When novelist Kate Christensen was just a toddler, she witnessed her father beating her mother. It was a scene that would haunt Christensen for decades.
And so it’s with a description of that morning that she chooses to begin her memoir Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. The book that unfolds is an examination of the reverberations of her father’s violence in her life, and a meditation on how her love of food helped her cope.
As a child, she tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies, she refused to identify with her mother in the scenario.
“I didn’t want to be the person who got beaten up,” she confesses. It was a coping mechanism, she says, a psychological distancing tactic with which a young child protected herself.
That unwillingness to accept her own vulnerability, however, served her poorly as she grew older, and the memoir chronicles her struggles to come to terms with her family and with others as she pursued a writing career.
Christensen, the author of six novels and a food writer for the Wall Street Journal and on her personal blog, weaves recipes into the memoir. They’re prompted, often as not, by vivid memories from her past. She even recalls the eggs she was eating that morning when she watched her father attack her mother.
On exposing her father’s abuse
“I remember looking up at the group of grownups [at a dinner party], and feeling an upwelling of anger at my father. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I don’t even know where it came from, what caused me to blurt out, ‘My father hit my mother and she cried,’ to the group.
“And there was a silence, and my father was ashen, and there was a sort of collective in-drawing of breath from the people in the group, and I realized that was just not cool, what I had just said. And on the way home my father yelled at me for it, and said, ‘Don’t ever do that again! Don’t ever say something like that in front of my friends! You just really embarrassed me, and everyone was horrified and you should never do that again.’
“And my feeling wasn’t righteousness or pride in having told the truth, it was horror that I had committed such a faux pas, and that if things like that happened you just weren’t supposed to talk about them. And you certainly weren’t supposed to announce it at a dinner party.”
On being molested by a high-school teacher
“When you say I was a victim I say, ‘Was I?’ I don’t really identify that way. I see it as, I was a young girl far from home, and this man, he liked to paw me, repeatedly. But … I didn’t allow myself to be upset by it. I didn’t allow myself to really feel the full extent of the rage that might’ve been a more appropriate response than the passivity and the silence that I met it with.”
On the narrator of her novel In the Drink
“I wrote the book to sort of right an imbalance, to sort of get my own back after being so humiliated in [a] job. I found humiliation a great goad and a great source of inspiration for writing my first novel — to sort of reassert my own pride and my own sense of self in writing this novel.
“But what the editor seemed to object to was that Claudia (the narrator) was not a heroine. She was not a sort of scrappy, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of narrator that everyone seemed to want to read about. She seemed so willfully self-destructive, as was I in those days. So I sort of took this a bit personally, like, ‘What do you mean you don’t like her? I like her!’”
On becoming estranged from her father
“The last time I saw him I was at [school] in my mid-20s. And I have not seen him since then. Saying goodbye to him, I didn’t realize I was never going to see him again. But I haven’t, and it seemed that part of my story and that part of my family was a door that closed.”