Column: The Bibliophile
The Skin Above My Knee, by Marcia Butler
Little, Brown and Company, 272 pages
By Simone Grace Seol
How do we respond when the most essential kind of love -- that of a child toward a mother or father -- is unrequited, even betrayed? How do we heal from having been badly loved, or even cruelly hurt, by those who are supposed to be our first protectors? Some of us relive the injuries in adult life, succumbing to cycles of self-sabotage. Others find salvation in devoting themselves to something higher, cleansing the wounds through idealism or aesthetic pursuits. Marcia Butler has done both, and lived to tell the tale, in her memoir, The Skin Above My Knee.
For decades, Butler was a professional oboist at the top of her game in New York City, performing regularly in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. In her compulsively readable memoir, she weaves together two narrative threads -- one starting in childhood, the other, in the middle of her already-established career.
Butler first encountered classical music as a small child growing up in Pittsfield, Mass. in a home devoid of warmth. The Wagner that her mother played while vacuuming the carpet imprinted in her a life-long drive toward music. We learn of her father's sexual abuse, and of a sister driven out of the home through savage beatings and neglect. In middle school, an oboe fortuitously landed in the hands of our unhappy but talented protagonist, and eventually provided a ticket out to a conservatory in New York City.
Despite this triumph, and the outsize talent and discipline that got her there, the young musician floundered. Trying to forge her path alone in the city, she starved half to death, fell for a man who chewed shards of glass, and survived drug abuse and a suicide attempt. In many ways, Butler was the heroine in a classic New York story. Her biography had the requisite grit and glamour, the colorful characters, as well as the thrill of rising to the greatest heights --- whether through hard work or hard drugs.
Trying to fill a void, she continually made decisions that would horrify any parent, or even friend, who was paying attention. She didn't ask questions when a boyfriend went to prison, returned to him even after the truth of his violent crime had been revealed, and put down her oboe in pursuit of cocaine-fueled oblivion.
Strikingly, these "bad decisions” are not recounted in contrite, regretful terms, from the tongue-clicking hindsight of an enlightened older self. Nor are they psychoanalyzed away, through the modern tendency to sterilize the craggy outlines of pain with the language of pathology.
Butler never presents her younger self, even in her lowest moments -- walking home from a failed suicide attempt, say -- as someone who needs rescuing and chiding. Instead, she offers up the plain complexity of her experience without apology, writing with the wisdom of someone who has searched deep enough to extinguish the shame that compels one to hide such stories, as many do, behind a self-satisfied veneer. That feels like a radical act of sovereignty from a woman writer.
Butler is particularly adept at portraying her relationship to the one thing that has always loved her back --- classical music. As someone ill-acquainted with oboe repertoires, I found myself breathlessly looking up the music she describes playing, from the muscular genius of Bach to the jaunting atonality of Hindemith.
The reader gets lost in her paragraphs recounting the acts of rehearsal and performance. Playing Mendelssohn, she feels as though she were “part of an intricate Flemish tapestry made of silky sounds and woolen harmonies.” One imagines being in an orchestra, and what it might be like to respond to such unspoken but exquisitely attuned impulses — something akin to being in a school of minnows that swim in water, to take a wondrous metaphor from the book. Seductive literary writing about classical music is rare, and this memoir is certain to be a treat for music fans.
There is an unmistakable symbolism to Marcia Butler playing the oboe for an opera or musical. She is under the stage, behind the rows of strings. It conjures up the fact that agony and absolution occur just as easily away from the spotlight, in the unassuming privacy of a single person laboring in darkness.
Butler describes struggling with nausea, during her conservatory days, during a lesson prior to an abortion, and later in life, rehearsing while undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. We look at the stage, at the dazzlingly costumed stars and their soaring solos, and don’t often think to gaze down at those in the 'pit,' where raw drama takes place without fanfare.
Butler has a lovely passage about playing Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion," the heartrending oratorio about Jesus’ death:
[A]s you play and notice these unusual sensations, you look around the orchestra and imagine that every person playing is buoyed by the same incredible energy and life force. . . . You suddenly understand that there is no separation or distinction between the notes, the spaces between the notes, and the people playing the notes and the people listening to the notes and the church and the street and the city and the earth.
Such is the miracle of art. But Butler also makes us confront its limits, as redemption in life is rarely whole or permanent. Music saved her from an unhappy home, but it could not fill the throbbing vacuum caused by a parent's lack of affection. Music did not rescue her from her attempts at self-destruction, though it did provide a place for her to experience a rare feeling of wholeness.
The Skin Above My Knee is about that tension and the courage required to inhabit it. Butler's unmistakable bravery turned a traumatized girl into a world-class musician, then into a writer of memorable grace and force. You hope, while reading Butler’s transcendent words, that some of it will rub off on you.