Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Reflecting on the need for stories

Dorothy Allison opens Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by acknowledging how other people view her family, especially the women who comprise it. “Peasants,” she writes, “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” (1). Despite the hostility she and the other women of her family have faced, she insists that she “can make a story of it, out of us” (1).

To start class today, I’d like you to reflect on the stories that Allison tells us. What do you think she’s trying to accomplish by telling them? What is she trying to tell us (or persuade us) about women, poverty, class, sexual violence, or agency? What does she mean when she writes, “The story becomes the thing needed” (3)?

As you respond to these questions, identify at least one significant passage that helps you answer them and that you would like us to discuss together as a class. Please post your response as a comment to this post.


  1. Through recounting her stories to the reader, it is my opinion that Allison wishes to create an awareness among people. People who live in poverty in this country are generally what some would call “a silent mass,” and very little is known about their experiences or opinions. The same could be said for those who suffer from sexual abuse. In the passage in which she recounts her tragic experiences with such, she exemplifies that over time, the anger she felt seeped away, giving away to a strength that enabled her to keep this anger at bay. By sharing her experiences and stories with the reader, I think she is attempting to persuade the reader that anyone can have agency, regardless of gender, poverty, class, or any violence that has been done to them. For Allison, karate was the catalyst that allowed her to remain free from her past, and by illustrating this experience, she endeavors to show the audience that an experience such as this one will create agency, even in a person who did not know they possessed such a thing. In addition to karate, stories are doubtlessly another catalyst for her; therefore, they are absolutely necessary and ultimately become “the thing needed.” This is shown particularly well in the passage in which she speaks to her young niece in an attempt to aid her in not becoming one of the hardened, world-weary women of her family. Stories allow her to recount her past, helping her to remember her roots that will never cease to define her while rising above past experiences.

  2. I believe that Dorothy Allison is trying to overcome the one-dimensional view of herself in a society which is quick to define her by her poverty, gender, or looks. She discussed in the book how people might tell stories about her that give the wrong impression or focus on the wrong things, such as how she was raped at the age of five by her uncle. She wants to overcome these stories and show us her strength and vulnerability as a person apart from the events or circumstances of her life. This is why she told the story of standing up to her stepfather on her sixteenth birthday or about how she found the strength to open up to love. She explains this with an analogy to a coat that I found particularly memorable. She said “I am the only one who can tell the story of my life…incest is a coat of many colors, some of them not visible to the human eye, but so vibrant, so powerful, people looking at you wearing it will see only the coat. I did not 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 into my rapist’s creation.”
    This explanation ties into my interpretation of her statement “the story becomes the thing needed.” I think that she needs these stories, these identities others might not see, to avoid being defined by the stories the rest of the world tells. She tells her story so they won’t tell it for her.

  3. I think Allison is, throughout her own stories, trying to illustrate that it is through the creation and perpetuation of stories that healing is able to surface. I think that she is trying to exemplify that stories are a fluid medium between gender and class, and that they are able to exist in a realm that is entirely unique in the sense that they are able to instigate an understating of human behavior in an almost simplistic manner. When Allison discusses making a story out of the people that surround her, she explores the notion that her own experiences can be turned into a source of healing methodology. It is through this idea that “the story becomes the thing needed” (3). It is the story that takes seemingly unbendable societal boundaries and turns them into a means of communication.

  4. Throughout the book Allison portrays stories where she has lost control of her life. She talks about the hard times and moments involving her father and her mother where she had no control or ability to change things. I think that by telling us the stories that she has, she is attempting to pull the control back to her because she was the one who chose to push these stories out on the world. I also believe that this is the primary reason why she states that, “The story becomes the thing needed,” by telling the story she is giving herself control and showing the audience the journey that she had to undertake to get to the position where she is comfortable with her own life and stories.
    Throughout the stories that Allison tells us she is attempting to show the side of womanhood that can be sometimes overlooked as some fail to see the same kind of intense emotions and feelings that Allison feels. I think above all her stories are about the idea of agency over her own life and its stories. In every story she talks about the things that happened to her that were out of her control and then finishes by telling the audience the two or three things that she knows for sure and what they are, this is the vehicle by which she takes ownership of her stories. One of the strongest examples of this comes about on page 69 (Kindle Version) where she says, “I took 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 desire, pleasure n our love, power in this body no one else owns.” In this passage she has faced the horrendous things that her step father did to her and by telling her story claims that she has taken her life back, repaired the thing once destroyed by others.

  5. Dorothy Allison uses stories as evidence. The stories she shares cover a wide range of themes, but each story has a purpose as proof of her own personal knowledge regarding a specific theme. She is asserting her right to write about everything from poverty to sexual orientation because she has a personal experience with and therefore connection to those themes.
    More importantly, the stories that Allison shares are used to relate to her reader. Allison essentially spills her every emotion, whether they are good, bad, normal, insane, intimate, or anything else. By including deeply personal emotions in her stories she establishes a much deeper relationship of understanding with her readers. While not everyone that reads Allison’s book went through the same challenges that Allison did, they have all experienced at least some of the same emotions that Allison writes about. Therefore, the story is what is needed to gain the reader’s trust and understanding.
    Through the stories of her own personal experiences, Allison is trying to persuade us that as people we really are not as different as we make ourselves out to be. While we all have different experiences and have to overcome our own individual struggles, there are several constants in life Allison lists several of these constants when she claims, “there are two or three things that I know for sure.”
    For example, she states “two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is how long it takes to love yourself, how long it took me, how much love I need now,” after sharing a story about trying karate.

  6. Through Dorothy Allison’s collection of stories her progression from self loathing to a kind of self acceptance emerges. She transforms her painful experiences into stories that reflect upon the images of women. In the novel her sister portrays Dorothy as the “smart” sister and herself as the “stupid” sister. While in contrast, Dorothy portrays her sister as the “beautiful” one and herself as “ugly”. Through these interpretations of each other we are opened up to the attitudes towards women—especially in regard to appearance. The ugly women are mocked and jeered at because they are seen as “wide-hipped baby machines” that can be had then left at the drop of a hat; while her sister the beautiful one is looked upon as solely an object of her beauty. They are both represented only by their physical characteristics from the outside world, it is as though Allison is trying to tell us that no matter who you want to be as a woman people will always see you for who they believe you are.

  7. Allison has two main reasons for telling her story. The first is to represent the classes of women who are ignored, who have no voice, who are at the mercy of their abusive husbands or boyfriends. These women put on a mask as they labor long, mind-numbing hours at jobs which barely pay them enough to support themselves and their children. As Allison’s mother says, “It’s just a job. People… don’t need to know your business- if you’re tired or sick or didn’t get any sleep for worrying. Just smile and get them what they need” (26). These women are so busying acting all day long that they never have the chance to expose their truth and their experiences.
    Secondly, Allison tells stories that leave her no option but to become the person who she desires to be. Her way of dealing with exhaustion, bitterness, anger, and hopelessness is to state her strength and spunk rather than the pessimistic outcome the world expects from a woman who grows up in an economically disadvantaged and abusive home. As she states, “I tell my stories louder all the time…in order not to tell the one the world wants, the story of us broken, the story of us never laughing out loud, never learning to enjoy sex, never being able to love or trust again, the story in which all that survives is the flesh” (72). She stares down the expectations from others, and possibly even the nagging doubts within her own mind, and remembers moments when she was strong. She looks ahead and envisions success and overcoming obstacles, and she begins telling the stories that will inspire her and carry her onward. She tells the stories which will make that future a reality.

  8. Storytelling seems to be the truest and most fulfilling emotional outlet for Dorothy Allison. I can only imagine how challenging it is for someone who experienced such a broken childhood to develop a healthy way to deal with their emotions and come to terms with their identity. Under these circumstances many people turn to substance abuse, violence, or just a life of unhappiness, which Allison touches on throughout her work. Fortunately she was lucky enough to notice these patterns, and she made a commitment to herself to not fall victim to this trap. By facing her past instead of silencing her story, Allison has been able to heal by expressing her experiences. Ultimately she is suggesting that silencing any sort of issue is never an effective way of resolving the problem. And although society does not enjoy discussing difficult topics (poverty, sexual violence, etc.), we would see greater progress if we told those challenging stories and embraced our difficult emotions.

  9. I think Allison’s main objective is to present information in a first hand account sort of way so people know her real family. Often times people create judgments and have preconceived notions about things before they really take the time to invest in the truth. She’s trying to tell us that no matter what actions some people in her family have taken she has her own identity. She shows us that her actions have affected her life. For example when she describes being raped she later determines her sexual assault encounters probably contributed to her being a lesbian. When she has relationships with women now she is still constantly thinking about when men would sexually abuse her.
    I believe Allison wrote her story to more closely identify herself. Usually when you write you more clearly understand who you are. She want everyone to know that it’s your life and your actions that define your character. People are constantly going to judge you and it’s your job to either prove them right or wrong. The story was written to prove her points and she her growth as well as showing who is she and where she came from.

  10. Most people do not understand what is like to grow up in rural South Carolina. To broaden that statement most people do not understand the demands of poverty, the idea of feeling unsafe around those who are meant to protect, and most of all to be stuck in a cycle that has the same ending again and again. Grow up too young, be taken advantage of, live day to day, and raise a daughter to do the same thing. Allison makes apparent that most people know the name of low life, proletariat, scum, poor, etc. But rarely do people see the strength behind the hopeless gray eyes and broad, hardened faces that her family knows so well. This often overlooked characteristic of those facing hardship is what Allison portrays throughout her book. She is letting us know that the people in this situation are yes, unfortunately to some extent, formed by it, but not defined by it. She is trying to tell us that though the pain that the women in her family have faced nearly day in and day out since the day they were born is worn in their faces, and the way the carry themselves, once you peel back the layers they are so much more than that initial hardship the rest of the world sees. In a passage from the book Allison writes, “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.” Essentially she is pointing out that the world has put her in a tough position, but she refuses to be defined by that position even if it makes up her current life circumstance. She tells all her stories because to drive the main point home she tells stories because she has to tell the “passionate” stories as much as she tells the “desperate” stories, mainly because if she only told the stories the world wants to hear they wouldn’t get the full picture. The idea that “the story of us broken, the story of us never laughing out loud, never learning to enjoy sex, never being able to love or trust love again.” This would be the only story the world sees, and the rest of us would miss the big picture.

  11. Allison is trying to tell us that the way women in the lower classes (or women in general) are treated is foolish. Her stories are powerful in the way that they get us to sympathize with her and her sister. She writes about stories of violence, and sexual discrimination in such a matter of fact way that it makes the reader question how such horrible things could be inflicted upon humans by other humans.
    She says on page 44, "All the things I can say about sexual abuse - about rape - none of them are reasons. The words do not explain." She is trying to explain that the world she lives in is not logical. Throughout who entire adolescence she tries to come up with a reason why she was raped and beaten, but comes to the conclusion that there isn't one. It just needs to stop.
    Her book presents an underlying theme however, that the oppressed (women, and those in poverty) do have to power to stand up for themselves -and they should. At one point, at the age of fifteen she stands up to her stepfather when he comes to beat her, and tells him that he will never touch her again. This moment is key to her transformation from being taken advantage of, to taking control of her own life. She then goes on to live a life that she believes is right for her. That includes female sexual partners and having a child. She even takes up the hobby of Karate although it is completely male dominated.
    Allison is trying to persuade us that women and those in poverty are at a disadvantage, but that doesn't mean that they are not powerful, and they can stand up for themselves.

  12. When Allison states that people “Call us the lower orders, the great unwashed, the working class, the poor, proletariat, trash, low life, and scum” she describing the views many Americans have towards people in her socioeconomic level. There tends to be this idea that people, who are poor or just worse off, put themselves in that situation. Even today, people often criticize the occupy wall street protesters as being lazy and stupid when in fact it takes a lot of hard work, rejection and disappointment to sink to such a level. I believe that Allison wanted to provide a voice to a group of people who really aren’t given a chance to speak because of such negative stereotypes. She even openly acknowledges this idea when she states on page 71

    “When I finally got away, left home and looked back, I thought it was like that story in the Bible, that incest I a coat of many colors, some of them not visible to the human eye, but so vibrant, so powerful, people looking at you wearing it see only the coat. I did not want to wear that coat, to be told what it meant, to be told how it changed the flesh beneath it, to let myself be made over into my rapist’s creation…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”

    Although here she is mainly speaking about her encounter with childhood molestation I believe it speaks greatly about the many aspects that formed her childhood. She realizes that in many ways, her being a women, growing up poor, being lesbian, society has already painted negative picture of her but she decides to take back her life.

  13. Here's Lizzie's comment:

    Allison tells us many different stories in her book Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. By telling these stories, I think she is trying to help herself work through the struggles she has faced throughout her life. By talking about the horrors thr stories at she has faced, rather than keeping them bottled up inside herself, she is trying to find a way to heal. I think that she is also trying to give a voice to the things that she and other women like her face in order to help people better understand these women. As she states in the beginning of the book people view her and her family as nothing more than scum. By telling her stories, she is giving people a face and a name to these women that they look down upon, and is therefore trying to get them to change their perspective on why they are the way they are. By giving the “lower-class” a face and a story, she is making people more sympathetic and hopefully more understanding towards them.

    When she says “the story becomes the thing needed” I think that she is saying that her stories evolve into what the receiver needs to hear. These stories are shaped in a way that helps the audience better understand the context, and, by extension, the author. Her stories are a passage to healing and understanding. One quote that helps illustrate what she does by telling her stories is “I tell stories to prove I was meant to survive, knowing it’s not true” (51). This sentence helps illustrate that she tells her stories to help herself heal from her past wounds. Another passage is “to speak my words as a sacrament, a blessing, a prayer. Not a curse. Getting past the anger, getting to the release, I become someone else, and the story changes”(44).