By Zoe Zolbrod
Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, a memoir about coming of age in a small town in Western Pennsylvania while carrying the burden of a lie. When Burns was 10, her popular piano teacher, Howard Lotte, was accused of molesting his female students. All of the girls under his instruction were questioned, and those who came forward were smeared by the many people in town who didn’t want to believe them, even after Lotte confessed. When it was Burns’ turn to tell what happened to her, she made the choice that a number of other girls did. She kept quiet about the groping that had occurred. She wanted to remain beloved by the town whose community and rituals meant so much to her, but the cost of her silence was high, leaving her feeling isolated and constrained as she performed the pageantries of high school life. Written in a lyrical and lucid style, Cinderland is both clear-eyed and elegiac about growing up in an economically hard-hit community whose groupthink tendencies and insularity provide some comfort from adversity as well as cause harm.
BELT: I was immediately drawn to Cinderland because like you, I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and anything about the area interests me. I can’t recall how old I was when I first heard the term Rust Belt — High school? College? — but I remember instantly recognizing the perfection of the phrase and feeling a sort of relief that it had been coined. You use the term frequently in Cinderland. Was it part of the conversation when you lived in Mercury? Just in general, how conscious were you of a sense of place while you were growing up, and how much did that consciousness shift once you left?
Amy Jo Burns: I can really relate to your experience. I’d never heard the phrase before I left home, and when the term “Rust Belt” was used regularly in my labor studies classes in college, I had the weird sense that I’d found something I didn’t know I was looking for. When I was growing up I did have a strong connection with western PA, but it was mostly because my hometown was my universe. I had no sense of how it belonged either in history or in the region’s economy; I just knew I belonged there, and in a way, that the people belonged to each other. That seemed more important than anything else.
There’s such a sadness in the term “Rust Belt,” as if the entire region is past its prime. I remember feeling that sorrow when I realized how economists and outsiders viewed the region, with good reason. But in writing the book and in meditating on the area and the landscape in general, I’ve started to see how beautiful rust is. Maybe that’s cheesy, but I love the idea that rusty items have been through something difficult, they’ve weathered one or many storms — and perhaps that’s the most fitting definition of the region and the many people who still inhabit it.
BELT: I graduated from high school in 1986, over a decade before you did in 1999, but so much of what you write about is achingly familiar to me. On the one hand that’s to be expected — 13 years is not so very long, especially in a place where there’s not a lot of movement in and out. But on the other hand, the 1980s steel bust features prominently in Cinderland, and that marker occurred at very different points in our lives. In chapter 1, which takes place in 1995, you write, “We’d grown up learning that the steel industry was our town’s long-dead lover.” I was old enough to have watched the lover die, to have memories of the before and after. Yet as I was reading Cinderland, I wondered why I don’t recall economically vibrant times. All through my childhood, the pall of receding opportunities was as omnipresent as the green of the trees and the gray of the sky. I looked up some facts about the steel industry and found that the state’s economic development peaked around 1920, and it’s been downhill ever since. In 1900 Pennsylvania produced 60 percent of American steel, and by 1960 that number was down to 24 percent. Even during the good times, there was something of an economic malaise. How do you see the general downward economic trend affecting your town’s psychology — both in general and especially around the around the way it reacted to the scandal of Mr. Lotte?
Burns: When I was a kid, I took the economic downturn as a given, something that was just known, like the fact that winter would be tough every year. It didn’t occur to me that there had once been another way of being. History had already played itself out. As a young woman I had the option to leave and get a college education, but that wasn’t possible for everyone.
When I started to write the book and considered the uncertainty many of the adults must have been feeling in my hometown, it gave me a lot of compassion for them. Many were worried (and still are) about their small businesses surviving. Others had to change careers completely after they realized a career in steel was no longer viable. I wonder now if some felt that they were no longer sure of their place in the world, which led them to cling tighter to our traditions and to the security of our small town’s moral values. So when the scandal with Mr. Lotte occurred, I think it threatened that emotional security during a time when all economic security had pretty much vanished. I really understand that need to have something to grab onto — but it can lead to some pretty horrific consequences.
BELT: You make interesting choice to relate much of the memoir in the first-person plural. In the prologue you write, “Who are we? We are the girls who lied about Mr. Lotte when others told the truth and most of Mercury hated them for it,” and, “We still remain in disguise (even from each other).” Can you talk about the decision to write in this collective voice about something that you never talked about among yourselves?
Burns: In my mind, one of the most essential pieces of this story is that I was not the only silent victim. In such an interconnected, intimate town, so many of us were so alone in this — alone, but together. I wonder now what it would have been like to speak to each other freely and without shame about what had happened. How might we be different now? But for so many of us, speaking out felt impossible and dangerous, making solitude seem like the safest choice. To me, the first-person plural was the best way to get the reader to really feel both the gravity and the pervasiveness of the silence that connected us.
The haunting parallel here is that this occurred when the larger region itself was being silenced, the mills shutting down and business heading overseas. A generation of young women was silenced alongside a generation of skilled workers, and the weight of that story extends far beyond my own personal narrative. I wanted to find a means to communicate that in the way my memoir was written.
BELT: On the copyright page there’s a disclaimer. “The communal voice is not intended to presume upon the memories and experiences of others but to reflect the shared nature of the event itself, as the author remembers it.” Have there been any objections from the girls — now women — encompassed by the we? What reception has the book had in Mercury?
Burns: The reception has been mixed. Some have felt that my writing the book is a step toward redeeming what happened because finally someone said what has gone unsaid for far too long. A few others have felt it was done for personal gain, that I didn’t consider the welfare of others, and that this story is better left in the past. Actually, it’s played out a bit like it did over 20 years ago — most of the debates are centered on a young woman’s right to speak out about what happened to her, rather than the crime itself.
I think the most meaningful messages I’ve received from home have been from people who read the book and said, in so many words: I see you. So much of what went wrong over 20 years ago had to do with a failure of imagination, a failure to incarnate someone else’s experience. Folks couldn’t imagine their favorite sixth grade teacher was harming his piano students. Folks couldn’t imagine they’d misjudged someone so completely. Folks couldn’t imagine that a ten-year-old girl might just have the moral center to tell the truth rather than hide a respected man’s indiscretions. I really believe in the restorative power of bearing witness, and I’m very thankful for those in my hometown who listened to my story with an open heart.
BELT: Cinderland is explicit about the gender dynamic in Mercury. There’s a clear demarcation between “good” girls and “bad” ones (though even the good ones can be found lounging on “Whore Hill,” at the pool). Good girls are supposed to be pretty but not sexual, to accommodate the comfort of others, and to follow the rules. To some extent, you attribute your decision not to tell the truth about Mr. Lotte to your gender training and fear of gendered judgments. Like so many of your observations, these ones sent a shiver of recognition through me. I tried to play by a lot of these rules too. To what extent do the codes of your youth continue to affect you — especially your decision to write and publish this book?
Burns: What a great question. I think in writing the book, I realized how afraid I was to actually say some of those things out loud. It felt like a betrayal to speak some of those unwritten rules, and yet I couldn’t help but see the trouble with Mr. Lotte started long before he’d ever dared to put his hands on anyone. So much of it had to do with the gender system in place and what was expected of young women. Be smart, but not cheeky. Be warm, but not too enticing. Be pretty, not sexy. I guess I started to feel a sad freedom in naming these things because they felt true, and they also felt damning. And by the way — the gender expectations were quite tough on the young men, too. I can’t imagine the pressure they must have felt to continue to perform athletically, to be macho, to “lead,” whatever that means.
I was about to say I don’t think these norms affect me anymore, but of course they do. How could they not? I tend to struggle with the “traditional” female roles: housekeeper, mother, nurturer — mostly because they touch upon my fears of inadequacy. I think about it especially when it comes to having children. If I ever have a daughter, I want to encourage her to be just who she is, in body, mind and spirit. That begins, of course, with allowing myself to be just who I am, in body, mind and spirit. That’s the journey I think I’m on, anyway.
BELT: Throughout Cinderland, you write about harboring a secret desire to escape Mercury. There’s an early scene where you and the boy who will become your first boyfriend confess to each other in the dark. You write, “In saying three small words — I want out — it was as if Pete and I had just grabbed hands and leapt off a cliff.” And yet, as you approached your high school graduation, almost everyone you knew had a plan to leave. You mention that many (or is it more accurate to say some?) of them ended up back in town after all. Can you talk some more about the push away from and pull back toward a small town in that region?
Burns: I think so much of it goes back to that idea of belonging. I belong in my hometown in a way I don’t belong anywhere else, and yet sometimes that very connectedness, no matter how comforting, can also become claustrophobic. A lot of my identity comes from being a member of my small town community, and I love knowing what it feels like to really be from somewhere. My town has a personality, an epicenter, a story — things I tend to look for in places I live, but of course what I remember can’t be replicated anywhere else.
As much as I loved my community, though, as a young woman I felt frustrated with the herd mentality I perceived. You moved with the herd, thought like the herd, acted like the herd. I see now what I couldn’t understand then — my 18-year-old self had become a part of the town herd during the Lotte scandal, and I’d let popular opinion sway me rather than my own conscience. I had been a culprit of the very thing that frustrated me. That truth haunted me, even though I couldn’t quite articulate it. Leaving home led me to rediscover all the things I value about western Pennsylvania while a truer version of myself finally came to life.
Cinderland is available for purchase via the following link: http://www.beacon.org/Cinderland-P1050.aspx
Zoe Zolbrod’s first novel, Currency, received a Nobbie Award and was a Friends of American Writers prize finalist. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Stir Journal, The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus, where she is now the Sunday co-editor. She recently completed a memoir about how child sexual abuse reverberates throughout generations of a family. She grew up in Meadville, PA, and now lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and two children.
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