A life of despair redeemed through the power of art

“I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl: a Memoir,” by Kelle Groom. Free Press. 256 pages. $23.00.

Like a lot of must-read books, “I Wore the Ocean” is a difficult book to read. 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 really 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 nineteen, was a mixed blessing. It was a gift and a loss. Motherhood gave Kelle Groom a more powerful sense of herself. She was more anchored 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 fourteen 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, of building a solid identify, of finding a productive addiction, and of gaining perspective and understanding.

Kelle Groom photo by Marion Ettinger

Kelle Groom’s process of self-making through art resulted in three collections of poetry and now this glorious memoir, based largely on journal entries written over many, many years.

A major thread in the book is Ms. Groom’s 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, Massachusetts 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 thirty-year old home movies that Kelle Groom has processed onto a video compact disc. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 29, 2011 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 30 issue of the Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Kelle Groom or here: Kelle Groom pdf – 1 and here: Kelle Groom pdf – 2

Note: Since this review first appeared, Groom’s memoir has made it to Oprah’s Summer Reading List.

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