Talking out of School
Memoir of an Educated Woman

Kass Fleisher
(Dalkey Archive)
You think your childhood was a pain; wait until you read about Fleisher's. It's Mommie Dearest without the Hollywood stardom (Fleisher's mother was a teacher and head of the teacher's union somewhere in central Pennsylvania).

For instance, there is the matter of the missing Oreos. "Who ate the Oreos?" asks mother.

    I stare at her. She yanks my brother's unresponsive arm. "Who?" she demands. "Who ate the Oreos?"

    I stare at Captain Queeg with a mutinous eye.

    Her hand is across my face before I can blink.

    "We had some after supper," I say, stepping back.

    "How many?"

    "Four, like always."

    We're allowed four each after supper every night.

    Sometimes we sneak extra.

    "How many did you have?"

    "Four." In this instance, I'm pretty sure I'm right.

    She jerks my brother's arm. "Did you have extra?"

    "Extra what?" my brother says.

    She tosses him across the galley kitchen, where he crashes against cupboards.

After some more hair-pulling and shin-kicking, the two of them are ordered upstairs into Mum's bedroom, where she points out that someone has been sneaking peeks at the Christmas toys, hidden in the closet. Her punishment: one by one she pulls out and destroys all the presents (including a John Denver record and a kit model of the USS Enterprise).

"I told you kids and told you kids. Christmas is supposed to be a surprise. It's no fun for the giver if it's not a surprise."

    She throws the model box on the floor and jams all her foot through the box and fragile plastic, twisting as if to put out a cigarette.

Finally, she sends them off to bed with one last warning: "I felt the back of that TV set --- it's hot. I know you were up watching TV --- you're both grounded, two weeks!"

The first third of Talking out of School is Life with Mother, and is it nerve-wracking for Kass, her brother, and the poor reader! We never know when Mum will turn up again to yell, hit, yank hair, kick, slap, throw them across the room, complain about their grades, go off in a rage about their lying, cheating, stealing, not cleaning the house, not feeding the dog. By the time Kass is ready to take off for college --- around page 100 --- we are pretty well worn out by these shitfits there in the suburbs of central Pennsylvania.

Where, by the way, is Dad in all this? After an early divorce he's been hiding out across town from this gorgon of the union hall. There is a step-father who turns up long enough to win Mum then, heavy with drink, bashes her around some. Revenge! It's rather cheering, this turning of tables, but then there's a seedy divorce, he's out of the picture and it's back to the usual beatings, yanking, kicking and stompings for the two youngsters.

§     §     §

The final two-thirds of Talking out of School is a let-down. The drama of two kids growing up in a house of mad rage is gripping, and is written with such control that the reader gets pulled in. The story of Kass out in the world turns sour and bitter: failed marriages, ingrown universities, save-their-ass school bureaucrats, professors trying to hit up on her ... "Wanna have lunch?" ... "I've got a cabin out in the country where you could relax..."

Kass is a fighter, and fights her way through several colleges, through college lit programs, colliding with administrators and teachers on questions of women's studies, political and social justice, minority rights. Outside of Donne and Milton and Shakespeare, it's a veritable snake-pit. The few women like her who have PhD's are given little respect and no honor.

But the message is mixed. For instance, her first teaching job at a real university is out in Idaho, for crumbs' sakes, where the student body is 65% Mormon and 98% white. She's puzzled as to why her department head turns down her plan to teach a second course in "The Literature of Revolution." Here we are in Bumfuck Idaho and Kass wants another class in Marx and Bakunin and Trotsky. Her boss, beholden to the Bishop of the third stake of the Idaho Branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints demurs and she wonders why.

The truth is, after Kass gets out from under mother's thumb she makes an absurd career decision: she goes off to be a professor of English. Those of us who made the same mistake either bailed out as soon as possible or retreated into being mumbling alcoholics who taught as few classes as possible and specialized in the printing history of "Two Gentlemen of Verona."

Early on, Fleisher tells mommy, between slugfests, that she wants to be a lawyer. It would have been a perfect career choice for her. Taking on rapacious corporations, bashing hidebound educational institutions, suing national, state and local governments over racial injustice, sexual harassment, gay rights, women's issues. But no, she had to choose English, the most antediluvian, hapless, deprived dead-end career of them all. With that decision, she condemned herself to endless frustration.

I suggest we take up a fund to get Kass back in university with a scholarship to a fast-track law school where, when she graduates, she can begin to tackle the full panoply of social, political and economic injustices ... injustices almost as gruesome as those she grew up with.

--- Lolita Lark
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH