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Will Know Me
Smith's memoir Name All the Animals covers the years of her adolescence
from the time that her elder brother Roy was killed in a camper van crash up to
her graduation from high school. Her parents coped with their grief with their
devout Roman Catholic belief, but they never talked about any painful or
difficult feelings. For years after Roy's death, Alison would secret away her
dinner food in a paper bag on her lap and then while her parents were watching
the evening news, she would sneak out to the fort she and Roy had built in the
garden, and she would leave the food for him. In the morning, it would be
gone. She copied his journal and pasted up pages on the inside walls of the fort.
She went to local used book stores to find duplicate copies of the books had in
his bedroom, and she put these duplicates up on shelves in the fort. Smith
became extremely thin because she was not eating enough, keeping her food for
her dead brother instead. In a way, her behavior mirrored her mother's, since
her mother went out and bought a camper van to replace the one that had been
destroyed in the crash just weeks after the tragedy. She equipped it with all
the supplies that had been lost in the accident, taking days to replace
everything down to the smallest detail. Her mother's capacity for denial had
long been a family joke. Whenever she heard someone say something she didn't
like, she simply commented "you did not say that," and she would walk
away. A couple of years after the accident, her mother became very concerned
about her daughter's emotional health, and read Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' On Death
and Dying. She came to the conclusion that Alison should talk about her
feelings, and hounded her every evening to say what she was feeling. When
Alison finally tells how much she misses her brother and how she wishes she had
been with him in the van when he was killed, her mother stopped asking how she
the weeks after Roy's death proceeded, Smith began to feel that God had
abandoned her, and gradually, for a number of reasons, Smith started to
question her Church's teachings. She went to a Catholic high school, Our Lady
of Mercy, and was taught by nuns. Smith became known as the girl whose brother
had died, and she is treated with a mixture of compassion and care. She is not
allowed to take the same risks as other girls, because she is the girl whose
brother died. This isolates her further from the other girls, and she becomes
more of an outsider. When a new girl Terry arrives at school, Smith is drawn
to her, and the two spend lots of time together. The friendship evolves into
romance, and Terry becomes Alison's first love. The two of them play a
dangerous game, risking expulsion and family wrath to meet in secret. The
intensity of their relationship transforms Alison's life, but it also deepened
the divide between her and her parents and other friends.
writes in lyrical prose, and often her memoir seems more like a novel. She
provides details so small that it would be virtually impossible to remember them,
things like their facial expressions, their clothes, their mannerisms, and
exactly what they said, and so it feels as if she is using a creative license
in her prose. What's more, the events themselves have a dramatic aspect that
give them the air of a carefully constructed story. The day before Roy's death,
Alison got her first period, and when skating at a local rink, she noticed a
drop of blood on the ice. Alison's forbidden teenage lesbian relationship at
Our Lady of Mercy School almost smacks of cliché. However, the story is so
powerful and her telling of it so moving that the literary feel to the writing
does not undermine the experience of reading or listening to the abridged audiobook.
Smith herself reads the audio version of the book, and her reading is slightly
hushed and monotone, but the fact that it is her story adds to the effect of
family ultimately copes with its loss and the gulf between her and her parents
ceases to threaten a split between them, although they never engaged in therapy
or sought any professional help. Smith herself is a keen observer of her
family and she has a striking ability to convey her own feelings to the reader.
Name All the Animals is one of the most distinctive memoirs of teenage
grief and emerging sexuality available.
© 2004 Christian Perring. All
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He
is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research
is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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