Girl Rearing: A Review

Leigh Gilmore, Fourth Genre 1.1 (1999): 162–63

In her first book, Girl Rearing: Memoir of a Girlhood Gone Astray, Marcia Aldrich offers an elliptical and often funny tour of growing up white, female, and upper middle class in the '50s. Girl Rearing front coverThis "memoir of a girlhood gone astray" picks up the major themes of girl rearing as a relentless education in becoming small (through strict control of bodily appearance), unnoticed (through relegation to the powder room instead of the boardroom), and skilled only at things that do not give pleasure. At the heart of this training in psychic hygiene is a mother who is both overwhelmingly interested in the details of her daughter's upbringing and largely absent. The one source of emotional connection in M's girlhood results from a barely sanctioned foray into dirt: M, like so many girls before and after her, falls big for horses. It is a particular horse, Alert Indian, and an unconventional teacher, who give M her first access into physical control for the sake of pleasure rather than self-punishment, and she briefly thrives.

All books ask us, implicitly, how to read them. Texts that push the boundaries between genres, and challenge formal conventions and the expectations they engender, pose the question explicitly. Girl Rearing takes liberties with some of nonfiction's conventions. The text is not organized chronologically, for example, and is filled with such literary devices as Dickensian names for authority figures, a cast of walk-ons who, like Chaucer's pilgrims, take turns with the narrative, and a "captivity narrative" set in the kitchen. Invention in memoir is decidedly dicey business because it threatens to invalidate the whole project. Yet Girl Rearing's hybrid mixture of fictional, or, more precisely, literary devices in the service of memoir helps to clarify the stakes of her project. Less the documentary self of nonfiction reportage, Aldrich offers a self in the process of exchanging one set of created constraints for a precarious freedom. Through her narrator, "M," Aldrich steers beyond the most familiar markers of nonfiction. This is a risky passage, to be sure, but it makes sense. If you think of girl rearing itself as an effort to create a fictional version of femininity, then Aldrich's embrace and tactical reversal of this logic towards an altered, if uncertain, end is the bravest lesson she could offer.

Girl Rearing combines fiction and nonfiction in a way that the most inventive autobiographies have. Aldrich is heir to modernists like Gertrude Stein, who, rather audaciously, wrote both The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Everybody's Autobiography. Girl Rearing shares with such recent precursors as Nabokov's Speak, Memory, Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Frank Conroy's Stop-Time, Lillian Hellman's An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, and David Sedaris's Naked, an interest in and ability to combine fiction and nonfiction. It is also indebted to Charlotte Brontë, who subtitled Jane Eyre an "autobiography," and Henry Adams, whose Education of Henry Adams shares with Girl Rearing an ambivalence toward the autobiographical "I"—Adams refers to himself in the third person and Aldrich calls herself "M." I hasten to add that Girl Rearing carries its precursors forward deftly. I offer these allusions not to suggest that Aldrich trots them out to impress (or fatigue) us. While the writing of this English professor wears its learning lightly, hers is nonetheless a deeply allusive text that owes more to a tradition of literary innovation than to the recent boom in memoir.

Aldrich renders herself and the genre of memoir in close relation to each other. Both are pushed to their limits by girl rearing and emerge so altered that one is unsure of what names best suit this text: autobiographical fiction? literary memoir? creative nonfiction? M's doomed domestication provides a rich metaphor for thinking about the constraints on telling a woman's life. Freighted with burdens that ill suit the task of representing a distinctive female "I," memoir is a genre once reserved for elder statesmen and politicians at the ends of distinguished careers. In it they wrote of public careers, of themselves in step with history. Of what use is such a model to many women?

Invention is necessary in life and memoir to tell some stories, and Aldrich demonstrates that insight. M, born in an alley, and escaped from a world of country clubs, hair salons, and diets, has more in common with Thelma and Louise sailing off a cliff, or the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper." With them she shares an ambiguous freedom forged from what has gone before. Girl Rearing concludes in the dirt, with M, now a mother tasked with girl rearing, and her daughter Lily in the garden. M trusts dirt to guide her better than disinfectants ever could.