Ashley Marie Farmer
Sarabande Books / 2022 / $16.95 / 200 pp
Reviewed by Laura Johnsrude
Early in 2014, in a Nevada hospital room, Bill Dresser shot and killed Frances, his wife of sixty-three years, two weeks after her catastrophic fall resulted in quadriplegia, untreatable pain, a hopeless prognosis, and a desire to not go on living.
Ashley Marie Farmer begins Dear Damage with this tragedy—the death of her maternal grandmother by her maternal grandfather—in a piece titled “Mercy.” In her book of essays, Farmer reflects on the lives of her grandparents in relation to her own life, paying attention to the details. She opens the attic door, reaches up and pulls the string, and throws light onto the tangible and intangible connections linking her to family members and partners. With unhurried prose organized into five chapters, Dear Damage is a mixed-format collage of essays meditating on the ordinary and the particular, the brew of details and moments which create a meaningful life.
In Dear Damage, Farmer weaves between decades and locations, from her grandparents’ Southern California childhood; to her own childhood in California and Louisville, Kentucky, and her summer visits to Nevada, where her grandparents had moved; to her adult years in California and Syracuse and Louisville. We hear about her passion for writing, her love of teaching, and her frustrations with work as an adjunct. She introduces us to her grandparents Bill and Frances Dresser as her favorite storytellers, and she includes short transcript segments from her audio interviews with them, reflecting that the stories mean something to her, in part, as instruction “on how to live a happy, useful life.” We hear about her first wedding and husband, and then the good fortune of her relationship with Ryan, her current partner. In her memoir capsules and essays, we hear about her brothers, her sister, and her parents, who divorced some years ago.
She writes, “I’m trying to save something precious forever,” and we see and feel these places with the author, who kisses “orange Avon lip balm off the girl down the road” in her Nevada childhood memory and describes that her mother’s “freckled skin is hot to my cheek and scented with coconut.” Farmer calls Kentucky “green-on-green” and says “you can hang your arm out the window and feel the river on your wrist” when flying fast down a country road with a friend. She gives us California purple jacarandas and bougainvillea and returns, a few times, to specific Southern California beaches, naming notable landmarks, so that the sea seems a point of orientation, almost a magnetic pull.
And we hear the soundtrack that accompanied Farmer over the years, as musician and band references are plenty, time-stamping the decades and adding layers to the prose and the characters: David Berman, Kurt Cobain, Tori Amos, Hole, Fiona Apple, Atlantic Starr, Jane’s Addiction, Mountain Goats, Pavement, Built to Spill, Pachelbel, Spoon, Nat King Cole, Kinks, Beach Boys, Elliott Smith, among others.
Some Dear Damage pieces are short (one or two paragraphs) and some are longer, segmented essays, thoughtful and poignant. The reader’s view feels unobscured as the prose is clear, frank, and probing.
Farmer includes nontraditional formats, as well, where she emphasizes and elucidates and ruminates. She gives us “If,” two pages of single-line dependent clauses searching for an alternative history, beginning with, “If my grandmother hadn’t fallen that afternoon. / If she’d fallen a different way, just by an inch or two.” She gives us “Selected Internet Comments, 2014 – 2015,” curated after the shooting of her grandmother, stark and sharp. She gives a short, gut-punch paragraph, “Contradiction, 2014,” with the opening phrase, “That compassion can also be a crime.” She gives us a listing, “Titles of Essays I Didn’t Write,” which includes “The Sounds of Trees from My Youth” and “Things You Don’t Have to Be Taught.” She gives us a writerly reflection on point of view, in “Second Person,” and considers distance and intimacy, the slippery “I” within the “you.”
Throughout, the author ponders things. She ponders the dark and the light and whether her book has enough of the latter. She indirectly weighs the term “American,” as an adjective, mentioning American Spirit beer, American Dream essay, American vocabulary, American Dream Dictionary, and titles an essay “American Dream Job.” She considers guns and what part firearms have played in her own life. She thinks about what it was like for others in the hospital that day, people who heard the gunshot.
In beautiful, revelatory prose, Farmer thinks about Bill and Frances Dresser as her own grandparents, as her mother’s parents, and as people who used to be young and live near the Pacific Ocean; as people who grew old together, long joined as a pair. Frances, who painted landscapes, volunteered at the hospital, brought over ice cream in little Styrofoam cups, took Farmer shopping for bathing suits. Bill, who hitchhiked once with a friend, did handstands on the beach, worked as a shipyard mechanic, and made Farmer a kid-sized chair out of willow branches. The author describes her grandparents with such affection, unearthing their histories and showing them finishing one another’s sentences in the audio transcripts. Grief and tenderness and compassion and reverence and pain and love all flow, together, in the telling,
“When I’d visit, he and I talked like we always had, sometimes about my grandmother, sometimes not, and never about the shooting. We drank diet sodas in lawn chairs and watched lizards skitter on the deck. I’d kiss his cheek and tell him I loved him, even though he was shy about those words. I wasn’t shy: straightforwardness about love felt urgent now. Meanwhile, my grandmother’s paintings in the living room, the hallway, the bedrooms took on a new significance.”
In Dear Damage, Ashley Marie Farmer has given us a window into her life experience through compelling storytelling, lovely language, and welcome grace. In an Appendix, she includes her own “Letter to the Public Defender” written on May 6, 2015, about her relationship to her grandparents, followed by the legal “Motion to Dismiss” document dated June 18, 2015. Together, they are a powerful epilogue.
Farmer says, in the book, “I’m trying to build a house.”
Brava, I say, for the showing us all the rooms.
Laura Johnsrude’s creative nonfiction pieces have been published in Hippocampus Magazine, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Bellevue Literary Review, Fourth Genre, Minerva Rising, The Boom Project anthology, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is a recent graduate from Spalding University’s Master of Arts in Writing program, Professional Writing track.