SCOTT SIMON, host:
Montgomery, Louisiana is the kind of medium size, Deep Southern town, of which a lot of people, including the ones who live there, say nothing ever happens here. Margaret Sartor used to say that. She now teaches at the Duke University Center of Documentary Studies and has rethought her adolescence in Montgomery. She's put together a diary of her teenage years from actual notebooks, letters, and poems that she wrote between the time she got her first set of curlers to the day she went off to college. She introduces herself to us: January 3, 1972.
Prof. MARGARET SARTOR (Duke University): My name is Margaret Erling(ph) Sartor. I'm in the seventh grade at Robert E. Lee Junior High in Montgomery, Louisiana, the United States of America, the earth, the universe. I am bored out of my mind.
January 4th, Joey broke up with Pam. She cried a lot.
January 5th, cut my hair in a shag.
January 8th, Honey had nine puppies.
January 16th, the shag isn't working.
January 20th, found four beer cans in the woods near the Indian mound.
January 22nd, Wanda said Mike kissed her. Mike is this real old guy that has a horse at the stables and he rode with Wanda out in the woods and grabbed her.
January 24th, puppies opened eyes. I wish I had a best friend.
SIMON: That is Margaret Sartor, who joins us from New Orleans. Truth is everything happens in Montgomery, Louisiana. Margaret Sartor's critically acclaimed book is called Miss American Pie: A Diary of Love, Secrets and Growing Up in the 1970s. Ms. Sartor, thanks so much for being with us.
Prof. SARTOR: It's my pleasure, Scott. Thank you for inviting me.
SIMON: Now, you're a documentarian, when did you get - first get the idea that your diaries and letters might have something to say to a larger audience?
Prof. SARTOR: Well, I first thought of looking at diaries - a few years I was trying to write an essay about my photographs and I've been photographing my family and hometown now for a while, I suppose 15 years or so, and in doing that I was having some trouble capturing what it felt like to grow up there, and then I thought of the diaries, and I went and dug them out.
I don't think it's the particular events in my life that caught my eye when I started to read them, it was the voice of the young girl who wrote them, really. And as a documentarian, this was something I could step back from I think fairly quickly. Although looking at it personally, you know, that was - well, it was exhausting and heartbreaking and hilarious and all those things, reading it, but it was the candor of a girl growing up talking to herself in ways, of course, that she could not speak to other people as she was living her life. So early on, that was what got me going anyway.
SIMON: I notice you refer to - you refer to a girl or that girl...
Prof. SARTOR: Yeah.
SIMON: ...as opposed to me.
Prof. SARTOR: Right.
SIMON: Is that conscious or is that how you see this girl in this diary now?
Prof. SARTOR: I think at a certain point I had to step back, let me put it that way. It was more like an epiphany. It was more like suddenly I realized that this girl - it was me, but it was not me. In other words, I am the woman this girl became, but she could've become other people, and the way I see the world is not the same as she sees it. I don't even see the events of her life as she experiences them anymore, the way that she sees them or saw them then. So suddenly she became she, and I think in allowing that separation to happen, I was able to actually do the book. I'm not sure that I could've waded through all that territory, emotional territory, if I hadn't stepped outside a little bit.
SIMON: If I could get you to read another section, your holiday season of 1973.
Prof. SARTOR: December 22nd, I had (bleep) time tonight at the White Rose Ball. Mitch barely talked to me and we spent most of the time watching Tony get his car unstuck from the mud. The best part was that no one vomited on me.
December 25th, I got my own stereo and I am so happy. Tommy came over and brought his Barbra Streisand records and we had a fantastic time talking about my horrible date last weekend. Went over to Mama Doll's for Christmas dinner.
December 28th, Ian came over and we listened to Don McLean's American Pie over and over and tried to figure what all the lyrics meant. Ian said I was Miss American Pie. I think he was stoned.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Your best friend in the world in those days was the boy who lived next door, Tommy.
Prof. SARTOR: Yeah.
SIMON: And without getting ahead of ourselves, say for people in your immediate family, he might be your best friend in the world today.
Prof. SARTOR: He is my best friend in the world today. I suppose no one knows me better than he does.
SIMON: Well, bring me back to the time when you were 13 and 14, I guess, and he would leave notes on your door and you would find it just - you would find it just very natural to walk into each other's bedroom, even the bathroom on a couple of occasions.
Prof. SARTOR: Always. Isn't that amazing? I thought it was sort of amazing at the time, since no other boy was allowed in my bedroom with the door closed. Of course later I figured out why my mother didn't worry about that. She was aware of things that I wasn't aware of. But we were not brother and sister, but our mothers - and this is the key thing, our mothers are and were best friends. And these were women who had - both had doctors for husbands, who worked long hours, each of them had a house full of children, and they were sticking us in the bathtub together when we were, you know, little, so they could have a conversation.
SIMON: But you get to adolescence and the two of you wonder, all throughout the few years of this diary, if we're such good friends, how come we're not, or shouldn't we be something in addition to being good friends.
Prof. SARTOR: Yes, I think I wondered about it more than he did, because he seemed to have everything to me. He was my perfect friend. And yet there wasn't that chemistry, which I was very aware was necessary to, you know, the romantic side of a relationship. We did not have that, and we talked about it. It's - yes, it's in the book. He, you know, sometimes wished it was there and I wished it were there and yet it wasn't. This didn't hold us back from being intimate. Our intimacy is there in every other aspect of our lives.
SIMON: Maybe the longest section of prose, it's from I guess 1974, you found God. Can I get you to read that section?
Prof. SARTOR: Okay, this is March 1, 1974 and I'm 14 years old. Someone said, pray, Margaret, pray out loud, pray in a heavenly language if you want to, do you want to? I thought, me? Say Abba, Margaret, it means father in Hebrew, and then I did. I just let the words come, let them flow, and it didn't need to be explained to me because I could hardly restrain it. My spirit was in control. I began to let the words flow and the words weren't mine. They were words I didn't know, had never heard. They were being spoken by me. I could control the speed and the tone of my voice, but the words were not coming from my mind. It was such a release.
I felt I was talking face to face with God Almighty himself. I moved back into the circle of people, tears pouring down my face. Tommy put his arms around me. He was crying too. It seemed everyone was crying. On the way home, Tommy told me the same thing had happened to him two days ago, but he hadn't told me because he was afraid I might not come to the meetings. He said, we have been born again. There's a sense of peace in me right now, but I can't deny the doubts I have, the temptations the Devil is already putting in my mind. So I keep praying to help me believe this is real.
SIMON: To read the section, you get a sense of this young girl and her friend, Tommy, being connected to history, being connected to world. But when you talk about finding yourself, you try and understand this girl's emotions and it's not only that she's found herself, she's found herself fitting into the billions that have preceded her and will follow her.
Prof. SARTOR: Oh, my gosh, yeah, you said it, you said it very well. Because I think as a teenager what you struggle with is a sense of not fitting in and that's terrifying because you don't know who you are, at least I didn't know who I was, but I knew I didn't fit in exactly. I think Tommy also felt that from an early age in our community. And so to have people put their arms around you, so it was an emotional embracing, but it was a physical embracing as well that this group, this prayer group, gave us.
It was intoxicating and it gave us a larger sense that yes, you know, there were bigger meanings, there was a bigger world and bigger ideas, so that our small pains that hurt, we can always turn then to this idea, well, you know, there's a larger purpose. That was a comforting thought.
SIMON: Your father, as I've guess you've noted, your father a doctor, a mother - mother an artist, who in a sense interrupted that, although she painted most every day to raise a family. I want to get you to read a section which I think is an insight into your father. Your high school was being desegregated at that point. Your parents, your family, were among those people in town that were saying essentially, look, it's the law of the land, it's how we live, it's fine, don't get carried away about it.
And yet, of course, you still strongly get a sense of their being two communities that even in the same school are largely separate from each other. Could I get you to read this section?
Prof. SARTOR: So this is April 18, 1974. Daddy thinks 14 is too young to go steady. He says I will meet lots of boys and I have to do what he says. I asked him what would he say if I had a date with a black boy and he answered, I could go out with any boy, as long as the boy was polite and showed up at the front door and had taken a bath. I just don't see how parents think they have the right to tell you what to do.
I can even remember that conversation. It resonated profoundly with me when he said, you know, you can go out with anyone. It just still says a lot to me.
SIMON: I want to talk about boys.
Prof. SARTOR: Okay.
SIMON: You and boys.
Prof. SARTOR: Okay.
Prof. SARTOR: Okay, okay.
SIMON: You ask your mother's advice at one point and she says, I think it's about Mitch, and she says, well, you have to ask, it's not for real.
Prof. SARTOR: Yeah, that was smart. That made me think. I think the next entry is, I have been avoiding Mitch.
I think she was right there. It's so hard and it was so hard for me at that time, and it didn't make sense until later when I actually met the man that I'm now married to and I've been married over 20 years, and I get it now. I know what love is. Once you find it, you do know and my mother and father were in love with each other. They actually had one of those marriages where they were really in love, and I could tell. I could tell they were in love, so I thought they could tell me what it was. It turns out they had different ideas about what love was, but...
SIMON: Tell that story if you could, your father's description of love and then your mother's.
Prof. SARTOR: I remember leaning on the golf club and yeah, it was like in that movie he said where they say, love means never having to say you're sorry. And then the next day, I'd go into the laundry room and my mother's ironing and I tell her what daddy said to me and she paused and then she looked up and she said, that line never did make any sense to me.
That's pretty much my parents in a nutshell.
SIMON: Do you still keep a diary?
Prof. SARTOR: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I'm not sure I would know how to live without keeping a diary, or it's just become such a natural part of what I do. I don't think about it and I think I rely on it. I rely on that conversation, that safe conversation, that private conversation with myself to answer questions that you could only answer by looking within yourself. So the diary is my window in.
SIMON: Margaret, it's been wonderful talking to you, thank you.
Prof. SARTOR: I've enjoyed it. Thank you so much.
SIMON: Margaret Sartor's book is Miss American Pie: A Diary of Love, Secrets and Growing Up in the '70s. To read an excerpt of the book and to find out her favorite song in 1972, may not be what you think it is, you can come to our Web site, NPR.org.
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