Tibetan Buddhism, through the teachings of the Samsara, offers a poignant lesson: there are no refuges to be found. Attempts to escape life’s trials and its inherent instability are likely to fail. Any sanctuaries in which we immerse ourselves are found to be ineffective barriers; more often, they turn out to be loci of self-destructive behavior--even if a refuge is nothing more than a warm and comfortable house of antique timepieces, located in an obscure town in Iowa that is curiously host to an innocuous flow of horologically focused tourism.
In Learning to Tell (A Life) Time (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2013), Kathie Giorgio’s 2013 sequel to her 2011 Home for Wayward Clocks, the book’s protagonist, Amy Sue--nicknamed Cooley--has seemingly found her physical and emotional haven: a museum of clocks doubling as a residence in the town of What Cheer, Iowa, which has served as both home and shelter for the better part of 16 years. With the catalyst of her mother’s death, however, a torrent of past trauma roars through the walls of the clock museum like water through a broken dam. Cooley’s mother, Mara Rose, herself a child of abuse, finds respite from her beleaguered past in the bottom of a bottle--or, chillingly, through the infliction of pain onto her daughter. Cooley eventually flees to the cottage of antique clocks, bequeathed to her from its former owner--a father figure who was instrumental in her escape from her home of horrors at the age of 16. (Older men figure into the narrative, in extreme inflection points throughout the story, as predators or saviors--in some cases both, a dissonance that will be hard for some readers to digest.)
Like mother, like daughter: the seemingly innocuous museum, just as much as chronic alcoholism, presents a physical and psychological dead-end. While Cooley’s mother faces an early and lonely death, Cooley herself seems superficially comfortable--yet is trapped in a socially confining and unrealistic stasis that becomes increasingly unsatisfying as her elder housemates die off or fall ill. Other than a brief sojourn to college, Cooley chooses to stay relatively isolated from society over the past 16 years, ensconced in the museum of clocks. In contrast to her mother, whose sexual abuse stemmed from a chance interaction with a close neighbor in the early 1970s, Cooley’s assault came about via the early days of Internet chat boards. Sixteen years later, she seems to have little knowledge or understanding of Facebook or the Internet in general. An early passage reflects this feigned or intentional ignorance:
They were getting close to her house when Andrew asked suddenly, “Are you on Facebook?”
“What?” Cooley was feeling groggy, whether from the afternoon, the pain, or the pain meds, she couldn’t say.
“Facebook. Online. You know, the place where people find their friends and stuff.”
Cooley was vaguely aware of Facebook, but she really didn’t use the internet for much. The internet could be a dangerous place, and so were internet friendships. Cooley knew that. She knew that better than anybody. She used eBay and Craigslist to keep an eye out for clocks to add to James’ collection, and she wrote a few emails, but that was about it. “No, I’ve never done anything like that. Why?”
Cooley’s response is a textbook case of dissociative disorder, foreshadowing the revelation of trauma that she has suffered--in no small part to the Internet--over a decade before. The clock museum and its inhabitants offer Cooley a perfectly seductive hiding hole from the world. The reader is led to believe that it is the comfort food of real estate: a veritable “hobbit hole,” deeply set into a cozy section of a Shire-like world.
Facebook takes on an increasingly prominent role in the book as the story progresses. The techno-social zeitgeist giant allows Cooley to reengage with new and old contacts, as well as pursue a parallel investigation and confrontation with her now-deceased abuser, who has a multifaceted online history of his own. In short, the protagonist reemerges from her shell both physically and virtually. Cooley’s relationship with the Internet, riddled with ambivalence, raises questions that lurk in the corner of the narrative. What can we understand--and what can we never understand--about her view of online presences and personas, traumatized as she was by an early-adopter version of the Internet that was, by all accounts, simply a dematerialized version of the Wild West?
Mrs. Giorgio crafts a complex and compelling history, populated by a sprawling web of predators and victims that intersects one unfortunate family throughout time and space. Physically abused by her alcoholic mother, Mara Rose, and ignored by an emotionally absent father, at first Cooley is merely a victim in a long line of victims. Mara Rose’s downward spiral is painfully stark, its connection to past trauma clearly delineated by the obsessive nature of ordering and stacking empty bottles of liquor, wine and beer. The early days of secretive drinking and its techniques eventually lead to unfettered, 24-hour-a-day binging that is described in glaring detail. After Cooley reaches adulthood, mother and estranged daughter are oppositely charged ions, never to be found in each other’s presence; necessary measures are taken by both parties to avoid unwanted contact (no small feat in a small town in Iowa). In the midst of this sordid cycle of avoidance, however, the power of unconfronted truths beckons. When Mara Rose dies, Cooley finds clues about her mother’s hidden and dysfunctional past--a search that soon reveals as much about herself and her own abuse. The message and challenge of the book is clear: confront your past and its trauma, or it will consume you. As a constant reminder of this message, a subtle yet powerful undercurrent of consuming fire is found throughout the narrative.
The book is at its best while tackling the most disturbing aspects of Mara Rose’s past abuse and progressively problematic drinking. The Lolita-like relationship, with its disturbing but extended experience of consensual rape, is unforgettable and jarring. Vividly painted images set a powerful tone for the events: seemingly small things, such as the sharing of freshly squeezed lemonade or the early experience of smoking, are described in sinister and careful detail--perhaps as a literary proxy for acts that are too horrifying to state aloud. Unsurprisingly, Mara Rose has a narcissistic mother and an unavailable father. The reader is compelled to ask: just how many generations back does this chain of dysfunction go? Even Cooley, years later, is sucked into her mother’s shoes. She reads an old, preserved note from the predator, and feels, for a moment, a sentiment of love and tenderness:
Cooley wanted to be angry at Brian James Sonnenborg too. She really did. She wanted to rip up the note and the sketchpad and she wanted to shred every photo. But it was hard to turn away from the love in the note, as twisted as it was. It was still love. Yet picturing it, picturing a ten-year old girl and a fifty-one year old man, a ten-year old girl who likely hadn’t even kissed a boy or even held his hand, made Cooley want to turn her face away and gag.
The reader, like Cooley, may become suddenly disgusted. We are drawn less into the mind of the pedophile than into the terrifying world of Mara Rose. These pivotal years scar Mara Rose permanently, setting the stage for Cooley’s tumultuous upbringing. Her mother’s is a jarring discovery for Cooley: she has managed to be part of a common crime, repeated across generations. The story is an old one, but the point of the book is not the cautionary Lifetime movie in which the characters seem to live, but rather the nuances of how people react to traumatic stress. Cooley has won, but why? The question of what makes her resilient is prominent--and unanswered. Perhaps there is no answer. This lacuna in the book points to the ongoing existential dilemma which is faced by all people, survivors of abuse or not. What makes one person a victim and another person a predator? Does halting a seemingly endless, multi-generational cycle of abuse actually require direct engagement? To this last question, the author firmly appears to answer yes. A curious implication of the book is that, regardless of what ghosts might be in a person’s closet, a comfortable life as a curator for the Clock Museum of What Cheer, Iowa--and the life of social isolation that it permits--is a trauma of its own.
Even Cooley appears to recognize the dangers of slipping too far into the comfortable cocoon of the clock world, when she recalls her initial experience of her benefactor and the Museum:
…and Cooley remembered sometimes finding James with his forehead against the glass that covered the grandmothers face. Usually, he had his hands on what he called the clock’s shoulders, the molding that rolled around the face and out beneath it. From her shoulders, the molding curved around her body and down to her feet, widening there, forming what looked like the skirt of full-length form-fitting dress. The first time Cooley caught James like this, she asked him what he was doing and he startled backwards, jerking the clock, setting off a cacophony of discordant chimes.
“Just…resting,” he said. He quickly opened the clock’s door, slipping his hands between her weights, bringing her back to peace.
“Resting?” Cooley was sixteen at the time, still new to the Home. She knew James loved clocks, that he had a connection with them somehow. But still. This was weird.
The image of a man talking to and obsessively caressing a clock, in a house devoid of any organic life and sound, is as devastatingly rendered as any description of Cooley’s harrowing past.
Kathie Giorgio’s book presets a powerful narrative, and she has crafted compelling characters in this story. It is a laudable example of a high-quality work that hides in the dense forest of independent books, and we hope to hear more from her soon.