Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1996)

Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that change when it comes cracks everything open (p. 48).

Dorothy Allison is a lifesaving writer who doesn’t get a lot of attention from mainstream feminism. Every time I read her work, I feel like she’s is reaching out to us in an authentic attempt to communicate something important about surviving in this world.  In a world in which it can feel like there is little in the way of authentic, honest, communication, and in which so many interactions seem to be about what people can get out of each other, Allison’s writing is a great gift.

Born into a “white trash” family, a member of the hated “bad poor”, Allison was raised in poverty and experienced horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. She worked hard, managed to get a good education, moved away from her family and became active in the feminist movement.  But this apparent escape from her past only lead to a life in which she found herself forced to deny and dissociate from many aspects of herself, a life in which she was often forced to lie.

Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is what it means to have no loved version of your life but the one you make (p, 3)

At the heart of much of her writing is an insistence that, in order to thrive, you must find a way to accept yourself in all your complexity and resist the hatred that will get thrown in your direction.

Two of Three Things I Know for Sure is a very short memoir based on a performance piece, but it packs an enormous amount of wisdom into its 94 pages, including thoughts on the intersections of family, class, poverty, abuse, lesbianism, and feminism, by riffing off the handful of precious certainties that Allison has gained from her life experience.  This is radical writing in the old sense of the word, in the sense of a writer trying to get to the root of things.

What I think I find so powerful about Allison’s writing is the way she works creatively with the unresolvable in her life.  There is a pressure these days to try and resolve every problem in our lives, and there is a lot of (often meaningless) talk about healing, but sometimes things happen to us in our lives that are not resolvable and from which we may never heal, at least not in the conventional understanding of healing. How can Dorothy Allison ever resolve or heal from being raped by her stepfather from the age of five onwards:

Two or three things I know for sure, but none of them is why a man would rape a child, why a man would beat a child p. 43.

And, worse in a way, how can she heal from the knowledge that the mother she adored looked the other way, from the awareness that her mother remained loyal to her stepfather.  Is there any way to resolve this? I don’t really think so and it feels like an open wound at the centre of Allison’s life and writing. But her work is a testament to the possibility of turning that kind of unresolvable pain into a source of creativity, action and love.

There are things that have happened to me in my life that I can’t resolve, wounds that stay open, people I loved who hurt me profoundly, things that have happened to people I love that have damaged them.  And, in a way, the pressure to be healed, to be better, to get over it and “move on” (often because this is convenient to other people) can itself become yet another burden.

What I love about Allison is that her writing has the power to relieve you of this burden because it communicates a vision of healing that is not so much a closing of wounds, as a learning to work with what comes out of our wounds in the best way that we can. For Allison a fundamental part of this work is the process of owning and telling her own story.

I took my sex back, my body. I claimed myself and remade my life. Only when I knew I belonged to myself completely did I become capable of giving myself to another, of finding joy in my desire, pleasure in our love, power in this body no one else owns.

I am the only one who can tell the story of my life and say what it means, p. 70.

You are the only one who can tell the story of your life and say what it means.

Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, (London: Flamingo, 1996).

See also Skin: Talking about Sex, Class & Literature

3 thoughts on “Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1996)

  1. You’ve made me want to read this, I’ve only read Bastard Out Of Carolina and it disturbed me to my core, raw truth, ugliness, but, also resilience and creating something true and beautiful out of more pain, and ugliness.

    • It’s not as traumatic a read as Bastard Out of Carolina and provides quite a lot of the background to that novel. I’d really recommend her short story collection Trash as well and the book of essays, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature. I think she’s a amazing.

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