"While the lessons life teaches are not of our choosing," writes Durack in the preface to this unflinching memoir, "they're nevertheless indelibly inscribed in our flesh. Keeping silent about some wounds exacts a high price: when we don't speak, we lose the ability to do so."
Durack began the essays in this slim volume "to recover my voice after losing it, both literally and figuratively." She was a good girl, "trying to conform myself to the expectations of others." Eventually, the struggle to be what she could not cost her not justher voice, but nearly her career and her life. She developed laryngitis so severe that she could barely teach her college classes or communicate with her husband. At the same time, this award-winning writer, who was being reviewed for university tenure, developed writers' block. It was not until Durack turned her focus to her own life and began to write the stories from her past that she recovered her voice.
Durack's book would still be a moving and inspiring account if it were only the story of how silence, literal and metaphoric, brought her to the brink of despair, and how recovering her voice both as a woman and a writer helped her discover her courage. But there is so much more. The author, a scholar to the bone, uses her experiences to explore "female bodies and aging and silence," and to give voice to "what is unmentionable in our lives, the many subjects and situations about which women are expected to be silent."
In chapters named for body parts, ranging from "Mouth" and "Vagina" to "Heart," Durack explores the link between body and soul. She uses the terrible baggage of her experience—from the tragic Las Vegas hotel fire that cut short her career as a dancer and singer, leaving her adrift at age 19, to the accidental electrocution of her younger sister, and her mother's artistic brilliance paired with mental illness—to illuminate the connections "that root spirit to flesh and silence to speech and healing." For Durack, silence is not golden, while thoughtful and honest speech can indeed heal.
Healing comes like a benediction as Durack's research reveals new sides of the old stories she has carried for so long: "I write for myself a new narrative," she concludes, "one that tells the truths that until now I did not know." Those truths bring her not her old voice back, but a new, stronger one, and along with it, the ability to forgive, love, and live.
A onetime Las Vegas showgirl, Katherine Durack is now a professor of technical communication. Her writing and research on women and patents, the invention of the sewing machine, and other topics has won national and regional awards. After spending much of her life in New Mexico, she now lives and writes in Cincinnati, Ohio, where her "Urban Dwellings" series on the stories she uncovers in city buildings is aired on "Cincinnati Edition," a program of WVXU-FM public radio. Visit the author's website.
Check out our interview with the author of Unmentionables.
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