A friend of mine who has an authentic voice and a story to tell recently told me that she is beginning to write an “autobiographical memoir.” Those words immediately made me flash on Family Bible (University of Iowa Press, 2008), Melissa J. Delbridge’s autobiographical memoir about growing up in Tuscaloosa in the second half of the 20th century. I consider it a benchmark of the genre.
Since the book was on my mind, I pulled it down and began to re-read it. Delbridge has written a fearlessly honest account of being a child and coming of age in a dysfunctional and highly entertaining family in Alabama, which she labels a “simmering stew of religion, race, sex, and corruption.” She writes vivid and loving portraits of her parents that present each as simultaneously charismatic, loving, and at times repulsive. Her colorful and skilled way with language makes for hilarious reading at some times and gut-wrenching accounts at others.
I have enough familiarity with the places that Delbridge references in the memoir to find my own connections. We did our laundry at the same University Boulevard laundromat and attended the same high school, albeit a few years apart. All of us at that time had late night adventures at Hurricane Creek and Moundville. She changes some names of people and places for discretionary reasons, but it usually isn’t hard to fill in the blanks if you were around then.
The first time I met Melissa was when she paid a visit to Mrs. Garrabrant, the faculty advisor of the high school literary magazine that I served as a co-editor in my senior year. I had leveraged my editorial position into an excuse to spend my final class period in Mrs. Garrabrant’s room instead of the study hall to which I was assigned.
I remember being a little in awe of Melissa’s worldliness as well as her earthiness. I was a fairly sheltered teenager, always shy from often being “the new kid” in various schools. Melissa was forthright and uninhibited; she seemed in complete control of herself and of her surroundings.
The next time I remember encountering Melissa was in a University Theatre summer production of Gypsy. She was one of the strippers in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” and further confirmed that she was way ahead of me in the worldliness category.
Years after both of us had left Tuscaloosa, I read an article about “Alabama Literature” in Encyclopedia of Alabama that referenced Melissa Delbridge’s Family Bible. I searched it, bought it, and marveled at the writing skills of a work that was so embarrassingly familiar but still so removed in many ways from my own experience of Tuscaloosa. My parents would have disapproved of certain things about the Delbridge family.
In Family Bible, Delbridge writes with an effortless grace that complements her acerbic, spot-on wit. She is a clear-eyed observer who withholds judgement as she presents truth about her faith – “I was the most frequently baptized child in the state of Alabama,” about her family, and about her sexual awakening(s). In a note “To the Reader” at the front of the book she concludes “I’m writing from memory most of the time, so be forgiving, gentle reader. I went to college in the seventies.” Despite that disclaimer, her words ring with truth and authenticity. I hesitate to doubt her memory.
Rereading the entire book after about a decade, I am struck by my fresh reactions. When I read it for the first time, shortly after its publication, I was moved, amused, and impressed. Not much shocked me. Reading it now, in the wake of “Me Too” and the more fragile sensitivities of our times, I find myself occasionally shocked by some of the memories – not so much for myself (after all, I went to college in the seventies, too), but for the fragility and thin-skinnedness of our times. I ponder how our society has managed to become both annoyingly super-sensitive and alarmingly callous and crass at the same time.
I have not read most of Family Bible in over a decade, with one exception. The essay, “Billy Boy,” is one that I find myself drawn to year after year. I share it with other writers as an example of a powerful evocation of memory. A forthright account of Delbridge’s physical abuse by her step-father, “Billy Boy” is told with a compassion and grace that seem unparalleled in abuse narratives. The author lays out the facts of her own experience and truth while taking into account the truth of her abuser and his wretched background. It is a rare and unique balancing act, highlighted by this harrowing and triumphant passage:
Enough. You can have the nights. Granted, I suffered some wrongs as a girl. Once upon a time a pathetic man scared me with his ugly bedtime story. I will never deny this experience, but I refuse to grant it more than its true weight. We all have wonderful and horrible experiences having nothing to do with our own actions, right? … We don’t always deserve what we get. Most times that’s a blessing.
The book’s final essay, “Girls Turned In,” is a poignant account of Delbridge’s time working with mentally and emotionally challenged “residents” at Tuscaloosa’s various mental institutions such as Bryce Hospital and Partlow School. Some of my family that lived in other parts of the state seemed to think that “Tuscaloosa” and “Bryce’s” were one and the same. If someone said “they had to send her (or him) down to Tuscaloosa,” they usually didn’t mean the University.
Although Melissa and I were only casual acquaintances, I was always pleased to run into her during our Tuscaloosa years. She was a stimulating conversationalist with sparkling eyes and a wicked dry humor. I often thought that her style of Southern womanhood was a modern incarnation of Tallulah Bankhead, the outrageous actress daughter of a most prominent Alabama political family.
Back when Melissa and I knew each other, we were both probably poor as Job’s turkey. Since its publication, I have purchased at least a dozen copies of Family Bible – for myself and as gifts for others. Melissa is in North Carolina now, and I hope those royalties have gone to buy her a couple of sweet teas – which I probably owe her – or a few meat and threes at Posey’s. Better yet, perhaps they helped fund some early morning breakfast at The Waysider – to once again scope out who spent Saturday night with whom.