Do you seek love or do you settle for safety? In escaping from an abusive household, the author teams with her mother for safety only to realize eventually it’s perhaps been her mother’s choices she’s been trying to escape after all. Andrea Jarrell’s memoir, I’m the One Who Got Away, published this month by She Writes Press, is gripping and eminently readable. Jarrell will be at Politics and Prose in DC on Saturday, September 30, at 1pm, in conversation with Washingtonian Magazine’s Bill O’Sullivan. She will also be at Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, on Thursday, October 12, at 7pm, to talk about her book and the craft of writing a memoir ($5 admission).
SUSANNAH WAS MURDERED just before Christmas but I didn’t find out until after New Year’s. When my cell phone rang, we were making the long trek between Michigan and Maine after spending the holidays with my in-laws. My husband, Brad, was at the wheel, kids strapped into their car seats munching a snack, my feet propped on the dash. As barren treetops flitted by, messy tangles of birds’ nests catching my eye, the voice on the other end of the line told me she was killed in the house across the street from ours—a large cedar-shingled two-story with a barn in back.
The houses in our neighborhood stood far apart. From the front step of our blue Cape at the top of a mile-long driveway, I could just make out the cedar roof beyond a small pond on our property and a thick line of fir trees across the road. Even if we’d been home, I couldn’t have prevented her murder. I know that. Brad and I probably wouldn’t even have heard the gunshots. We might have been sitting in our living room watching television or upstairs reading bedtime stories to our son and daughter.
When it happened, the co-op preschool that Susannah’s son and my children attended was already on holiday break. The day the break began, Brad and I had loaded up our SUV,
bundled the kids into the car, and headed to Michigan. In those days, before Facebook and Twitter, we’d remained blissfully cocooned from the rest of the world.
I didn’t understand at first why I sobbed at the news of Susannah’s death. There was the violence of it, the throat-choking sadness for her little boy, and the wrongness of anyone robbed of life, much less someone so young. But there was more to it than that. Especially when I admitted to myself that I’d always been uneasy around Susannah, never wanting to get too close to her.
Eventually, all the cues from my memories about why her murder hit me so hard began to glimmer like flagstones on a moonlit path. A path that paved the way, inevitably, back to my mother. As I connected those dots, my sorrow over Susannah’s death revealed what I was only beginning to realize—how desperate I was to escape my mother’s choices and the life I feared I was destined to live.
Brad and I had been living in Maine for a few years when Susannah was killed. We were in our early thirties, just starting out in our marriage and our lives as parents. Before Maine, we’d always been city people. Our move from Los Angeles to the idyllic, seaport town of Camden was the first of what we expected would be many adventures in our life together.
Camden is the childhood home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the town where the movie Peyton Place was filmed, and, rumor has it, a haven for retired CIA spies. Locals looking to move know to put their houses on the market during the summer, when tourists fall in love with the quaintness of it all: the harbor, the lupine-covered hills, the centuries-old stone walls, the Oreo black-and-white cows. But Maine winters are for a hardy few, and the smart looky-loos come to their senses before any money changes hands.
We moved to Camden knowing what we were getting into. Brad had been offered a two-year gig at the Institute for Global Ethics to work on a project about running positive political campaigns. I saw the move as a way to leave my workaday life as the public relations director of a small college—to trade in my pantyhose and suits for jeans and sweaters and to get back to writing. Fully expecting to return to L.A. in a couple of years, we found tenants for our small house there. But two years turned into two more, and five years after moving we finally unloaded our Spanish-style fixer-upper in L.A., unsure if we would ever head west again.
Moving to Camden felt a little like we’d entered the witness protection program—so far from everyone we’d known, plunked down into a new life. I took to that life more easily than one might expect, embracing it with “pinch me” elation: pancakes on Sundays, a fully stocked pantry with an extra freezer for meat, trips to the pumpkin patch, red wagons in the driveway, rain boots and slickers, mittens and parkas. This was the stuff of ordinary families, which I’d carefully observed during childhood sleep-overs. Having grown up in a series of small apartments with my single mother, who was much more interested in books and travel than picket fences and seasonal door wreaths, I kept waiting for the residents of Camden to discover that I didn’t belong.
Excerpted from I’m the One Who Got Away: A Memoir by Andrea Jarrell. Copyright © 2017 by Andrea Jarrell. Published by She Writes Press. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.