Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This is one of the best memoirs I have ever read. I was so blown away by Dorothy Allison's writing that it felt like she had lobbed a grenade into the room, exploding with beautiful and haunting language.
The memoir tells the story of Dorothy's family and her childhood in rural South Carolina. The title comes from something her Aunt Dot used to say: "Lord, girl, there's only two or three things I know for sure ... Only two or three things. That's right. Of course it's never the same things, and I'm never as sure as I'd like to be."
This is how the memoir begins:
"'Let me tell you a story,' I used to whisper to my sisters, hiding with them behind the red-dirt bean hills and row on row of strawberries. My sisters' faces were thin and sharp, with high cheekbones and restless eyes, like my mama's face, my aunt Dot's, my own. Peasants, that's what we are and always have been. Call us the lower orders, the great unwashed, the working class, the poor, proletariat, trash, lowlife and scum. I can make a story out of it, out of us. Make it pretty or sad, laughable or haunting. Dress it up with legend and aura and romance. 'Let me tell you a story,' I'd begin, and start another one. When we were small, I could catch my sisters the way they caught butterflies, capture their attention and almost make them believe that all I said was true."
Isn't that a fantastic opening? This memoir is slim, only 94 pages, but it was so powerful that I had to set the book down a few times to ponder it, or I would stop and reread a page to fully appreciate a lovely phrasing. While there is a lot of sadness in this book, especially when she writes about her mother or the abuse Dorothy suffered as a child, overall her voice was confident and inspiring. The book includes photographs of Dorothy and her family, and those black-and-white pictures added even more depth to the stories.
Throughout the memoir, Dorothy ends a section with something she's learned. These morals were always well-written, and I could imagine this piece being incredibly moving if performed live, with the repetition and the beats of those sayings. These were some of my favorites:
"Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that no one is as hard as my uncles had to pretend to be."
"Two or three things I know for sure, and one is that I would rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me."
"Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that if we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form."
Besides being a good memoir about the American South, I also appreciated that it was about a writer finding herself, and how she tried to make peace with her unhappy past. I may only know two or three things, but one of them is that I cannot wait to read more of Dorothy Allison's books.
"Women lose their lives not knowing they can do something different. Men eat themselves up believing they have to be the thing they have been made. Children go crazy. Really, even children go crazy, believing the shape of the life they must live is as small and mean and broken as they are told. Oh, I could tell you stories that would darken the sky and stop the blood. The stories I could tell no one would believe. I would have to pour blood on the floor to convince anyone that every word I say is true. And then? Whose blood would speak for me?"