‘It Takes a Worried Woman’ takes cerebral approach to tragedy

Debra Monroe’s essays chart a journey of heartache, resilience and hope.

National Book Award nominee Debra Monroe has endured tragedy in her life — events and periods of time that have shaped her into the person she is today. Despite her collisions with domestic violence, sexual assault and hate crimes, in “It Takes a Worried Woman,” a collection of 14 cerebral and introspective personal essays, Monroe refers to herself as lucky.

The opening piece, “Garnett and the Lavender-Lit Room,” provides a glimpse of Monroe as a successful adult before she digs into the pain of her past. Flowing from her undergrad degree to her PhD to her life as a young professor, she focuses the narrative on a series of friendships she forms with older women who fill a maternal void. As she matures, the women she meets become “not old enough and I’m not young enough to re-create that duet of comfort, one of those friendships in which advice was never the point.” Lamenting that she eventually ages out of these relationships, she threads the piece with humorous insights and relatable experiences that establish the structure of this collection.

Using her larger observations on the state of the world as the backdrop for her personal tribulations, Monroe provides access into her character that is both expansive and intimate. She swiftly establishes an intelligent and autonomous voice. In “The Makeshift Years,” Monroe reveals she was a single mother for a decade, by choice, having adopted her daughter after divorcing her first husband. A planner and problem-solver by nature who believes “worry is precaution,” she plotted contingencies for every possible mishap before the birth of her daughter. Once a mother, she realizes no amount of anticipation can stave off every misfortune.

Parenthood is fraught with the unexpected, and Monroe’s lack of support from extended family reveals itself as she recalls a litany of babysitting calamities. Woven throughout is the story of how her relationship with her mother was thwarted for decades by her mother’s volatile second husband, leading to the maternal void Monroe explores in the opening essay. This is a technique she employs throughout the narrative, bookending two events in her life and filling in the shelf with the observations and realities that tie them together. The result is not only powerful but surprisingly approachable.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“A Gendered History of My Hunger” cuts to the quick as Monroe journeys through the perils of working in food service while obtaining her education. Food is one of her love languages, as evidenced by her luscious description of “beef medallions with winter slaw that tastes like the color purple.” But during this time, she is abused by her first husband and suffers a miscarriage. Her decision to adopt a child while single is framed in a new light. Leaving this conclusion for the reader to draw, she does not present her trauma for shock or impact but instead doles out her tragedy with space and delicacy.

Telling the tale of her first marriage in “Something New to Say About Domestic Violence,” Monroe zooms out and centers the story around teaching a writing class. A student is challenged by her peers to shape an abusive character into a sympathetic one. Following a brutal rewrite, Monroe concludes, “maybe some characters get written like once-in-a-lifetime bad weather no one saw coming.” By placing her most vulnerable moments on stage beside a greater social context, Monroe addresses a very personal topic from an indirect, and decidedly more intellectual, angle.

Yet, even after providing an intimate account of her rape by a college acquaintance, Monroe does not present herself as a victim. While remaining mindful of her autonomy, she remarries and unites into a loving family of four. Perhaps it is her penchant for attaching her hardships to the bigger picture that allows her to move past trauma. Along the way she explores her tendency to worry additional difficulties into existence, such as insomnia. But ultimately, she is able to work toward creating a fulfilling life.

In “The Wrong Conversations About Hate Activity,” Monroe explores how her world shifted in 2016 when a series of racially targeted hate crimes started occurring on her Texas university campus. Then her daughter — a Black woman attending college nearby — was vandalized and assaulted. At the time, she was writing an article about how house porches provide a physical liaison between public and private life – like social media in the virtual world. But Monroe grows disturbed when the racism she witnesses is downplayed by neighbors and colleagues. Settling into silence in the face of her alienation, she writes, “I stopped living on porches, real and virtual. I came inside.”

Monroe’s storytelling is quiet, yet revealing. Her emotion does not overshadow her intellect. Instead she cracks open her life by presenting it as a series of causalities, how one action, decision, or choice — over the course of a lifetime — leads to the next. It isn’t until the final pages of the collection that she gives a name to her process. “Flow is doing this or that for a partial solution until you glimpse the big solution.”

It seems “flow” is how Debra Monroe approaches not just writing but life. Her narrative concludes when she is mature and settled, in a place where she no longer needs to talk about past pain. “I don’t provide specifics because providing specifics is reliving calamity. I’ve sealed off that part of my past like a tree seals when a branch breaks off,” she writes in the final story, “Mistletoe.” It seems Monroe is more than just lucky. She has found her flow.


NONFICTION

“It Takes a Worried Woman: Essays”

by Debra Monroe

University of Georgia Press

192 pages, $19.95