Spring/Summer 2014. Issue 9

Spring/Summer 2014. Issue 9

Melissa Shook, Contributing Editor

Secrecy was the watchword of my childhood as I kept up the pretence of being a normal blue-eyed blonde who would graduate from high school in 1957. Years later, after living in New York City and being, like everyone else, in therapy, I started announcing the gist of my story  – after my mother died of cancer when I was twelve, I erased almost all memory of my childhood and only know what she looked like through snapshots in the family album. My passive father, with a PhD in math, married badly and drank himself silly. After high school, things got worse for a few years, then I got pregnant and had a baby. I was not married to her father, an African-American painter, and had no idea how I would support the three of us. Etc.

Without understanding the depth of and reasons for this obsession, I began to photograph my daughter and her life within weeks of her birth. With much encouragement from Will Faller, a friend who taught me to develop film and print, and a bit later, with help from many hands-from-the-side-of-the-stage, my work was discovered and I was offered my first part-time job teaching photography. Though it’s hard to believe, looking back on it all, the direction of my career was essentially accidental and I had no idea that I’d ever become an artist.

In my teenage years, I tried to read the novels that had been my mother’s, but nothing in them described anything close to the turmoil that my life had become. I have never forgiven those bound books, with gold embossed titles, anymore than I forgave the house that my mother had loved for not having protected the family. I like memoir for many reasons, but am particularly interested in the ways folks from disruptive childhoods have managed to survive and carve out interesting lives. I also am drawn to issues of race and class, since my path took me from an early middle-class suburban environment to the slums of NY in the 60s. I am always aware that I’m an older, white, American woman who hasn’t traveled and that I’d prefer to be a fly on the wall listening to stories of different lives.

www.melissashook.com