The Dark Knowing Secret of Incest in Paula Vogel’s, How I Learned To Drive
Are we still a society that looks away from a situation where a family member acts inappropriately towards another family member? Are we still willing to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that just what happened before our very eyes wasn’t really what we saw? We have all heard someone say, “He would never do that, he is such a nice man. I’m sure that you must have taken it wrong?” In these situations, people have a tendency to dismiss, mostly because it’s terribly uncomfortable to even think about, let alone confront the person that you love and respect. By not saying anything, are we allowing this situation to progress along the path of incest and demeaning the victim as if their worth is insignificant? Once we talk about the possibilities of incest out loud, either to ourselves or someone else, then it makes it real, and then it becomes an extremely frightening fact.
In Paula Vogel’s play, How I Learned To Drive, she brings this forbidden topic of incest up front and personal to the audience, with the two main characters being Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck. Vogel is able to deliver a message to the spectators regarding this looked over situation in such a sardonic way that it makes it easier to digest for the viewers. Vogel writes a scene in the play where the whole family is sitting down for dinner and the grandfather of Li’l Bit mentions that she is going to have a taste of reality when she goes off to college. When the grandfather at the dinner talks, he talks about Li’l Bit as if she wasn’t even there, a nobody, invisible:
MALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Grandfather.) What does she need a college degree for?
She’s got all the credentials she’ll need on her chest--
She’s got all the credentials she’ll need on her chest--
LI’L BIT. --Maybe I want to learn things. Read. Rise above my cracker background—(14)
Li’l Bit’s grandfather is humiliating her in front of her family and letting her know that women have no business going to college because they are only put on this earth to be a play toy for males. Li’l Bit’s grandfather has devalued her as a human, but Li’l Bit is trying to fight back in order to emerge from her white middle class background.
Vogel continues on with this dinner scene with Li’l Bit and family. Finally, Li’l Bit has had enough of this demeaning conversation and blows up at her grandfather and walks away from the dinner table. Her Aunt Mary converses with her husband Peck, and at this point, she says something that is very telling. Vogel does this subtly, but if the audience is listening closely, they will realize that Aunt Mary really knows what is going on with Peck and Li’l Bit:
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Aunt Mary.) Peck, go after her, will you? You’re the
only one she’ll listen to when she gets like this.
PECK. She just needs to cool off.
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Aunt Mary.) Please, honey--Grandma’s been on her feet cooking all day.
PECK. All right
LI’L BIT. And as he left the room, Aunt Mary would say:
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Aunt Mary.) Peck’s so good with them when they get
to be this age.(15)
Vogel has carefully used verbiage to insinuate that Peck has had experience with this type of situation before and she say, ‘them,’ meaning that there has been more girls on Peck’s victim list. Aunt Mary isn’t the only one that assists in this unhealthy relationship.
Vogel wants her audience to additionally realize that it is not only families that help demean and push young girls toward bad situations, even though they know that it is morally wrong and illegal. People like this usually don’t want to get involved or there could be a motive such as financial gain. Vogel has written a scene at the restaurant with Peck and the waiter. The scene that Vogel has written is understated, but on stage, the audience can see the physical gestures of Peck raising his eyebrows and rubbing his fingers together to indicate a large tip for the waiter. Vogel has the waiter, after he has served the drink, makes a gesture and sighs that seems to relieve the waiter of his guilt:
LI’L BIT. –Could I have another mar-ti-ni, please?
PECK. I think this is your last one. (Peck signals the Waiter. The Waiter looks at Li’l Bit
and shakes his head no. Peck raises his eye-brow, raises his finger to indicate one more, and then rubs his fingers together. It looks like a secret code. The Waiter sighs, shakes his head sadly, and brings over another empty martini glass. He glares at Peck.) (21)
Sadly there are people that will go ahead and do an illegal act, for financial gain. Somehow these people have a way of being able to justify their deed of helping the perpetrator, without much guilt.
In this play, How I Learned To Drive, Vogel has also played upon the guilt vs. justifying factor. The explanation for this theory is when a person has done something against the norms of our society and is trying to justify their actions to whoever will listen to them, so the person that is being deviant can relieve themselves of guilt. Vogel has written a scene where Aunt Mary is justifying Peck’s actions due to his inner demons and that her niece is really the one that has enticed Peck over to the dark side:
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Aunt Mary.)
(Sharply.) I’m not a fool. I know what’s going on. I wish you could feel how hard Peck
fights against it—He’s swimming against the tide, and what he needs is to see me on the shore, believing in him, knowing he won’t go under, he won’t give up—
and I want to say this about my niece. She’s a sly one that she is. She knows exactly what she’s doing; she’s twisted Peck around her little finger and thinks it’s all a big secret. Yet another one who’s borrowing my husband until it doesn’t suit her anymore. (45)
Clearly in this scene Vogel has alerted the audience, if they haven’t gotten it by now, that Peck has done this many times before, and Aunt Mary chooses to ignore it and push Li’l Bit towards him. Aunt Mary wants this to end and chooses to blame Li’l Bit for this situation, even though she has had a heavy hand in this relationship.
Li’l Bit is a very young, naive girl and her family obviously was dysfunctional. Li’l Bit’s family and external forces are assisting in pushing her along into this incestuous relationship with her Uncle Peck. Her family does this knowing and not knowing, like the saying, “eyes wide shut.” Her family devalues her as a person; she is invisible to them to some degree. Vogel does a fabulous job at bringing this horribly real situation to life on stage. The play makes a person think about their personal experiences or possibly having seen behavior that fits the incest profile. Optimistically, this play may open some peoples’ eyes about the real world around them and perhaps it might provide strength to others that have a dark, knowing secret.
Vogel, Paula. How I Learned To Drive. New York: DRAMATISTS PLAY SERVICE, INC., 1997. PRINT.