Confessions of Joan the Tall
By Joan Cusack Handler
Channeling the indelible voice of her 11-and-three-quarters year-old self, poet and psychologist Joan Cusack Handler travels back to her Irish-Catholic Bronx childhood, circa 1954, in her candid, poignant, and witty new memoir, CONFESSIONS OF JOAN THE TALL (CavanKerry Press; November 2012; $21.00). Told in a series of diary entries-cum-devotions to God, this account of growing up amid the tandem comfort and anxiety of the Catholic faith explores young Joan’s adolescent growing pains, yearnings, and questions against a finely-wrought backdrop of family, religion, self-image, and blossoming sexuality.
“A truly remarkable book,” says Roland Merullo, author of Breakfast with Buddha and The Talk-Funny Girl. “ It captures both the complex emotions of an adolescent in an ethnic, working-class neighborhood, and the unwritten social and spiritual rules of 1950s American Catholicism. Somehow, though told in the voice of a young girl, the story has about it a psychological and emotional subtlety and complexity that is fully mature. It’s impossible not to like Joan, impossible not to feel for her in the depths of her coming of age struggles, and impossible for anyone raised in a devout Catholic family to keep from smiling and nodding at the author’s insights into the Roman Catholic mindset.” “The narrator is beautifully alive to the endless hazards, complications, and indignities of growing up,” adds Baron Wormser, author of Impenitent Notes and The Poetry Life. “So much of the wisdom of childhood lies in the strange blend of endurance and enchantment.”
Young Joan lives with her Irish immigrant parents and her three siblings in a small house in the Edgewater section of the Bronx. Daily life is circumscribed by the strictures of Catholic school and the deep-seated sense of morality and faith that dictates every aspect of home life as well. Joan’s father, a plumber, is a thoughtful, devout man whom she adores. Her relationship with her volatile mother is more complex. Joan also looks up to her “glamorous” sixteen-year-old sister, Catherine, and forges a companionable alliance with younger brother, Jerry. It is brother Sonny, just eleven months older than she, with whom she has the greatest strife. A talented artist in his own right, Sonny nonetheless resents his bookish younger sister, and he retaliates with cruel torments, much of it targeted at Joan’s inordinate height—nearly six feet tall before she is twelve.
As young Joan navigates her singular—and yet universally familiar—passage through puberty, she struggles not only with her height, but with other issues that we would today call “body image,” but which had no name back then. She wrestles, too, with faith, relishing the enveloping embrace of the Church, yet worrying that God might ask the ultimate sacrifice and call her to the religious life. She wishes nothing more than to make God happy – and her pious earthly father, too – yet she craves the trappings of the material world: poodle skirts and Cadillacs and shopping trips to Manhattan. Slowly, she begins to come to terms with her sense of self, to face her nascent sexuality, and to understand the peculiarities of her beloved, if flawed family, as she recognizes that every journey to Heaven makes a stop in Purgatory.
“CONFESSIONS OF JOAN THE TALL is a splendid book, and Joan the Tall is a splendid girl—brave, effervescent and vulnerable,” says Molly Peacock, author of The Paper Garden and The Second Blush. “She flubs the rules of the Catholic church, she flubs the rules of family life, and amidst the quandaries, sins, punishments, and totally divine greedy moment in this story of her Irish American family, she grows into what tallness can mean—the ability to see from a mountaintop.”