A life of despair redeemed through the power of art
Like a lot of mustread books, “I Wore the Ocean” is difficult. Its passages of darkness and despair are almost overwhelming. Its descriptions of alcoholism, drug addiction and emptiness are harrowing. But there is no turning away. Ms. Groom’s lyrical prose is addictive.
Brilliantly lucid, richly suggestive and ruthlessly honest, this memoir is a triumph of art and life.
Young Kelle Groom was a person without a center. Up to a certain point in her life, she had a very loose grasp on her own reality. She could not feel rooted, substantial. She found no way to assert herself into the world: She could barely speak. She lived in psychic pain, she faked confidence and, while yet in her early teens, lost herself to alcohol and drugs. She became easy prey to exploitative boyfriends and sexual predators. She was damaged goods, perhaps permanently lost.
Somewhere, there was a resilient core that showed itself from time to time. Her unplanned pregnancy, at 19, was a mixed blessing, a gift and a loss. Motherhood gave Ms. Groom a more powerful sense of herself and an anchor in the world. However, believing that she was not fit to raise a child, she allowed Tommy to be adopted by her aunt and uncle. She lived on the fringes of the life she gave.
When Tommy died at 14 months from leukemia, Ms. Groom’s despair and sense of guilt almost toppled her.
Her life as a young adult was one of marginal jobs, bad choices in men and a running battle with alcoholism. The possibility of suicide was never far away.
Over time, writing became more and more her salvation. It was her way of coming to terms with herself, of dealing with demons, building a solid identity, finding a productive addiction and gaining perspective and understanding.
A major thread in the book is her psychological and spiritual search for Tommy. Her own quest for wholeness required that she explore the possible reasons for her son’s death and the contours and texture of his brief life. With her, we examine the potential for cancer-causing environmental factors in and around Brockton, Mass., where Tommy lived. We witness her react to photographs of Tommy and his adoptive parents that enlarge her emotional understanding.
Finally, her aunt and uncle give her some almost 30-year-old home movies, which Ms. Groom processes onto a video compact disc. As she watches, as she sees Tommy look at the camera, the author/mother has the sensation that the boy is seeing — recognizing and accepting — her.
Ms. Groom’s descriptive powers are amazing. She presents so well the many places her family lived during her childhood and where she lived on her own: a military base in Spain, El Paso, Cape Canaveral, Orlando, New Smyrna Beach (where she lives today) and several places in Massachusetts. Her fascination with the ocean provides spectacular metaphors for registering her inner feelings. She expresses with great power the periodic oscillation between alcoholic abandon and fragile sobriety, the ebb and flow of her psychic hell and purgatory.
The narrative thrust of “I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl” is not primarily linear. Rather, the plot points are psychological. Ms. Groom moves us from one point to another by association and memory. Yes, there is a beginning and an end, but in between the reader could be almost anywhere in time — and in that slice of time could be a memory or a flash forward to another.
She writes: “To tell the story, I still had to live it. It was the book itself that finally catalyzed me. I didn’t want my son to be invisible or forgotten, his name unspoken. I feel the same about my younger self, the girl who couldn’t speak, who died and came back.”
Find out more about this remarkable author by visiting www.kellegroom.com. ¦
— Philip K. Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and fr eelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.