Es­cap­ing her trou­bled child­hood, oboe in hand

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY EU­GE­NIA ZUKERMAN book­world@wash­ Eu­ge­nia Zukerman is the mu­sic direc­tor of Clar­ion Con­certs in Columbia County, N.Y., as well as the artis­tic direc­tor of Clas­sics on Hud­son.

How did Mar­cia But­ler, a distin­guished oboist, save her­self from a de­tached, with­hold­ing mother and a sex­u­ally abu­sive father? In “The Skin Above My Knee,” she re­veals the an­swer and more. Her story is a tale of tri­umph over a child­hood rife with abuse yet blessed with tal­ent. Filled with in­sight and hon­esty, her mem­oir flows like a se­ries of gor­geous mu­si­cal phrases, tak­ing the reader on a jour­ney as up­lift­ing as it is dis­turb­ing.

In the open­ing pages, we see her ly­ing on the liv­ing room car­pet on Sun­day morn­ings as her mother cal­lously vac­u­ums around her. Four-year-old Mar­cia was swept away by lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio voice of Kirsten Flagstad singing Wag­ner’s “Tris­tan und Isolde.” “A new and plea­sur­able sen­sa­tion sank deep into my tummy, like a very heavy an­chor with no wa­ter to re­sist its plunge,” she writes. “Kirsten shook me awake. With the dis­tance of time, I sup­pose it was love . . . . I was hooked.”

But Mar­cia was also hooked on try­ing to un­der­stand her mother. “I cob­bled to­gether weekly rit­u­als through which I might pre­tend to be close to her and imag­i­na­tively pierce her thick ve­neer,” she writes. Sleep be­came Mar­cia’s method of com­fort: “Ev­ery­one sleeps, but not ev­ery­one could use mu­sic the way I did. If sleep was an un­con­scious draft of life­sav­ing elixir, mu­sic was its wak­ing coun­ter­part.”

In fourth grade Mar­cia chose “the flute be­cause its sweet, open qual­ity most re­sem­bled Kirsten’s bur­nished, sil­very voice.” But at age 12, when a mu­sic teacher asked the class for one vol­un­teer to play the oboe, Mar­cia’s hand shot up. She re­al­ized that “while I wanted to fit in, I needed to stand out.”

Her father agreed to drive his daugh­ter 30 min­utes each way to oboe lessons. In re­turn, Mar­cia was tac­itly ex­pected to “cozy up” when they got home. “I squirmed un­com­fort­ably in his lap, as I tried to fig­ure out what I was feel­ing. My father took hold of my shoul­der to still me. He looked into my sweet lit­tle-girl blue eyes with his steel-trap blue rap­tor eyes.”

Add to this un­whole­some mix an older sis­ter named Jinx who was also abused. With Jinx, Dad’s pre­ferred method of teach­ing her a les­son was “through force.” So Jinx was the punch­ing bag, while Mar­cia be­came “the strange one who blew the oboe and shunned a typ­i­cal teenager’s life.” As she ex­plains it: “I had a dif­fer­ent kind of best friend, other kids would learn, and it wasn’t a hu­man be­ing. I es­chewed peo­ple for a stick of granadilla wood.”

Through­out high school, Mar­cia “prac­ticed longer than seemed rea­son­able,” and with her “highly de­vel­oped, al­most des­per­ate sense of dis­ci­pline,” she be­came “a small-town star.” In the fall of 1973, when she was 18, Mar­cia was ac­cepted into sev­eral su­perb mu­sic schools and chose the Mannes Col­lege, where she re­ceived a full schol­ar­ship. She moved to New York with­out parental sup­port and found a job as a live-in nanny. But when the kids proved difficult and Mar­cia quit, she was out on her own in the big city, fac­ing end­less chal­lenges.

A head of ice­berg let­tuce some­times suf­ficed as her one meal of the day. She went to school, prac­ticed many hours and worked at bars at night, and by the time she grad­u­ated from Mannes, she had es­tab­lished her­self as a top free­lance player, a cham­ber mu­si­cian, a soloist. She got Broad­way gigs.

Her dis­tinc­tive sound set her apart. “Sound is like a fin­ger­print to mu­si­cians,” she writes. “To fully and freely ex­press mu­sic with com­mit­ment, your sound must re­side deep in a cor­ner pocket, like a cube of sugar left on the tongue to dis­in­te­grate in its own time. You have a sound ring­ing in your ears all day ev­ery day that can­not be si­lenced. It is your essence — your soul turned in­side out, ex­pos­ing you for the world to no­tice, scru­ti­nize, and per­haps love.”

And speak­ing of love, Mar­cia de­scribes the poi­sonous im­print of her child­hood as she went out into the world and in­ter­acted with men her own age: “Af­ter years on my father’s lap, my male ob­ject of de­sire was pure and sim­ple: I had to fear him; I needed the dan­ger.” As­ton­ish­ingly, toxic par­ents, drugs and abu­sive men could never si­lence her great­est love: mu­sic. Her coura­geous mem­oir is a tes­ta­ment to the power of art to in­spire and heal.

By Mar­cia But­ler Lit­tle, Brown. 258 pp. $27


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