Friday, November 17, 2006

"Miss American Pie" - Margaret Sartor

Turning into a young woman is a process both filthy and holy. Margaret Sartor gives us a look into those that are, in a lot of ways, the least feminine years of our lives, the absolute worst and sometimes incredibly amazing, teenage years.
Almost since the beginning, “Miss American Pie” made images appear in my mind, images I had seen before. It didn’t take long to realize they were Sally Mann’s photographs of her kids in “Immediate Family”, and now, I can hardly think about the book without getting these “mannesque” stills wafting in.
From 1972, when she was thirteen years old, until 1977, when she turned eighteen, Margaret Sartor kept a diary, which she has now published. Two older sisters (mostly absent from day to day life since they were both about to leave for college when the diary starts), a younger brother, a next door neighbor, a beloved pony and horse, a cast of girlfriends and boyfriends, an old-fashioned dad and an “artistic” mom, make up the characters of this coming-of-age story set in small-town Louisiana.
There are themes in “Miss American Pie” which resound in every adolescent girl. Maybe we didn’t all have a pony but we sure as hell which we had, and we all hated our parents, our girlfriends and ourselves from thirteen on. Our hair was something to be loathed and which caused almost unbearable pain, as did other, assorted parts of our body. Boys were run after, and away, from on alternate weeks. Everything was awful and cool in equal measures.
But we didn’t all grow up in the almost rural South where nature is still there for kids to walk in at night or dawn in near absolute safety (from anyone but themselves); where you experience the good and bad of living surrounded by animals, (where deer hunting is still a ritual for young boys) where race and religion are still defining issues; where girls start drinking, smoking, driving and lying at such a young age, while almost simultaneously they decide to give your life to the glory of the Lord. This intoxicating mixture of sacred and profane, that is frequently, unintentionally funny, is well illustrated in the 1974 diary entry “I wonder if Jesus was sexy”. Remember what it was like to be both shallow and deep?

“September 21
God loves a cheerful giver. I’ve decided to be cheerful.

September 22
Cheerfulness is not in my nature. I’ve decided I’m going to improve my mind instead. I’m also considering giving away all my favorite clothes.”

Images like Mann’s “Jessie and the Deer, 1985”, where the little girl is dressed in a ballet tutu with ballerina shoes, next to the back of an open pick-up truck, from which a dead deer’s head with a gash in the neck hangs; or “Candy Cigarette, 1989” where a more grown up Jessie looks straight at the camera – at her mother – with the eyes of a thirty-eight year old divorcé in a nine year-old’s body seem to came directly from this narrative universe. Just like Mann’s images are always raw, so are Sartor’s entries not usually more than a couple of lines long. They seem to say that growing up does not sit well with posing or writing for hours.
Going through adolescence is such a strange process, that even when you see it through every scientific viewpoint, biology, psychology, there always seems to be something very important missing. If you want to look at it from a magical perspective, one who is closer to the real feel of it, a good place to start is “Miss American Pie” or “Immediate Family”. You will not be able to look away for a second – if you do, you end up missing the whole thing.

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