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Vogel’s “How I Learned To Drive”

Incest and molestation are issues which are often unsurprisingly portrayed in a dark and less than agreeable light. In such cases, there’s always two generic principal characters, the victim, who is personified by an ingenue: wide-eyed, beautiful, and achingly unaware of unfortunate circumstances to ensue; and her oppressor, a typically older, sleazy, reprobate man.

But this flat and one-dimensional portrayal of ‘characters’ which dismisses the molested as a simple “victim” and the molestor as entirely “evil” is not how Paula Vogel approaches the instance of sexual molestation and incestuous relations. Vogel’s “How I Learned To Drive” relates the story of a young woman, simply referred to as “Li’l Bit,” who struggles to come to terms with past experiences of being molested by her uncle, at a time when – following suit to the play’s title – he was supposedly giving her driving lessons.

Circumstances progress from her uncle’s initial sexual advances when she was eleven years old and too young to understand what was happening, up until college when her uncle continues to pursue Li’l Bit and she pointedly refuses him, which led to his alcohol prompted suicide. As a much older woman, Li’l Bit learns to forgive her uncle of his wrongdoings; and looking back she learns that despite himself and what he has done, his uncle was able to impart on her, the freedom which comes in learning how to drive, in the literal and metaphorical sense of the phrase.

There’s more to just the usual ‘victim’ and ‘oppressor’ in “How I Learned To Drive,” as Li’l Bit, and her uncle are not solely any of those things. While “Uncle Peck,” as the narrator refers to him, likely deserves at least an ounce of contempt from audiences or readers, and despite the number of sexual advances he’s insisted on Li’l Bit, Vogel manages to harp on the nature of human fallibility and plays it in close regard to Uncle Peck.

When Li’l Bit learns of the nature of her uncle’s advances, and despite uneasiness, chooses not to distance herself from him because of a seeming shared bond which stems from them being apparent outsiders in the family, she is choosing to act on her own terms, and is not a mere victim paralyzed by fear because of another person’s wrongdoing. When Li’l Bit goes to college, and Uncle Peck decides to pursue her by writing letters and sending her gifts, eventually going as far as asking her not only to engage in intercourse, but also marry Peck, Li’l Bit refuses his uncle and ultimately severs their complex kindred relations.

In the end, perhaps it isn’t so much as the literalness of learning to drive or driving a car which Vogel or the heroine in the story, Li’l Bit contemplates being grateful for; but also the experiences she’s gone through, however unpleasant, and fraught with complexities, which has taught or perhaps earned her the proverbial license or capacity to run past other obstacles and undertakings life has to offer.

“Lessons” which commanded strength and maturity, and in turn, gave her a sense of freedom. It was difficult to reconcile the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ asppects of the characters, particularly that of uncle Peck, despite of what he’s done, because at the same time he was also to some degree a kindred spirit whom Li’l Bit felt both uneasy and comfortable, and almost drew strength from.

But perhaps there is no distinctly singular ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in an individual, only differing aspects which comprises every person: strength, fallibility, the capacity to do both good and evil, and to choose to go to one or the other, or both. Ultimately, the central theme which runs in Vogel’s “How I Learned To Drive” is not so much as the drama, intrigue and pain that comes necessarily attached to incest and molestation, but essentially, about humanity.

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