Title: Ollie Ollie In Come Free
Author: Anne Bernard Becker
Ollie Ollie In Come Free is the product of an author’s lifelong struggle to deal with and process the traumatic events of her childhood, and to analyze the repercussions that it inevitably had on her as an adult. This memoir is a moving, emotional, and intimately personal tale of a family who had experienced more than its fair share of death. Specifically, it relates what it was like for Anne to grow up amidst the grief and turmoil, with the ever-present background of a rapidly changing and progressing world.
Straight out of the gate, the readers will know that Anne is not coping very well as an adult. She struggles in her role as a wife and as a mother as a result of never having dealt with the pain of losing first her sister, then her brother a couple of years later when Anne herself was turning six. Anne chooses to deal with this problem head on and subjects herself to psychoanalysis as therapy for her ongoing depression and recurring anxiety episodes.
Psychoanalysis requires Anne to relive her childhood as well as to examine and dissect her thoughts and feelings about both significant as well as seemingly insignificant events. Her narration is written in a stream of consciousness, and in the early chapters she uses an almost child-like voice in her narrative. This adds to the reader’s overall experience, as it will allow them to see death and dying (and its subsequent effects) from the perspective of a child. It adds nuance to the message of grief and helplessness that the author intended to deliver.
Anne also allowed herself–and her readers–to recall childhood memories as they occur, without putting them into any kind of context or providing any kind of explanation for the events that unfolded. She then interspersed these chapters with “Interludes” where she relates her attempts to make sense of these events as an adult. It silently but powerfully reinforces what she’s gone through, and the fact that she never fully realized the extent to which she has been affected and traumatized by these early brushes with death until later on in life.
Those “childhood” chapters were not easy to get through; they often came across as jarring, disjointed, and unedited. There was a deliberate lack of finesse, as well as a very relaxed use of punctuation marks, to emphasize the fact that we are seeing these events through the eyes of a child. The leap from subject to subject, even as her sister was being taken to the hospital or her brother was getting bruises from a low platelet level, was sometimes frustrating; readers may question the level of detail included in the narrative. From the author’s perspective, however, she likely intended to mirror her thought process–and its lack of organization–as a child. In that sense, the writing style allowed her to largely achieve her aim.
Death and dying is obviously a recurring theme in this memoir. Anne expertly expresses both the confusion of a child whose concept of death is nebulous at best and the inability of adults to explain death to their children even as they struggle to deal with it themselves. In an almost detached and impartial way, without undue judgment or criticism, Anne manages to convey the inaction of her parents, their total lack of communication with their children about what just happened, and their lack of understanding about what Anne needed to be able to process her grief in a healthy manner.
In writing this memoir, Anne goes through a very honest and almost self-flagellating examination of her own thoughts and motives. She calls herself out for being selfish and self-absorbed, especially in her desire to be her father’s favorite, or in her fantasies of being a princess with maids to cater to her every whim. She, and her parents along with her, was unable to recognize these symptoms as a manifestation of a child’s delayed reaction to grief, and much to Anne’s detriment her family was unable to answer this physical cry for help.
For all its dark themes and subject matter, this book is also a coming-of-age story. Despite her irrational survivor’s guilt over her sibling’s deaths, Anne still has to carry on with the business of growing up. She gets to relive the often excruciating agony that is puberty and the careless cruelty that seems to be a specialty of girls at that age. Despite being crippled by shyness and periodic anxiety attacks, Anne manages to thrive in and survive high school.
The chapters dealing with Anne’s teenage years sees growth and maturity, mirrored by the change in the writing and narrative style of the book. Anne’s voice becomes more developed, her thought process more organized, and she is able to see the world with more awareness of the changes that are occurring, such as Martin Luther King’s fight for equality. It was refreshing to be able to see change in the lens with which she views the world, while still retaining an innate innocence and fervent belief to “be good” so as not to further add to the pain that her parents have already experienced. All things considered, Anne mostly weathered her teenage years very well and came through it relatively unscathed.
Unfortunately her personal life and her ability to develop intimate relationships are still hindered by her past and her experience of sexual abuse when she was younger at the hands of someone she trusts. It was brave of Anne to even include it in her memoir.
It would be easy, but rather overly simplistic, to treat this memoir as one woman’s means of catharsis, of releasing her pent-up emotions and of finally coming to terms with her grief. It’s infinitely more complex than that. It’s a well-written, emotionally piercing, and incredibly moving tale that will stay with readers after the last page has been read. For all the novel’s faults, readers will have to have hearts made of stone to not be affected by it. Anne Becker’s memoir reflects all the tireless hours she spent in gaining an awareness of self, and it’s this commitment to being heard, coupled with her bravery and honesty, that ultimately makes this book a solid piece of literature.
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