Monroe, Louisiana, isn’t a very small town, but it’s small enough. In the 1970s, the divorce rate in my hometown was nearly nonexistent, church attendance was roughly 100 percent, and the rules of proper behavior were generally agreed upon, if often ignored. You could be a licensed driver at fifteen and order a double bourbon at eighteen, which meant that we were driving at fourteen and anyone who looked eighteen could buy liquor at 7-Eleven. We purchased cigarettes from vending machines, rode bikes without helmets, and thought seat belts and sunscreen were for wimps. Marijuana was available, but still uncommon. Sex was available, common, and never discussed openly between polite parents and their children. Monroe wasn’t a backwater, but it wasn’t progressive either. On the whole, I would say my hometown was entirely typical of its time and place, more confused than reactionary, a sort of stronghold of befuddlement.
I grew up on a boulevard lined with live oaks that were ancient and dramatically canopied over the beginning of the road, but dwindled to saplings no taller than my father toward the recently paved end where we lived. Our house was a ramblingly comfortable orangey-red brick ranch in a growing development of one-acre lots carved out of a pre-Civil War cotton plantation along the banks of the Ouachita River. In more ways than one, Monroe and the economy of northeastern Louisiana were built on the black soil of the merging floodplains of the Mississippi and Ouachita rivers, and my childhood home was less than a football field’s length from the lesser river’s edge. Barges and boats traveled the Ouachita River from Arkansas to the Gulf of Mexico, and water moccasins and alligator gar bred in the shadows of the cypress tree roots along its edge. The river’s age and length were unimaginable to me and its depth swelled and shrank according to factors outside my grasp. Inseparable from the Ouachita, then as now, was the levee that snaked beside it like a miniature Great Wall of China, a man-made construction defying scale and logic, stretching, as far as I could tell, forever in both directions. Growing up, I felt I owned them both, or more precisely, I felt that since no one else owned them, the levee and river were always there for me. This is what I think of when I picture my past: the walk out my back door across the brick patio, past the overgrown azaleas and the tall metal swing set, up to the top of the levee and then down into a narrow swath of woods that led to a rise on the riverbank. I liked to sit there and write and watch the last light of day glare and glisten like fool’s gold over the fast-moving muddy waters.
In my teenage years, my immediate familymy parents, me, two older sisters, and a younger brotherwas stable but less than uniform, a complicated arrangement held together by habit and stubbornness as well as love. My father, a physician, was intelligent, capable, generous, and kind, but he was not a modern man; he did not discuss his feelings. The rare times Daddy demonstrated strong emotions of any variety are memorable. He never panicked, but under certain circumstances, he lost his temper. I could walk in the back door covered in mud and cradling a broken arm and my father would remain calm, but a boyfriend arriving on a motorcycle would bring his blood to a quick boil. Maybe there was a time in my father’s life when he lacked certainty, wasn’t comfortable with life-and-death decisions, but I can’t imagine it. He was the eldest of three sons, raised on a cotton farm during the Great Depression by a widowed mother who taught elementary school five days a week and Bible study on Sundays. Daddy and his brothers all attended college and medical school on loans and scholarships, then returned to serve the same population in the same hospital and local clinics. To distinguish them from one another, patients and nurses called them by their first names. My father was Dr. Tom.
As much as Daddy was an exemplar of solid citizenry, my mother, Bobbie Sue, was generally viewed as eccentric, a free spirit: someone who never wore anything with a floral motif and always did her own hair. She was also, in the opinion of everyone but herself, drop-dead gorgeous, always at her most beautiful when she made the least effort, which was most of the time. Though she stayed home, I have trouble thinking of my mother as a homemaker. Mama was a decade younger than Daddy, unabashedly volatile, and she could draw and paint with near photographic accuracy. Even then I sensed that being a housewife and mother were roles with inherent limitations that did not naturally suit her. It was her studio, a locked room near the back door of the house, that nurtured her best self. By the time I was a teenager, I finally caught on that at least half the time, Mama only pretended to leave the house so she could crawl back in her studio window to paint undisturbed. My mother was well known for her antics and tricky practicality. She was funny and frank and whistled with her fingers in her mouth, the kind of woman adolescent boys fantasized their girlfriends would grow up to be. For me as a teenage girl, this was both fabulous and often fabulously painful.
Having two older sisters who regularly registered double takes among males of any age was annoying as well. From a purely psychological perspective, it’s safe to assume that my being the third daughter, followed by an adorable and troublesome younger brother, added a certain level of frustration to my formative years, a well-founded fear of being overlooked; but then growing up is difficult under the best of circumstances, and these just happened to be mine.
When I began the diary in 1972, my socially gifted oldest sister, Mary, was away at college. The next in line, Stella, whose serious personality was weighted in direct opposition to Mary’s buoyancy, was a senior in high school. My distracting younger brother, Bill, was ten years old, and I was in the commonly acknowledged worst year of life, the seventh grade. My parents were attentive, loving, and strict. There were rules, expectations, and consequences. When I screwed up, I always started the confession process with my mother, which was risky and dependent on her mood, but better than conversations with Daddy, which were logical, and therefore hopeless. The end result, in either case, was usually the same: I was sent to my room. When being sent to my room was extended to include days rather than hours, it was called being grounded. About the time I started being grounded, I started writing things down; it gave me something to do. Writing to and for myself had an acceptably low risk factor for feeling misunderstood or ignored, and it was a form of conversation I came to value more and more.
My bedroom, aside from being a place of exile, was also a refuge. The shelves were a cherished disarray of books, vinyl records, magazines, notebooks, and souvenirs. I collected things: books, model horses, rocks, and photographs of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Marilyn Monroe. My walls were an evolving collage of drawings, lists, snapshots, and 4-H ribbons. The decorative centerpiece was a poster above my bed, an image I mulled over daily until it gradually etched itself into my subconscious appearing even in my dreams, my first template of romance and longing: an enlargement of a black-and-white photograph of a young couple standing in a field at sunset, accompanied by a quotation from Frederick S. Perls that read, You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s so beautiful.” Popular music was inseparable from my emotional life and I played records relentlessly. The volume to which I could push my personal angst was, however, strictly limited by the black Rub-a-Dub laundry pen mark Mama drew on the volume dial of my stereo. I remember my mother claiming, loudly and usually while surveying my room from my doorway (in blatant violation of the do not disturb or die” sign which no one seemed to take seriously and I was powerless to enforce), that my bedroom smelled, and I suppose it did, but it was not disagreeable to me. The faint odors of oiled leather tack, potpourri, paints, candy bars, skin lotion, dog hair, and dirty clothes were all of my own making, and I thought my room was an OK place to be.
On reflection, I think the sediment of memory must resemble that room, and in my initial reading of the diaries there were times that I became aware of those long undisturbed layers of sensory information, images I didn’t know I could conjure, feelings I didn’t know I still felt. Reading an entry, such as, Went skiing on the bayou. Mitch kept flirting with me and I kept liking it.” and an entire afternoon’s experience would suddenly be revealed to me in full: the appalling heat, the relief of the breeze when the boat was in motion, Mitch’s extremely short cutoffs and the fact that he wore no underwear. Scratch the surface and the past was there. Heartaches mostly. And the buried hurts and humiliations that hurt and humiliated me all over again.
I have heard it said that there are two times in your life when you stand a chance, in the face of whatever social forces struggle to get you in their grip, of becoming someone new, of creating your own personal universe through the sheer power of imagination and persistence: one is adolescence and the other is middle age. Maybe this is hogwash. Maybe it’s profound truth. I certainly make no claim to know. What I do know is that very near my forty-third birthday, it dawned on me to look at the diaries I began when I was young. I didn’t know how young. I wasn’t sure at what age or even why I had started keeping diaries, because scribbling in blank books, tossing them into storage boxes, and hauling them from car trunk to closet, has been a natural part of what I do for so long that I had never, that I could remember, given thought to when it actually became necessary for me to do it.
It was early October, an afternoon shrouded in unreasonable heat, and I was at home writing about a series of pictures I had made, over many years, in my hometown in Louisiana. These were photographs of people I had watched and loved since my first steady gaze, but for the life of me I couldn’t find the words to explain my ardent, though not always kind, attention. I wanted to tell the story of my growing up, but just thinking about my childhood seemed to ignite an internal battle, to generate, simultaneously, both a meditative sense of calm and considerable irritation. Then it occurred to me that the words weren’t in my head. They were in the attic.
Twenty minutes of sweaty excavation among old clothes, holiday decorations, and used camping gear finally yielded pay dirt. There, in the oldest box of various sized books, binders, and bad poetry, I found it: the little red leatherette book, the one with the Greek key border design and the broken bindingmy first diary. In a spot directly under a bare lightbulb, I opened it and read, in clumsy penciled words, January 1, 1972. It rained today. We went to the movies.”
I held still, the way you do when you see something unexpected and possibly marvelous in a junk shop, and you know no one else has noticed it yet, but you. Standing in the attic detritus of my adult life, I listened to my husband call my name as he walked in and out the back door with bags of groceries and heard the whoops of my two children competing in a ferocious game of Ping-Pong. My back ached, my period was late, and middle age was descending upon my life like cold rain on a previously cloudless day, yet there I was looking at my own loopy handwriting from the precipice of puberty, before I’d been drunk, kissed, or worn a bra, reading thoughts (such as they were) I’d conceived and written when I was twelve-and-a-half years old. The exact age of my son.
Among other things, like teaching for a living and getting my kids to the dentist twice a year, I make photographs, and sometimes I write, and usually in a way that scrutinizes life, offers up a version of the world that can be beautiful but also can, in its exactness, at times seem cruel. Diaries, on the other hand, are truly cruel. A diary has none of the sweetness of nostalgia and little to do with the sentiments that lock certain moments into the patchwork of the mind’s eye to become a memory. A diary is not about the past; it’s about the present, a record of precisely what you are getting through or over, trying to savor or avoid, at the very moment you are doing it. If memory stores the spirit of our experiences, then a diary, in its bona fide physical existence, surely retains the flesh and blood.
Some trips are worth a bumpy ride; some vaccinations are worth the risk of lifelong paralysis. I read my diaries. I read six years of them in two days. The earliest ones held few surprises and were somewhat discomfiting, but twelve-year-olds tend to be petty and thirteen-year-olds are usually self-involved. It was the diaries from age fourteen to eighteen that lay beyond tidy generalizations. Not that my adolescence was so different from anyone else’s. None of us is prepared for the hormonal heresy of puberty, and each of us finds our own particular way of getting through it. My strategy was to write things down. Whenever I felt trapped or bored and had a pen and a scrap of paper with a decent margin (school handouts, church bulletins, discarded grocery lists, my diary), I wrote, to no one in particular, about what I thought, saw, dreamed of, overheard, worried over, and obsessed upon: God, sex, and the whole messy endeavor of trying to hold my own and create my own identity. If the circumstances of my life got particularly dire, I wrote directly to Jesus.
The charismatic (and where I grew up, common) brand of Christianity into which I was reborn as a teenager was nothing less than my lifeboat, a kind of calm, steady source of reassurance that the creator of the universe was intimately involved with the ongoing struggles of my friendships, my hair, my love life, and the not insignificant concern I had for my family. It also allowed me to cultivate, in my most private self, a species of hope on which I rely stillI learned to pray. Eventually, it was the solace of prayer that gave me the courage necessary to abandon evangelical presumption, a leap that is not for the weak of heart. It was still some time before I began to understand that life is not inherently noble, that dignity is not guaranteed by piety, and that love, though the greatest of human virtues, is also the most elusive and inextricably connected to loss. How long did that take? Years. A blink. The whole of my life.
In a town like monroe, children form bonds early and usually according to age, neighborhood, and how your family spends its free time. When I was growing up, loyalties shifted subtly from year to year, or sometimes week to week, but we were the same friends at eighteen that we were at age seven. We ate at the same burger joints, swam in the same backyard pools, attended the same birthday parties, and joined the same church youth groups. And we were all white.
Some people, including my own children, have the mistaken idea that when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, things began to change. They didn’t. Not for a very long time and never in the ways that they could have. By the 1970s, the public schools in Monroe were beginning to integrate, but cultural segregation remained as distinct as the railroad tracks that divided the white side of town from its mirror community of churches, homes, and shops on the black side. In the economically dominant white neighborhood where I lived, the emblems of the defeated Confederacy were ubiquitous and accorded a reverence similar to the heroics of Washington and the miseries of Jobmaking it very difficult to grasp the South’s morally corrupt past. The black kids who sat next to me in the first integrated classrooms at Robert E. Lee Junior High surely had a wholly different view of our overlapping history and well understood the tinderbox of the historic moment we shared, but in the diaries, it is shockingly clear that I did not. Following the lead of my parents, I was naively optimistic, not only about desegregation, but about the country in general, a luxury afforded me by the color of my skin and my family’s economic security. At my house, history was discussed, but never politics. I was raised believing that good always won out, that anti-Semitism died with Hitler, and prejudice was an immature attitude that people were bound to outgrow. It was only after I left home, and Monroe, that I began to understand how little I understood about so much. I did have my moment of revelation about racial divisions and distrust in the American South, but it did not happen while I was in high school.
I wrote a lot about boys. Attraction, sex, desire, rejection, love, and loneliness were preoccupations, and quite a few boys moved in and out of my at first nonexistent and then weirdly elastic romantic reach. There were nonstarters like Cliff and Vernon, then the smooth-talking Tony, my buddy Edgar Napoleon, the delinquent Beau, the offending Chris, and the seductive Dash. There was, of course, Mitch, the flirtatious boy in the boat, who was bright and swaggering, with unruly dark hair and a winning grin. He captured my eye early on and later, a piece of my heart. And the only boyfriend besides Mitch who mattered was Jackson Bishop.
I was not the only person crazy in love with Jackson. He was tall and towheaded and had warm brown eyes with a mesmerizing effect on girls and boys alike. When I first met Jackson, I was fourteen with a full set of braces on my teeth, and he was sixteen and already had a coterie of current and ex-girlfriends. He could play the piano as well as he played fullback; he wore blue-and-white checkered platform shoes, quoted Frost, and was fervently devoted to his dog. Jackson was not only popular, he was out of the ordinary. He was also a close friend of the boy I considered my oldest friend, my next-door neighbor Tommy.
Tommy Townsend and I grew up in each other’s kitchens, privy to our mothers’ gossip and ordering our younger brothers around like ancillary staff. We had mutual childhood serial obsessions: bird nests, Barbie dolls, chemistry sets, and the migration paths of butterflies. By high school, Tommy was over six feet tall, but he didn’t care for rough sports, killing deer, or driving Broncos in the mud. He was friendly and a little goofy, though no goofier than I, only friendlier. Because Tommy was a grade ahead of me in school, we were never in the same classes, and outside of our mutual affection for Jackson, we tended to keep other friendships separate. Ours was a familiarity born in the boredom of summer afternoons and cemented in the sneaky behavior of the night. At the end of the day, we were never farther apart than a walk across the driveway.
Pam, Wanda, Betsy, and Angela were the girlfriends with whom I was bunched daily in carpools and classrooms. Pam was the tallest and loudest, the only girl in the eighth grade who polished her shoes, painted her fingernails, and cussed like a fighter pilot. She was also the only person I knew with divorced parents, the closest thing to worldly sophistication that I was exposed to until college. Pam’s mother’s household was familiarly strict, but at her father’s home, we snuck swigs of bourbon and gawked at Playboy magazines unsupervised. Wanda, who introduced me to the magic of black light and Bill Withers, had impressively curvy hips. Once, while her parents were away on vacation, she painted her entire bedroom lime green. I didn’t get to know Betsy well until high school. She was a year older, slim and pretty, and walked with the upright posture and turned-out feet of a dancer. Rare among teenagers, Betsy had an unyielding hopefulness.
We all laughed a lot, but only Angela laughed gently. She tucked her chin, lowered her eyes, and chuckled. I loved Angela in a more complicated way than I did the rest of my girlfriends. Maybe, or maybe not, because we were blood relatives, our mothers were sisters and we shared a grandmotherMomma Doll. Angela’s mother, my Aunt Lou, had moods that swung on a long rope with a tentative link to real events. When Aunt Lou wasn’t raucous or eager to go shopping, she was wringing her hands and walking the floor. Angela, by contrast, was unrivaled in her modesty and discipline. She made excellent grades, counted her calories, kept her tan even, and planned her outfits to the smallest accessory. Everything I know about hairspray, perfume, tampons, and panty hose, I learned from my cousin Angela.
During the early part of high school, I belonged to a prayer group. These purposeful gatherings were my first exposure to serious discussion and debate over questions of truth, spirituality, and moral intention, and I was entranced. Moreover, I was enraptured by the emotionality that we, as a group, could generate. But the arc of my spiritual life did not begin in that prayer group, or in any other sort of group. It began in the woods, while I was alone and usually on horseback.
Parts of the hundreds of acres of woods behind my home were as well known to me as the streets and backyards of my neighborhood, but since the forest lay in the undeveloped floodplain of the river and surrounding bayous, the land was constantly being altered and reshaped by the change of seasons and corresponding rise and fall of water. Candy, a gentle paint mare, was my first pony and I rode her bareback because in those early elementary school years I was too small to lift a saddle on my own. When I was in the eighth grade, I inherited Rex, a handsome sorrel-colored gelding, from my older sister Stella, who had gone off to college. Rex was taller and stronger than the average horse, and faster, too. He had a wide white blaze and black eyes that could register intense curiosity, fear, and mischief. He was easily bored and wickedly smart. It is the miracle of animal domestication that a puny adolescent girl could control, even dominate, a horse like Rex, but as any rider will tell you, that control could not have existed without mutual trust and constant communication. I spent uncountable hours for many years roaming, inspecting, and exploring the woods on Candy or Rex, and always with my sad-eyed black-and-tan mutt named Honey running close behind. Sometimes I rode in a headlong rush, sometimes with cultivated patience. At times I lost myself in awe. This is why, in the diary, I write about talking to my horses and feeling understood. Because there were defining moments in my life that I shared with only those animals. Because it was in the woods with my horse and my dog where the searching began, and where the question of God first rose in my body as easy as breath.
The story my diaries tell is a quarter century gone. It’s not complicated, dramatic, or epic, but things happened. Set against the backdrop of the Deep South in the 1970s, fundamentalist Christianity, school desegregation, sexual revolution, and the invention of childproof caps, it is still only my story, my teetering teenage sanity hanging in the balance of ordinary daily decisions, good and bad luck. And though my adolescence was particular, it was certainly not unique. With so many things happening for the first time, teenagers are well aware of the intensity of their feelings, but most are unable to grasp the long-lasting influence those feelings wield. Science and the adult world, however, know the seminal power of teenage emotion to be plain, road-tested, biological fact. And we even know why. We know that in those outrageously prolonged adolescent years, of what we only later recognize to be brief and fast-moving lives, it is precisely in the not knowing that our emotions have their power, their risk of ruin, and the potential to set us free.Dr. Tom SartorMrs. Bobbie Sue SartorMy First DiaryMy cousin Clara and Tommy and me in my bedroom Angela, me (with Rex), and my cousin Ann on the levee behind my house