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Dorothy Allison Two or Three Things I Know for Sure

Updated on November 10, 2014

The Therapeutic Nature of Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure

Writing takes the form of therapy for victims of various forms of abuse. By consciously attacking these abusive experiences, writers come to soothing and healing conclusions that aid them in moving on from traumatic events. Moving on from traumatic events does not mean that they are completely forgotten; it does mean that writers are able to make sense of their behaviors that are rooted in the events and openly write about the occurrences without shame or censor. Baranow, Dolan, and Watts state that one has the mental power to create peptides that contribute to emotional stability. They refer to the said peptides as “biochemical manifestations of emotions” that have the ability to chemically transform actions while altering mood states (8). This is the biological description of what takes place when one writes as a form of therapy.

Specifically, when women are abused, they experience a plethora of feelings and transformations with which members of the patriarchal society, who subscribe to and promote oppressive and domineering beliefs, may not be able to connect. When Audre Lorde refers to female abusive experiences, she states: “You’ll always have the pain, you may as well use it” (Desalvo 12). When the said women come to a point in their lives where they are able to express the experiences and feelings related to these negative encounters, their writing styles often appeal to mainly women. This is referred to as being expressed from a gynocentric perspective. Sketches of the Y zone’s feminine experience are apparent in Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. Allison addresses the feminine challenges of being raped, a lesbian, and physically abused in the Y zone of the writing experience by redefining what society, in general, defines as disgusting and taboo; in the essence of her writing is the illustration of how she moves from an incomplete self to a wholly healed human being, displaying the therapeutic nature of writing.

Elaine Showalter illustrates the cultural model of gynocentrism. This requires a look at literature from the female cultural perspective. This perspective illustrates the feminine culture as being unified and pro-female. The feminine culture embodies emblematic representations of the female cultural experience of which Showalter refers to as the wild or Y zone of experience. The Y zone of experience demonstrates an opposing position to the patriarchal tradition. Showalter asserts that the female is a part of a silent group who has boundaries where culture and reality intersect; here is where the concept of the female “wild zone” comes into play (200). This gynocentric perspective also encompasses being able to illustrate biological experiences that are unique to women. Wilfred Guerin notes that Showalter refers to the biological aspect of the Y zone of experience as writing that reflects the illustration of the physical experiences of the female body. This style of writing does not limit women to simple depictions of their physical being but also encompasses descriptions of biological functions and changes that are limited to female groups. Showalter commends female writers who are able to depict these biological and physical experiences that are unique to the female body in forthright and raw tones (225). On Allison’s path to healing, she documents a pain that she feels in the coccyx of her body. She roughly illustrates and implies that this disconnection within her body is the result of the penetration that she endures as a young girl by her stepfather.

In blatantly referencing the physical effects of being raped by her stepfather on her body, she enters into Showalter’s Y zone of experience while on her healing path. This path to healing is apparent both physically and emotionally in Allison’s writing. According to Linda Myers, focusing on the truth leads one to healing in the physical and emotional sense (8). There is evidence in Two or Three Things I Know for Sure that Allison finds physical healing along with the healing of her emotional being. Allison writes about taking a Karate class to spite the sensei who she thinks is sexist; however, she turns out to be wrong about him. He brings his wife to teach one of the classes as a guest, and during this session, she realizes that “Something disconnected from the coccyx that was shattered” (Allison 64) when she was a little girl. Myers goes on to assert that remembrances of past occurrences give rise to perceptions of the past that one may not be able to illustrate or realize without documenting accounts of one’s life (8). Through writing her memoir, Allison realizes that this is the day she is able to break free of the bonds of her past. She is running and struggling that day; however, when she breaks free, her mind takes over the physical constraints of her body. As a result, she performs better and reaches beyond her self perceived ability.

When writing to effect healing in one’s life, a focus must be on the truth. Focusing on the truth means that one does not hold anything back. The product is bare-boned and raw; there is no room to be conservative when employing this type of writing, especially in a memoir. Allison’s writing bares this form of truth to the reader; observe: “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” (Allison 1). Here Allison refers to herself and her family. She is blatantly honest about who they are, how they are seen, and how they see themselves. In being honest, she enhances her healing path.

In accordance with this honesty, Allison writes of always being the one to run away from herself and her issues; in pondering this self characteristic, she realizes that her mother, aunts, and cousins do not run away from who they are or from their problems. Observe: “My mama did not run away. My aunt Dot and aunt Grace and cousin Billie with her near dozen children-they did not run. They learned resilience and determination and the cost of hard compromises” (Allison 4). Here Allison looks at her relatives’ behaviors as a comparison to her own. In looking at the difficult situations with which her relatives have to contend, she is forced to move to the next logical step in questioning herself as to why she runs away. This leads her down the road of self realization and acceptance of some unattractive facts.

According to Christine Massey, a common theme in Allison’s writing includes focusing on rape, paucity, and physical abuse. Massey also notes that her perception is that Allison continuously relives these unfortunate events through her writing process. From Massey’s perspective, the fact that Allison constantly revisits these topics is evidence that she is not in a healed state (4). However, Allison’s text does have evidence of healing. Just because one discusses rape, poverty, and physical abuse in a variety of literary pieces does not mean that one is stuck in the mud of PTSD. This is Allison’s means of continuously breaking the silence that is characteristic of women who have suffered such abusive states of existence; furthermore, repeatedly revisiting these topics imparts others’ ears to open to the female oppressive experience. In addition, continuously sharing these experiences in various forums increases the probability of aiding other victims in opening up to the healing process and leaving self blame in the closet of society. These are aspects of Allison’s thematic repetition that Massey overlooks in her criticism of Allison’s work.

In furtherance of the healing aspect of Allison’s writing, her writing facilitates the cure of her habit of running from who she is as a human being. People sometimes do not like to accept all that they are because it is difficult to accept the dire along with the good characteristics of one’s being. Allison notes, “Women run away because they must, I ran because if I had not, I would have died. No one told me that you take your world with you, that running becomes a habit, that the secret to running is to know why you run…and to leave behind the reason you run” (Allison 4). Allison runs from her abusive past; however, she does not find happiness on her various journeys. Her happiness emerges when she begins to document the ugly nature of that part of her past of which she would like to forget. Part of identifying the ugliness and working through the hold that it has on her is rooted in scrutinizing the unfortunate events through writing which is therapeutic.

In addition to confronting her tendency to run from the past, she confronts social taboos through the writing process. There is a social taboo related to talking about molestation. One even observes the remnants of this taboo when making reference to having forced sex with a child in the word molestation. As opposed to using the word rape, molestation is used. One may question whether the word molestation sounds less harsh than rape. According to Elizabeth Barnes, part of this taboo can be attributed to the fact that patriarchal societies teach women silence. Women are conditioned not to speak out loud about such sexual abuse (8). Women are not supposed to openly discuss their rapes because it makes people uncomfortable. This uncomfortable feeling is rooted in thinking of rape as a sexual act; however, rape is an act of violence and dominance. When women do speak out about rape, people should not blush; on the contrary, they should be disgusted with the offender and incensed by his or her actions. Where does this embarrassment come from, and where has it led us as a country?

In the United States, a “rape culture” is openly apparent. The disgust that many should feel toward a rapist is shifted onto the victim. According to Sanchez and Hudgins, females are more likely to be exposed to repeated incidents of rape because of patriarchal societal constructs (1151-52). Judith Herman asserts that revamping perspectives on how society views female abuse is necessary because the social and political issues related to female abuse exacerbates the events to the point where the effects of female sexual abuse is akin to the PTSD that soldiers who return from war display. She further contends that “When the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child), she may find that the most traumatic events of her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality. Her experience becomes unspeakable” (Herman 8). Allison openly addresses this distorted societal structure in her writing. She writes, “Behind my carefully buttoned collar is my nakedness, the struggle to find clean clothes, food, meaning, and money. Behind sex is rage, behind anger is love, behind this moment is silence, years of silence. The man raped me. It’s the truth. It’s a fact” (Allison 39). Here Allison describes the silence that she once felt in not being able to talk about her stepfather rapping her; however, she eventually gets to a point where she is able to openly discuss the events that started when she was five years old in her writing. She is able to heal herself of the ill-effects of silence by openly using the hush term, “rape”, for what it is.

She finds healing in writing about her rape as a child and in verbally stating that she was raped as a child. She does not even attempt to utilize the word molestation, a word which seems to take away the sting from such an occurrence. In this case, linguistic reference is important to waking people to the impact of child rape. Allison is also able to further address members of the “rape culture”. Specifically, she addresses the psychologist who tells her not to speak so openly because people will associate rape with becoming a lesbian. Allison realizes that the fact that she needs to address her rape is more important than worrying about what people will make of her being a lesbian. Although it is necessary to address people who tend to group lesbians into a box of women who have been abused in some manner by a man, she realizes that she cannot even get to a point where she is able to confidently address such contentions until she heals herself of the past. In selecting this mode of writing, a mode that often makes others uncomfortable, she crosses into the Y zone of expression and speaks to other women who understand her point in repeatedly saying “rape”. Observe:

For years every time I said it, said “rape” and “child” in the same terrible sentence, I would feel the muscles of my back and neck pull as taut as the string of a kite straining against the wind. That wind would blow and I would resist, then suddenly feel myself loosed to fall or flee. I started saying those words to get to that release, that feeling of letting go, of setting loose both the hatred and the fear. The need to tell my story was terrible and persistent, and I needed to say it bluntly and cruelly, to use all those words, thosef old awful tearing words. (Allison 42).

Here Allison expresses how she looses herself from the silence that constrains her life. She is now able to openly speak of her rape using the terms that fit the crime that was committed upon her person. In doing so, she also frees herself from the bondage of the impression that living in a “rape culture” has on her psyche, for she comes to realize that she has actually been assaulted two-fold. One assault occurs when her stepfather uses her body as though she is an adult, and the second assault occurs when society requests her silence regarding the previous assault.

Dorothy Allison

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Another aspect of the therapeutic nature of Allison’s writing rests with her analysis of her family members. In analyzing her family members through her writing, she is able to identify negative characteristics that developed in other family members and avoid adopting them. Of her mother’s reaction to her father leaving, she says, “And when he ran away, left her to raise me alone, she never trusted any man again-but wanted to, wanted to so badly it ate the heart out of her” (Allison 21). Her mother is conflicted with her hate for her father and not being able to trust other men. This leaves her in a state of unhappy solitude; she does have her children, but she is without an adult companion. Initially, Allison inherits this inability to trust other human beings as companions: “It was always there for me, deflecting my rage toward people who knew nothing about what had happened to me or why I should be angry at them” (Allison 43). Allison admits that she grows into a bitter person who is untrusting until she finds a way to heal.

The healing that she discovers is in her writing. She begins to look back on her relationship with her family, and in constructing her autobiography, she changes as a human being. In her writing, she is not focused on changing those around her; however, she is focused on becoming more tolerable and kind to herself. Observe: “For years and years, I convinced myself that I was unbreakable, an animal with an animal strength or something not human at all” (Allison 38). Here Allison uses the Y-zone of the female experience to illustrate the outcome of living in an abusive and marginalized family. This is a perspective that illustrates that, as a woman who is the product of abuse, she is in a sense animalistic in nature. Baring in mind that this animalism has absolutely nothing to do with her sexual preference, a gynocentric perspective yields that Allison is focused on her role as a victim in her life as opposed to focusing on her right to be free of the effects of her abusive experiences and the needs that she has as a woman in order to overcome them.

At this point in her life, she does not act like a human being because she has been violated. These violations have denied her access to even feeling like a human being because her human needs have not been tended. She notes this in the following quote: “That’s the mean story. That’s the lie I told myself for years, and not until I began to fashion stories on the page did I sort it all out, see where the lie ended and a broken life remained” (Allison 38). When Allison is able to stop lying to herself about the state of her being, she is able to cross over into the Y-zone of the feminine existence. Once she arrives in Showalter’s Y-zone, she is able to deconstruct those horrible experiences as a woman and discontinue their abusive control of her. The control that these horrible experiences have over her is abusive because they cause her constant pain, and she transfers that pain onto others who attempt to get close to her. Furthermore, she transfers that pain onto herself in subconsciously believing that she does not deserve a person who is actually worthy of being her partner. She notes selecting partners who value her even less than she values them. For the most part, the focus between herself and those with whom she is intimate is on the act of sex, and neither of the parties involved have the capacity to delve any deeper into a relationship.

Through her literary exploration, Allison realizes that she, in essence, takes advantage of women by becoming involved with them as though she is able to help those who are broken when the truth is that she cannot even help herself. Allison illustrates that sex is the only thing she has to offer these women. She is obviously severely impacted by her past sexual abuse. According to Briere and Elliott, sexual abuse survivors display behaviors of anger and often do not have a sense of self. Survivors also experience bouts of emotional numbness where they are unable to emotionally connect to others (58-59). Allison realizes that she experiences emotional numbness when she writes: “Love was a curse that had somehow skipped me…Sex was a country I had been dragged into as an unwilling girl…Sex was a game or a weapon or an addiction. Sex was familiar. But love-love was another country” (Allison 55). Allison is unable to emotionally relate to the women she dates, for she is still stuck in the world of her rape. The sex that she knows as a rape victim is the sex that she comes to know as an adult, and it is sex without emotional attachment or true intimacy.

There is a misconception that exists regarding lesbian relationships, and that misconception is rooted in the belief that two women are attentive to one another’s emotional needs just because they are women. Allison illustrates that this is indeed a misconception as she openly admits to having sex without an emotional attachment with the women in her life; however, she also illustrates her newfound freedom from this bondage: “I don’t want to wear that coat, to be told what it meant, to be told how it had changed the flesh beneath it, to let myself be made over into my rapist’s creation” (Allison 71). Here Allison expresses how she stripped herself of the strife of a past life. She escapes the bonds of her stepfather’s actions and begins to love herself. She also realizes that in loving herself she is now able to love others.

Remembering that the Y zone of experience is a realm to which prominently women relate. Allison once again crosses over in her discussion of lesbianism in her memoir. She does not disguise her sexuality in the text. Lesbians may experience a since of loss once they accept their sexuality. The since of loss is rooted in the heterosexual format of family relations. In other words, as a lesbian, one may feel that a loss has incurred by not being able to duplicate the heterosexual family structure. According to Betty Berzon, it is highly difficult for many lesbians to abandon this heterosexual thought structure, and it is important to recognize these feelings of loss and find a manner in which to cope with them. She further illustrates that actually accepting that one has these feeling of the loss of the heterosexual structure is not a popular topic of discussion in the LGBT community; however, coming to terms with these feelings is a necessary step to becoming wholly fulfilled human beings (48-49). In Two of Three Things I Know for Sure, Allison does not give the indication that she is mourning this loss of her so called place in the heterosexual structure; she especially does not express any regret or make any apologies for being a lesbian. She says, “I tell stories to prove I was meant to survive. (They are) no Queer Nation broadsides. I am not here to make anyone happy. What I am here for is to claim my life, my mama’s death, our losses and our triumphs, to name them for myself” (Allison 52). At the point where which she writes her memoir, Allison seems confident with who she has become, and she appears confident in her expression of the past as just being a part of who she is and no longer dominating her existence.

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There is evidence in Allison’s writing that she does desire a family; however, there is no evidence that such a family needs to be rooted in the heterosexual dichotomy. Again, Allison crosses into the Y zone of experience with her description of becoming a mother through her sister’s eyes. She does go on to have a son in her 40s, and when she does, she realizes that being a mother is just being a mother. Her sexual identity does not alter the experience. Allison’s sister comes to visit her after she becomes a mother, and she has a conversation with Allison about the lack of sleep involved with having a new baby. She also mentions that a woman undergoes some changes when she becomes a mother; however, she never mentions her sexuality. Years before this event, Allison opens the door for her sister to openly discuss lesbianism with her, and the conversation is short-lived; however, it is a conversation that is initiated by her sister. Allison’s sister knows that the door is open; however, she does not have anything to say regarding her sexuality (Allison 88-89). This is because they both realize that lesbianism does not impact motherhood; it may impact family structure, but motherhood remains in tact. Furthermore, the fact that lesbianism may impact family structures does not constitute differentials from those factors of the heterosexual existence that may impact family structures. The fact that there is no conversation in her memoir regarding lesbianism with a linkage to motherhood is telling within itself; the lack of conversation tells that reader that motherhood is constant regardless of sexuality. This consistency is an apparent and recognizable as a discourse in Showalter’s Y zone of experience.

Allison’s sister comes to accept Allison’s sexuality through a steady development of their relationship. Allison remembers always feeling jealous of her sister’s beauty, and she recalls the fear that is constant in her mother’s eyes when she looks at her sister. This is a fear of what may come to a woman of such beauty in a male dominated society. One day the two of them, Allison and her sister, reveal certain truths to one another. Through these revelations, Allison realizes that her sister hates being beautiful due to the fact that she is often used by other human beings for her beauty. During this conversation, they openly discuss sex, a different conversation than previous ones. The other conversations had previously been conservative and quick. Here the two of them go all out: “She told me she had always hated the sight of her husband’s cock. I told her that sometimes, all these years later, I still wake up crying, not sure what I have dreamed about, but remembering something bad and crying like a child in great pain” (Allison 80). Allison’s sister now reveals to her that she made sure that she was the one who had to interact with their stepfather, confirming that she knew about the sexual abuse. This is the onset of breaking the cycle of abuse through open discussion, and this conversation is an illustration of the Y zone of experience.

Allison realizes when she begins to break harmful family cycles of abuse in her memoir. When she and her sister are talking, her niece asks her mother if she is ok because it seems as though she is about to cry. Her mother dismisses her concern in telling her that everything is fine. Allison can tell that this bothers her niece (Allison 82-85). She witnesses a breakdown in communication that has existed in her family for years, and she takes over and tells her niece stories about her mother that helps to fill the gap of the missing communication between them. She emphasizes to her niece that she is a beautiful girl because her niece resembles her, and she does not want her to think that there is something lacking in her existence. Allison is consciously instilling self-esteem in her niece because she wants to break cycles of miscommunication and the lack self-esteem.

It is common knowledge that children who are products of abusive households sometimes become abusers. If these children are not aware and careful, they will find themselves repeating the behaviors that they know to be damaging to children. Allison becomes aware of this and makes it clear to the reader in her illustration of her interaction with her niece. Through these interactions, Allison appears to break a cycle that previously is commonplace in her family. Observe:

Getting past the anger, getting to the release, I become someone else, and the story changes. I am no longer a grown up outraged child but a woman letting go of her outrage, showing what I know: that evil is a man who imagines the damage he does is not damage, that evil is the act of pretending that some things do not happen or leave no mark if they do, that evil is not what remains when healing becomes possible. (Allison 44).

Here she emphasizes the healing quality of getting past outrage. She also focuses on the healing quality of getting past denial. Pretending that abusive events did not take place in her family circle will only perpetuate the cycle of abuse, and the abuse will continue to hold her family in bondage. With the acceptance that she illustrates in the passage comes freedom from the wrongs of the past and the emergence of a woman who has the experience and ability to guide a young person, such as her niece, into a healthy womanhood.

Allison also illustrates how women have an understanding of men that males often do not recognize for themselves. This is also within the realm of the Y zone of experience. When she writes about her uncles, she expresses their constant need to be macho and feel like they are always in control. As a woman, she sees the true story about her uncles, the untold pain behind their existence. She writes: “The tragedy of the men in my family was silence, a silence veiled by boasting and jokes. If you didn’t look close you might miss the sharp glint of pain in their eyes, the restless angry way they gave themselves up to fate” (Allison 28). In her memoir, she realizes that the one uncle who makes attempts at being the ultimate macho man turns out to be the weakest. When her mother tells him that she worries about him, he replies, “Hell, I’m a man, I can handle it” (Allison 31). Allison’s memorable quote that arises from this interaction is “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” (Allison 32). This particular uncle ends up committing suicide because he pretends he is macho, way too macho to accept the help of a simple conversation to get him through a devastating heartbreak. Allison speaks of macho males, her uncles, through the Y zone of experience in her writing and reveals to herself why they act so hard. They have to live in a patriarchal society, and there is no room for a show of male weakness in such a society.

It is also important to note that part of Allison’s healing process involves debunking victimization. In other words, she does not write her memoir from the standpoint of a victim. She writes from the standpoint of someone who has incurred several challenges in her life, and those challenges have helped to shape who she has become. She is by no means a victim; however, she is a survivor who offers a memoir that may aid others in finding an avenue to leave victimization behind and become whole human beings.

To reiterate, females who live through abusive childhoods experience various emotions and human revolutions within a patriarchal dominated society. When in fact one of those abusive events involves child rape, women also have to contend with a “rape culture” in the United States that tends to blame victims and require silence. Women who have to endure such oppressive and domineering constructs may find it difficult to connect with other human beings and find peace within themselves. Holding forms of open discourse regarding these oppressive societal constructs and events through written documentation has the potential to lead to much needed healing in these women’s lives. Women who are able to express these experiences in written form are writing in Showalter’s Y zone of experience, and their writing styles often appeal to other women who have had similar experiences. This is referred to as writing from a gynocentric perspective. Illustrations of the Y zone of experience are evident in Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. In the text, Allison addresses the feminine challenges of being raped, a lesbian, and physically abused in the Y zone of the writing experience by redefining what society, in general, defines as disgusting and taboo; in the essence of her writing is the illustration of how she moves from an incomplete self to a wholly healed human being, displaying the therapeutic nature of writing.

Works Cited

Allison, Dorothy. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. New York: NY, Penguin Books, 1995, Print.

Baranow, Joan, Brian Dolan, and H. David. Watts. The Healing Art of Writing. San Francisco, CA: UC Medical Humanities Consortium, 2011. Print.

Berzon, Betty. Permanent Partners: Building Gay & Lesbian Relationships that Last. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1988. Print.

Briere, John N., and Diana M. Elliott. “Immediate and Long-Term Impacts of Child Sexual

Abuse.” The Future of Children 4.2 (1994): 54. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Desalvo, Louise. Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling our Stories Transforms our Lives. Boston: Beacon, 1999. Print.

Guerin,Wilfred. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic, 1992. Print.

Massey, Christine L. From Walls to Windows: Healing Through Self-Revision in Dorothy Allison's Nonfiction. Wilmington: University of North Carolina, 2009. Print.

Myers, Linda J. Memoir Writing as a Healing Journey (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 14 Aug. 2014.

Sanchez-Hucles, Janis, and Patrick Hudgins. “Trauma Across Diverse Settings.” Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society on Gender. L-Z. Vol. 2. Ed. Judith Worell. San Diego: Academic Press, 2001, Print.

Sedgwick, Eve. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in Wilderness.” Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 179-205.

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