision could fill with white clouds at any moment, that I could fall to the floor. I feel that someone should be steadying me. But then the weight of him is in my hands. And it is like carrying him inside my body—some- thing I already know how to do. There is no thought of letting go. The bones in my arms use all their hardness, my blood, my skin itself, all the force in my body holds him, will keep him safe against any harm. My legs are metal. "You can sit in the rocking chair," the nurse says. I relax against the cushion beneath me, the chair's wooden bars supporting my back like little trees. "Hold his head up," she says, and hands me a bottle. The nurse leaves. We're quiet. My son and I like it, not rushing. I introduce myself for real: "It's Mom." He likes me. I place the bottle on his little rose mouth, let him take the nipple in his mouth. But he's not hungry yet. A little milk comes out on his lips. I don't know how much time I have. I say, his name, "Tommy." I'm the first one to call him by his name. I say, "I love you." I want to take my time, tell him everything. But he's so content. We rock a little. Hang out. We would have been so good together with silences. The nurse comes back.
I never feed him again. No matter how many Kleenexes I put in my bra cups, despite the pills I take to dry up my milk, it leaks through all my clothes. My small breasts become so heavy and hard they are like mini basketballs. I could feed ten babies with this milk. During the day, a nurse brings a heat machine, a bright electric sun, and shines it between my legs to dry my stitches. The curtains are drawn. I can hear my aunt and uncle outside the cloth, the joking about my suntanning machine. They are kind, jubilant to become my baby's parents. His eyes are still closed. During the day, I break the doctor's rule and stand at the glass for every feeding. I dismiss the doctor's warning about causing damage to myself. I need to see my son. It's like the need to push when he was being born. There's no choice. Watch a nurse hold my boy in her arms. Sometimes she stands while she feeds him, sometimes she sits. When she's standing, she holds him up high, as if showing him to someone—a king. Here he is. The nurses scowl at me. But what can they do? One nurse comes to me at night, opens my curtain. She sits on my bed as if she is my friend. "Would you like to talk?" she asks. "No," I say. Maybe she was doing something extra, trying to be nice, helpful. But I am in no mood for pity. At the glass, I watch the nurse give my son a bottle, my breasts leaking dark quarters through my bra, my gown. I stand there, and watch him held in her hard arms and think, I can do that. I can do that.
On the fourth day, I am discharged. The air is tense when my family arrives—my mother and father, my aunt and uncle— because they are afraid. They are afraid that I will take him in my arms and not let go. That we will hitch a ride out of town, and I will bleed all over the front seat, massaging my uterus with one hand. Trying to bring it back to size. Calm the blood down. My breasts have all the food my son needs. And finally he'll be able to latch on, to relieve this pressure, this store of milk I've been saving for him. The nurse shows my aunt and uncle my son's belly button, she explains how to care for it, where we connected. She opens his blanket to do this, my naked boy. My aunt has clothes for him. She has a baby snowsuit. It envelops him in cushy plastic. Like an Eskimo baby. My mom is motioning me out of the way. But the nurse who never smiled, she says, "No matter who is adopting the baby, the mother takes him out of the hospital." The mother, the mother. That's me. I'm visible again. It's a rule, so no one can disagree. I make my arms into the shape of a cradle. The nurse places my son in my arms. His snowsuit is soft and puffy. He looks comfortable nestled in there, eyes closed. I'm not yet afraid of doing anything wrong, of holding on to him. I know this is just for a few moments, and it's not private, but I'm so grateful to have him back. Light and space around us, despite the others crowding. I walk down the white hallway. They are all around me, anxious. But we are calm. Then the front door is open, and the air blows cold on us. I'm at the threshold, stepping onto the hospital porch, and my mom commands, "Hand Julia the baby." And I do. But it is as if I am an orange, an apple, some fruit with skin that a knife has been taken to, cutting. The watered air around me is the seen world. The porch has a few wide steps, as if the hospital was just a house. My aunt is smiling so wide, her smile is all I can see of her face, except her eyes locked down on him. In the world, he belongs to her now.
Table of Contents
Evidence of Things Unseen 1
The Boy with His Mother Inside Him 8
Book of Lifesavers 23
The Worst Thing That Can Happen 28
Seven Works of Mercy 35
The Last Time I Saw Her 38
Night Train 53
Gore Street 63
El Paso 73
Space City 80
Weapons Department 84
Sugar Mountain 87
The Shoe Museum 123
How to Make a Shoe 140
Hour of Death 155
The Floating Island 225
What People are Saying About This
"Poet Groom's stunning memoir reads more like poetry than prose and leaves the 'brain singing with neurons like a city at night.'" -Booklist
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Gril includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kelle Groom. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
She had her first drink at age fourteen. At fifteen, she had her first alcoholic blackout. And in 1981, at the age of nineteen, Kelle Groom was an out-of-control alcoholic and pregnant. Unable to take care of the child herself, she gave up her son for adoption by her aunt and uncle. When, fourteen months later, he died of leukemia, Kelle’s downward spiral of self-destruction accelerated into a freefall from which she emerged only when when her desire to stop drinking connected her with those who helped her to get sober. Kelle charts the journey that led her to accept her addiction and grief and to learn how to live in the world.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The book is filled with vivid and visceral scenes, raw with emotion and sensory detail, but it is Kelle’s desire to be touched which seems to be most urgent and consistent.“Someone touching me so that I am not alone, someone choosing me,” she writes. Why do you think the touch of another person is so important to Kelle? Is this yet another addiction, or is it a deeper longing that goes beyond that?
2. Kelle fears she has somehow inherited a gene from her father's side of the family that has passed on violent tendencies and alcoholism. To what extent do you think this fatalistic attitude and misconception of hers contributed to Kelle's alcoholism and self-destruction?
3. Discuss the various men in Kelle's life. There is Danny, Tommy’s father; Jason, the military man; Bill, the bartender; and Dave. There are also men that we know even less about—like her fiancé whom she moves to New York for in 2001, but ultimately does not marry. How did these men influence Kelle? What kind of role did they play in her life and in her battle with addiction?
4. Kelle’s memoir began as a journal she kept throughout her experience. What effect does this have on her memoir and what differences might there be in the telling of the story if she had not kept a journal?
5. In El Paso Kelle remembers a flower girl dress that she wore when she was four years old. She describes the dress as touching “the floor; spilling out in waves. I wore the ocean in the shape of a girl.” She continues, writing, “It was like coming home to the ocean after those months in the desert—I felt like myself.” Describe the role of the ocean in this memoir. Is it more of a dreamscape in which Kelle escapes into from time to time? Or a reminder that life continues through it all; a constant in Kelle’s nebulous world?
6. With more than thirty-two chapters, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl is more like a cohesive collection of memories, rather than a linear memoir. How do you think this structure shaped the story? Did you find the shifts in time easier to understand because of this format? What chapter was the most memorable to you? Why?
7. Guilt is a recurring theme throughout I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, beginning with Kelle's desire as a babysitter to punish a child despite feeling a strong desire to be a "consoler." This guilt continues with the decision to give Tommy up for adoption and then culminates with his passing away. Do you think Kelle is too hard on herself? Is her constant guilt a result of her extreme self-awareness, or is it something more akin to paranoia?
8. The epigraph at the beginning of the story includes the following passage from Brenda Hillman’s “Small Spaces:”
though the earth tried to hold each one of them upright,
saying don’t imagine, don’t imagine
there has been another like you—
After reading Kelle’s memoir, has the meaning of this passage changed? How did you interpret its significance in relation to I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl? What connection might this passage have with Kelle’s story?
9. In the chapter Aortic Kelle finds out that she has a 50% chance of ovarian cancer. She must make a decision involving surgery, and decides that she would like to leave herself the option of having another child. Did this decision surprise you after all she had been through? Do you think Kelle would make an even better mother than most because of her traumatic past experiences?
10. During a trip to the Wood’s Hole Aquarium with Mark and Julia, Kelle sees a seal that reminds her of a wounded seal she found on the beach in Wellfleet. She begins to conflate memories of the seal with memories of holding a baby, and has an overwhelming desire to save the seal, almost as if this would be an act of redemption for being unable to help Tommy. Re-read Part 2 of Guanyin and discuss the parallels between Tommy and the seal. Do you think Kelle would have had the same instinctual maternal reaction as a nineteen-year-old, or was her thought process a sign of emotional maturity that went beyond instinct?
11. Kelle’s decision to reestablish contact with Mark and Julia to piece together her disparate memories of Tommy seems to heal a lot of her emotional wounds. It also, however, contradicted many of the misconceptions she had been carrying with her and proved that Tom-Tom was not really who she thought he was. How did you react when Kelle showed up at Mark and Julia’s unannounced and asked for a complete explanation? Was it unfair to Mark and Julia? Do you think Kelle’s emergence ultimately helped Mark and Julia deal with pain that they had suppressed as well?
12. For a brief moment, while Kelle is watching the home video of Tommy, she considers not sending a DVD copy to Julia and Mark in order to protect their feelings. She decides she must fight this feeling and resist “the arrogance of deciding what another person needs.” (p. 223) How does this acknowledgment relate to other events in Kelle’s life? Do you think Kelle has finally found some kind of peace by the end of the memoir? What have you personally learned or taken away from Kelle’s story?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. If you enjoyed I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, read one of Kelle’s award-winning poetry collections—Five Kingdoms (2010), the 2006 Florida Book Award winner Luckily, and Underwater City (2004). Select a poem as a group and discuss how the words sound differently when read silently and when read aloud. How does her memoir relate to her poetry? Can you identify any recurring themes or stylistic choices?
2. Go Ask Alice is perhaps the most famous addiction memoir and was an inspiration for Kelle Groom’s memoir. In your book club compare and contrast the two memoirs. In what ways are they similar, and where do they diverge?
3. Leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children ages 0 to 19 years. To get involved and to learn more, visit the National Children’s Leukemia Foundation at http://www.leukemiafoundation.org/ and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at www.leukemia-lymphoma.org.
A CONVERSATION WITH KELLE GROOM
It seems as though this book has probably existed in some form or another in your head for a long time. Was finally getting it all down on paper an act of therapy for you, or were the events of your life something you had to come to terms with personally before you could write this memoir?
I kept journals, from before my son was born, throughout my active alcoholism, and well into sobriety. Even in the journals, I wouldn’t call it therapy—I had a sense of myself as a writer. Other than a brief childhood interest in becoming an archeologist, I’d always wanted to be a writer. The journal writing often felt as if it was saving my life, not as therapeutic exercise, but as writing practice—that even in the darkest, craziest confusion, I could write. The chapter, “The Last Time I Saw Her” began as a story I wrote for an undergraduate creative writing class in 1984, a year after the events in the story. From the beginning, I knew that the only way to have an understanding, to know what had happened, would be to write it. What drives the memoir is my not having come to terms with the events of my life. It’s the hunger to know and to understand that set the book in motion. In 2006, when I put aside my journals and began writing this memoir from the beginning, I believed that the writing of it would take me to my son. That I would find him in whatever way was possible. I was also able to see my younger self as a character, with the clarity and compassion I would offer any stranger. It was crucial to the writing, and I could also feel how that care for her/my younger self and the discoveries I made were changing me as I wrote. The writing of the book also catalyzed the visit to my son’s parents. I’d been unable to make that trip for 27 years, unable to even pick up the phone.
Since you have been sharing your story, have you found that others have opened up about personal experiences involving alcoholism, adoption, or the loss of a child at a young age?
Yes, it’s been really great that others connect to my story and have talked and written to me about their own. While some stories are directly related to the subjects that I write about, others aren’t specific to alcoholism or adoption. People have connected to the larger themes of love and grief and loss, and the desire to really live one’s life, rather than be sucked under by passivity.
In a previous interview, you mention that you spent your childhood summers on Cape Cod. The ocean recurs throughout your memoir and throughout your poetry. What is one of your earliest memories of the ocean? What is it that continually draws you back to incorporating references to the sea in your writing?
My earliest memory of the ocean is on the Cape, with my family on my grandfather’s boat. He kept it in the boatyard in Bass River, South Yarmouth, and we’d take it to Great Island, in West Yarmouth. It’s a private beach, but we’d go to the very top of the island, where there weren’t any houses. I was about 4 or 5 years old. Before we’d get to the shore, I’d get out of the boat into shallow water so clear, you could see through to the bottom. The sand smooth, not rocky and seaweedy. It was a magical, peaceful, protected place. There were no other people there. Even in memory, the water and island are sparkling and calm. I could swim, stay in the water as long as I liked, only coming to shore for lunch. It felt like my own world. My family was nearby, but in the ocean, I felt independent and strong and connected to the natural world, which I now understand to be a spiritual connection too. I could pay attention in a way that I couldn’t in the company of others. Great Island was my mother’s first beach. As a girl, she’d lived across the street from the tip of the island in a house my grandparents rented. The island isn’t very wide at that point. We arrived by boat from one side; for my mom it had been a two-minute walk on the path from the other side. Though Great Island wasn’t my first encounter with the ocean—when I was younger we’d gone to a big, public beach on the road to Great Island. And before that, when I was 2 years old, my parents took me to Follins Pond in South Dennis. My mother remembered my brother and me running straight into the pond. She recalled my father’s surprise, his saying, “They’re so small not to be afraid of water.” I’ve lived in a lot of different places—there is no house to return to—but the ocean has always felt like home. It’s the place where I feel most myself and most connected to the world. In my writing, I’m trying to find out what I don’t know. In the sea, near the sea, I can get quiet enough to pay attention.
In your collection of poetry, Five Kingdoms, there is a poem titled “Eviction” where you imagine losing deeply personal belongings, such as your grandmother’s books and dirt from your son’s grave. How has overcoming so much at such a young age shaped you as a person?
I don’t think that I overcame the losses in my past. I saw the writing of the book as the opposite of closure, a word that seems especially empty of meaning for me. There had been this false, forced closing—a silence over the events. My son’s name not even spoken. My purpose was to open things up, to go down into the darkest places and, through writing, find out what happened there. The violence and near-death experience at 22, my coming back to life, did make me think this was my second life. That this was my extra life, and I could do anything—something I kept forgetting. But it did make me feel that I had permission to be a writer. I felt that there was a reason for me to be alive and that I shouldn’t waste my life. The poem “Eviction” was written after I’d received an eviction notice. It set the poem in motion—a fantasy in which I go to sleep in a destroyed shack on the deserted coastline where I often walked. This was just after all the hurricanes came to Florida, and the beach was strewn with hurricane debris, almost nowhere to walk, boards flying out of the waves, but the shack is a place to rest. The actual eviction notice had been very upsetting and disorienting, but it sent me into the thrilling world of the poem—the evictions all around. My life is connected to the life around me, and writing is my way toward understanding that. In talking with another writer about loss and grief, he’d said, “well, integration is the goal.” And, of course, that’s it.
Being an accomplished poet, did you find it challenging to write a memoir in prose? When and how did you decide to write this memoir?
I began writing when I was about seven years old, and from the start, I always wrote both poems and stories. As an undergraduate, I began to focus much more on poetry, and in graduate school, I had to choose either poetry or fiction as my primary genre. I chose poetry, but remained very interested in prose. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I can trace the memoir back to the journals I kept from 1981 into the mid 1990s. In 2001, I tried to create a memoir by using the journals themselves. But it didn’t work. The material swamped me, and I felt that the events were reduced to anecdote. There was no perspective, no reflection—just this girl at the mercy of things she didn’t know how to change. It was like watching someone drown. I put the journals and the memoir draft away. In 2006, I started to think about how to approach this again. Initially, I began it as a series of lyrical essays—personal essays. It was important for me to write the story new, from the beginning. From this place in time. As the essays accumulated, I realized that they were chapters and that I was writing a memoir. I found it thrilling to write a memoir in prose, and to approach it as I would a poem—working to create a world and stop time, to discover what can’t be said and try to find a way to say it.
You have taught writing at the University of Central Florida and will be the William Randolph Hearst Foundation Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society in 2011. Do you believe teaching has made you a better writer or poet? What initially drew you to teaching?
I began teaching because of a debt. I worked in a university tutoring center, and I’d borrowed money from the assistant director. My tutoring income was so tiny, it was nearly impossible to repay the debt. So, the director asked if I’d like to teach a test prep course in grammar and essay writing. The income would allow me to pay her back. I was terrified to teach, but I couldn’t turn down the offer. Driving to school to teach my first class, I remember thinking, “if I get in a car accident, I won’t have to do this.” The thing is, I loved it. Even at the beginning, even scared out of my wits, I loved that I could help students learn. The more I taught, the more my self-consciousness disappeared, and it was a remarkable freedom to be there for other people, students, to the point where I almost felt transparent. For a few years I taught English as a Second Language at an international language school on the grounds of a university. I learned to incorporate theater exercises into those classes, and it was fun, creative work. Later, I taught a great deal of composition, almost to the breaking point. I was an adjunct instructor at three different colleges and four different campuses, teaching seven courses one semester. I started at 8 AM in one city, and ended at 8 PM in another city two hours away. The car I bought at the beginning of the semester, died by semester’s end. But even in the marathon teaching, the exhaustion, it was a joy to be of use. The last class I taught was my first creative writing class. I remember an introductory talk I was giving on the essay, on what it could do. As I was speaking, I was thinking, “I can’t believe I’m talking about writing, the work that matters most to me, to people who want to hear about it.” It seemed as if the room was full of light, and I felt a kind of wealth, as though I had a surfeit of everything I needed. It wasn’t monetary of course—I was still an adjunct instructor and made $100 a week teaching that class—but it was an enormous gift. I don’t know that it made me a better writer or poet. I’m sure it made me a better person. Teaching is such creative work, but it’s a completely different kind of work from writing.
To what extent do you blame Brockton for Tommy’s leukemia? You struggle with this subject throughout the course of your memoir and it seems as though there could be potential legal action. Is this story still being played out in court?
For so many years, I felt that there was something wrong with this city. The anecdotal evidence came to me almost all at once, like a string of coincidences, and it seemed that it gave weight to my intuitive questioning about the health of the city and possible links to environmental illness. But when I researched the leukemia statistics for children in the city of Brockton, with the help of a public health professional, it appeared that the rates in Brockton from 1985 to 2004 were in line with the rest of the state. The city does rank in the “top 10 most extensively environmentally overburdened communities in Massachusetts (out of 362 communities),” and it “grossly exceeds” the statewide average of 166 environmental hazard points per community, with 709 points. There are 347 hazardous waste sites in the city—“an average of over 16 hazardous waste sites per square mile.” Sixteen hazardous waste sites per square mile. I learned that “exposure to industrial chemicals is also believed by scientists to be contributing to dramatic increases since the 1950s in cancers—an epidemic that kills half-a-million Americans each year.” I learned that cancer “now kills more American children that any other single disease for the first time in history.” And that rate of childhood leukemia incidence in Brockton doesn’t take into account geographic clusters of leukemia incidence in Brockton, but, I also learned that clusters are very difficult to determine. The rates of childhood leukemia incidence in Brockton were unavailable for any years earlier than 1984. My son died in 1982. The same year the Superfund site was cleaned up in his county. There is still another step in my research, to look through old DPH records at the Boston Public Library to see if any such reports on leukemia incidence exist prior to 1984. I would like to know. I’m a memoirist, an essayist, not an investigative journalist or a scientist. My job is to ask questions. When I began to have an inkling that the city’s health might have contributed to my son’s death, I worried that he’d died because I’d given him away. That I was to blame. I wanted to know who was at fault. But later, in 2000/2001 when I was directed to a survey of Brockton’s overall health and thought that I was seeing high rates of childhood leukemia in the city, I felt the weight of the years since my son had died and wondered how many other children had died since then. It now seems that I’d misread that survey, read high numbers for low, but I still felt that the very least I could do is ask for clarification from public health professionals, state the facts regarding environmental health hazards in Brockton. There is no legal action, nothing being played out in court—these are just questions I’m raising. In my memoir, beyond the health of the city and the cause(s) of my son’s leukemia, I’m also concerned with the shift from seeking to assign blame for his death to trying to accept it.
You mention Go Ask Alice as a source of inspiration for your memoir. What spoke to you about the girl’s story in the book? How old were you when you first read it?
It was 1975. I was fourteen and living on a military base in El Paso when I first read Go Ask Alice. I only lived there for a few months, the first semester of eighth grade. But I felt very isolated there, far from the coasts where I’d grown up. I had no sense of living in a city. Just the base and my school, a desert in the backyard. A trip across the border to Juarez where I bought a turquoise ring that lost its color, turned out to be fake. The girl in Go Ask Alice felt more real, more like a friend, than anyone I met in El Paso. Like me she kept a diary, felt isolated. I recognized what looked to me like a kind of imprisonment—as if she were jailed in her body. I was attracted to the way drugs and alcohol seemed to free her from that. I saw a place up ahead that I needed to get to. The fence that kept me from it. I had this idea of lighting out, that someday I’d light out, and climb over the fence into a spaciousness, like a prairie of the future. And my life would be there. In the town I’d lived in prior to El Paso, the older sister of my best friend had run away, and I was so excited for her. I thought she’s headed for the fence, the future. But she just came back home. The girl in Go Ask Alice seemed headed toward the same kind of future I imagined. I liked that she didn’t pretend to be okay. I loved “White Rabbit” too, the song, the idea that I could be transformed—take something and be ten feet tall. I wanted to be transformed. Of course Go Ask Alice is a cautionary tale too. Terrible things happen. She dies.
What advice would you offer to those battling alcoholism and other addictions?
That you are not alone. You are not alone. It helped that when I got to the point that I couldn’t drink anymore and I couldn’t not drink—when I was on that line between the two—I knew who to call. I’d been to meetings, I’d been to treatment, and I had phone numbers of people in recovery. Any time I reached out for help, someone helped me. I couldn’t get sober alone—I would have died. I needed the support of recovery meetings to get sober and to learn how to live.
What is next for you as a writer? Have you thought about attempting to write fiction, or do you feel as though you have a lot more to say through memoir and poetry?
I’m beginning work on a second memoir and on my fourth collection of poems. I’d like to return to fiction as well, though I feel as if it’s going to require me to make a big leap. I’m looking forward to working in all three genres.
7 Questions for Kelle Groom
What was your family's reaction to the book?
My family was been enormously supportive of the book, as they've always been of my work as a writer. They know how much it means to me. As my father said, "If the book's publication makes you happy, then, I'm happy." That said, it's not a book that is really meant for my family. They're too close to it, and my story cuts deep. When Tommy died, my aunt and uncle lost their son, my parents lost a grandson, my brother a nephew.
How has writing helped heal the pain you suffered losing Tommy as well as your struggle with addiction?
I wasn't interested in healing when I wrote the book; rather than catharsis, my goal was discovery. Where could language take me? Who had I been? What happened to my son and to me? Could I find him? My memoir was driven by the desire to find my son and the belief that the writing would take me to him. It was a hunger I'd had since my first day without him. Even though the book goes into very dark places, the discovery of what writing could do was a great pleasure. Writing did catalyze me into taking action. If I hadn't written the book, I might never have done the things I'd been so afraid to do, in particular, the visit I made to the home of my son's adoptive parents. The writing brought me to my son, and it also helped me to see the silent, actively alcoholic girl I'd been.
Much of the book came out of journals you kept during those difficult years. What was it like to go back to them and read about yourself in such a distressing state?
It was like watching my self drown. I just wanted to reach in and save her. The journals were almost unbearable reading. While I kept them available for reference and fact-checking, I stored them in another room. In writing the memoir, I didn't want to begin in the past, I wanted to begin in the present. To start from a place of strength and compassion, and travel back. From here, I hoped to find a clarity that would free the lost girl in the journals.
Why did you feel the need to write this book? What did you hope it would accomplish and did it?
As I mentioned earlier, I was driven by the need to find my son. Originally, I'd envisioned that my alcoholism and recovery would play a much smaller part in the book. But as I wrote the book, I realized that in order to find my way to my son, I would have to look at how I'd lost him. In writing the book, I was struck by the silence in which I'd lived my own life, the silence surrounding my son's life. I wanted to speak his name. I wanted to speak for the silent girl who died and came back. When I first saw a copy of the memoir with the dedication for my son - when I saw his name in print surrounded by the sea of white, the space made for him - it was very beautiful. Each time someone speaks his name, I'm startled and set right at the same time.
What was the most surprising aspect of writing or publishing the book?
In writing the book, the most surprising thing was that I'd hoped the writing would take me to my son who died more than twenty-five years ago, and it did. In publishing the book, I've been surprised and humbled by the responses from readers, their openness and generosity in telling me how the book makes them feel and how it connects to their lives. It's been extraordinarily moving. As someone told me it would, the book is having its own life out in the world. I'm immensely grateful for this.
What is it like to go through the editorial process when writing about something so personal? What advice do you have for writers to not take criticism personally?
Going through the editorial process was a great privilege. It consisted of passionate readings of my work by brilliant people. The process raised crucial questions that allowed me to think about what else a reader might need to know. I want the reader of my book to feel welcome. The goal of the editorial process is to let the reader in, to achieve clarity. As writers, it's what we all want.
Who have you discovered lately?
Justin Torres - the writing in We the Animals is thrilling. [And a Fall 2011 Discover selection. -Ed.] I'm also excited to discover Rachel Cohen's A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, S.C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon, and Maile Chapman's Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto. Anticipating Joshua Cody's [sic]: A Memoir [A Holiday 2011 Discover selection.Ed.] Also very much looking forward to Cynthia Cruz's second poetry collection, The Glimmering Room. As always, Nick Flynn's work opens up the world for me - his newest collection of poems, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, is stunning.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Groom's writing style brings you to the moment. So easily is the reader transported into the heart of this young woman, bright and adventurous by nature but through the culture and mindset that would define a decade. I WORE THE OCEAN IN THE SHAPE OF A GIRL offers the reader a bird's eye view of Kelle Groom's progressive optimism as she reinvents herself in time to fulfill her destiny-- and for the writer, or most of us for that matter--- the best of all possible worlds.
When Kellie was fifteen years old, she discovered the social intimacy of alcohol. Her life for several years afterward revolved around the next drink instead of school as she becomes an alcoholic who often went comatose in bars. At nineteen she gives birth to Tommy. However, her Uncle Mark and Aunt Julia take Tommy to live with him in Massachusetts as her parents insist she cannot take care of herself let alone a newborn. Fourteen moments later Tommy dies from leukemia, but his biological mother is kept in the dark as she struggles to sober up. Instead she is raped and turns to drink for solace. By 1984, Kellie dries out as she drops her drinking buddies. She finds employment and makes new supporting friends. Kellie graduates from college and obtains a position involving art. However, except for fleeting moments in her son's first days of existence and what her family has shared, she missed her child's brief life. Thus, she hopes this memoir will provide her some solace though she knows she can never fully gain that early wonder. This profound memoir deftly rotates between the past and present as Ms. Groom shares how far into the abyss she fell and how difficult it was to climb out. Readers will empathize with the author as her grief, remorse and hope deeply surface when she muses about Tommy. Pulling no punches about the cost to her soul (and to her family) of her alcoholic years, Ms. Groom writes a heart felt biography as she searches for her Tommy who she regretfully missed when he was alive. Harriet Klausner
This book is a memoir. It was written by a poet, and it's easy to see that in the writing. This was not an easy read by any means. The narrative flows from point in time to point in time with regularity. The book tells the story of an alcoholic, through her treatment and relapse(s). However, most the narrative involves the son she gave up for adoption to her aunt and uncle. Her son dies very young of leukemia, and her desire to reconnect with this missing part of her self directs her actions throughout her life.Honestly, I don't really feel qualified to review this book. I'm not even sure I got it. This book felt so dark through most of it, as if she could never chase away her demons. I almost want to talk to her now, and see if she has found any peace. Despite all this, I found myself in tears at the end, and not necessarily sad ones. It's not a clear cut happy ending, but I did find some comfort.The writing is very stylized. Although I find the subject matter difficult to read, the world themselves were beautiful. It's easy to see the poet coming through. While this isn't going to be a fun read necessarily, I do think it is worth reading. There is some satisfaction at seeing her work past her alcoholism and learning more about her son. So while it's not a breezy read, I did enjoy it.Galley provided by publisher for review.
Everyone has a story to tell. Kelle Groom goes beyond that. She tells a tragic story in painful increments of beautiful prose. The result is an amazing book by a very special woman.At the very early age of 15, Kelle finds alcohol as a way to express her. She loses herself to it, not realizing it until it is too late. Already an alcoholic, she has a baby at the age of nineteen. Her family supports her, as her aunt adopts the infant. Adding more sorrow to Kelle¿s painful life, the baby is diagnosed at nine months with leukemia, and dies at 14 months of age. Kelle loses him twice.Already out of control, Kelle is in a freefall downward spiral, fast on her way to self- destruction. It takes the real desire to stop drinking and the connection with the right people who can actually help Kelle attain sobriety.This is a unique story on many levels, all heart-rending, all gut wrenching. But at the very heart of this book is Kelle the mother, who survived it all, who needed acceptance and forgiveness ultimately from herself.She did survive, and she found the courage to share her story. She gives hope a new voice. You cannot read this book and not be somehow changed by it.
What a devastating and miraculous story that Kelle Groom recounts about her history as an alcoholic through short essays that reflect her poetic background. The book goes into detail about why she drank and how she needed to drink to feel that she was alive and connect with people. Other drugs didn't work for her the way alcohol did. She further spirals downward after she becomes pregnant at nineteen, gives the baby up for adoption to her aunt and then the child dies from leukemia. Through all of this mayhem, she still retains her voice to tell the story of her life. Her parents stick by her and try to get her help through out her ordeals with alcohol while remaining silent about their own issues and her father's ill health. I did like this book even though it was a difficult read and I had to take breaks in between each chapter. You can imagine that the journals Groom wrote were somehow infused with the alcohol she drank at times. There is a bit of skipping around in the timeline which made it easier for me to read this one chapter at a time and digest it as I went along. I am so glad the Groom slowly comes to terms with what happened to her in her life and survived devastating things like her rape, the loss of her son and the sadness that really enveloped her life. There is redemption at the end!
I like it! It was a very nice, but sad story.
This book just looks wrong and i couldnt picure me readin it
As much as I loved the description, I couldn't get into this book.
Everyone has a story to tell. Kelle Groom goes beyond that. She tells a tragic story in painful increments of beautiful prose. The result is an amazing book by a very special woman. At the very early age of 15, Kelle finds alcohol as a way to express her. She loses herself to it, not realizing it until it is too late. Already an alcoholic, she has a baby at the age of nineteen. Her family supports her, as her aunt adopts the infant. Adding more sorrow to Kelle's painful life, the baby is diagnosed at nine months with leukemia, and dies at 14 months of age. Kelle loses him twice. Already out of control, Kelle is in a freefall downward spiral, fast on her way to self- destruction. It takes the real desire to stop drinking and the connection with the right people who can actually help Kelle attain sobriety. This is a unique story on many levels, all heart-rending, all gut wrenching. But at the very heart of this book is Kelle the mother, who survived it all, who needed acceptance and forgiveness ultimately from herself. She did survive, and she found the courage to share her story. She gives hope a new voice. You cannot read this book and not be somehow changed by it.
I attended a reading by the writer in Brooklyn, but have never met her personally, and have nothing to gain or lose by writing this review. This memoir tells a very painful story, but in an artful way that builds up to an unexpected climax. Each chapter (there are 32) is like a prose poem in itself. After reading the whole book I went back and read individual chapters to appreciate the metaphors and the language. I highly recommend this book to readers who enjoy memoir and poetic writing.
To be savored in small bites. Original turns of phrase punctuate this haunting, yet hopeful, memoir. Stirring.
While the story that Kelle Groom reveals can be harrowing, it is tempered by the writing -- writing that is so achingly beautiful, it made me realize the meaning of that phrase. My heart felt heavy as the narrative unfolded, surprises in every chapter, but the writing -- the metaphors, the descriptions, a language all her own -- made me want to savor it, re-read passages, read it aloud. As sad a story as it is, I was compelled to keep reading, to stay with her as she finds that young girl she was, finds her and forgives her.
This book is a memoir. It was written by a poet, and it's easy to see that in the writing. This was not an easy read by any means. The narrative flows from point in time to point in time with regularity. The book tells the story of an alcoholic, through her treatment and relapse(s). However, most the narrative involves the son she gave up for adoption to her aunt and uncle. Her son dies very young of leukemia, and her desire to reconnect with this missing part of her self directs her actions throughout her life. Honestly, I don't really feel qualified to review this book. I'm not even sure I got it. This book felt so dark through most of it, as if she could never chase away her demons. I almost want to talk to her now, and see if she has found any peace. Despite all this, I found myself in tears at the end, and not necessarily sad ones. It's not a clear cut happy ending, but I did find some comfort. The writing is very stylized. Although I find the subject matter difficult to read, the world themselves were beautiful. It's easy to see the poet coming through. While this isn't going to be a fun read necessarily, I do think it is worth reading. There is some satisfaction at seeing her work past her alcoholism and learning more about her son. So while it's not a breezy read, I did enjoy it. Galley provided by publisher for review.
As readers all know, there are books out there on the market that entertain, romance, thrill, scare, and teach. This is a unique book, however, because it does each and every one of those things and more. Using a powerful "voice," it will be an impossible struggle for many readers as they try to figure out how to put it down; or, whether or not they can continue reading. Kelle Groom bares all, from mistakes to tragedies, to triumphs and pain. The Groom family history is told through various stories including that of Kelle's son's cancer. The author leads readers down her horrific path that began as early as fifteen, when Kelle decided that only with alcohol could she make it through the day. This is a young woman who blacked out in high school, and hooked up with males that made sure to "egg" her on and hurt her as best they could. This was an empty shell of a girl; this was a life that was already over, with Kelle simply waiting for the end to come. At nineteen - who knows why, or what Higher Power could've thought it would be a good thing - Kelle became pregnant and made a good choice, finally, by realizing that there was no way she could support or care for a child. With the custody being given over to her Aunt and Uncle, Kelle's son Tommy went to live in a much happier environment. The absolute worst would come to pass, however, when Tommy died of Leukemia at only fourteen months of age. Kelle, through journals that she kept, has taken a great deal of strength to write this story. Some will despise Kelle for what she did; some will be supportive and happy for her recovery. While others will read about the tragedies and horror that Kelle went through which included abuse, rape, alcoholism, and abduction, and find themselves sickened beyond belief. Kelle is very open and honest throughout - sometimes brutally. She touches upon the horrors that exist in this world - horrors that others are living through right this minute. She still searches for the reasons for it all, and for her Tommy whose soul was taken to a better place. Kelle Groom searches for her son's body and the truth, which she may never find. But having the ability and the power to come "out" and get "clean" is something that can not be "reviewed." It is something that the reader has to experience for herself. Quill Says: This is an exquisitely written, humbling, and frightening story of survival and redemption, from a woman who may forever have a brutal path to walk.
Same with the one under my rate and review. Hope u can get into the book. I liked the discription but the book was so boring. Good luck reading the book! Hope u like it! But I hate it! I love my review not the book!