Yemassee Review: "Belief Is It's Own Kind of Truth, Maybe" by Lori Jakiela

Atticus Books, Aug. 2015
Paperback: 290 pages, $12.95
Review by Stacy Pendergrast

Bias Alert: Long before I read Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, I was already a diehard fan of Lori Jakiela. She’s a “serial memoirist,” someone who keeps writing about her life.

I read her first memoir, Miss New York Has Everything, when she was my professor in a graduate writing program. Note that she didn’t snootily assign her own work—I thought I might “cheat” by reading it to find her formula for writing. But instead of parsing her method, I fell wholly into the stories about her quirky family in suburban Pittsburgh. There was her aunt, a nun and a tortured pill addict whose underwear shocks the snooping teenage Lori. Her father, a steelworker, spouted more one-liners than Archie Bunker on his best day. Her mother sewed velvet and sparkly That Girl outfits for little Lori who had a dream of growing up and moving to New York City just like Marlo Thomas’ character did.

Her dreams are what the book is about—how Jakiela makes them come true, and how she finds the bittersweet when the realities don’t read like sitcom scripts.

In her second book, The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious, Jakiela shows us how she gave up that dream job as an international flight attendant and her bohemian apartment in New York for the role of taking care of her dying mother back at home. Her mother had a bad heart and fought cancer, but in her last days she still had the gusto to flatten an advancing snake with a shovel. In an early chapter, Jakiela positions the picture of her mother’s snake murder against the backdrop of a childhood memory in which her mother had saved young Lori’s hand from a snake in a blackberry bush. These carefully juxtaposed extracts resemble a diorama that allows the viewer to enter a three-dimensional world. Our hearts break along with the author’s because she shuffles just the right memories and then squeezes every bit of insight and raw feeling from them. That is what Jakiela does best—and she does it to perfection in her newest memoir.

“When my real mother dies, I go looking for another one,” Jakiela flatly tells us in the first sentence of Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe. The work has been called an adoptee memoir, and certainly the reader keeps turning pages to find out how the writer fares in connecting with her birth mother. Along the way, we get a searing account of what it means to be viewed as “illegitimate,” and how it feels to yearn for a mother who wishes to forget your conception, let alone your living being.

Like her other ones, this book doesn’t fit neatly into a certain category. Jakiela plucks two tines of an emotional tuning fork—her parallel journeys to know both her biological and adopted families. The pain of these twin stories resonates but produces the pure-toned hum of Jakiela’s much-loved current life with her husband and two children.

So, it’s a memoir trifecta. It’s hard to discern just how Jakiela so expertly pulls off this braiding of three emotional journeys.

Part of her success lies in her fearless ability to question and reexamine—to mine stubborn family stories and memories in the context of her current experiences. Early on, she tells us, “I wonder if my story, the one my parents told me and the one I helped invent, has been wrong from the start.” In creating a narrative that is closer to her true one, she portrays her life in vignettes and reflections that flip back and forth from past to present. So seamless are the time shifts, the reader is free to marvel at the emerging patterns. With the grit of a journalist (she is one), Jakiela digs into memories—of her own and of her late parents, fellow adoptees, college friends, and others. She carefully stacks recollected scenes, one by one, against raw episodes from her current life. She ruminates about downright nasty emails from her biological mother and sister. She tells pithy anecdotes about other adoptees (her cousin and her friend). She reflects on “aha” moments in a grocery store. She shares insights that come from an eclectic mix of sources such as a TV game show, a woman selling Russian nesting dolls, the theme song from Doctor Zhivago, or a surly shopping-mall Santa.

One of my favorite sequences is in chapter eight, when Jakiela is reeling from some bad news about her birth mother’s wishes. Here the writer masterfully shuffles scenes in which she plays with a toy cash register with her son, remembers her child self saying “I love you” to her parents, vents to her husband, meditates on motherhood while shopping at Target, and ponders Anne Sexton’s suicide. In the hands of a less skilled writer, these extracts might have jumbled like a heap of unmatched socks. But Jakiela sorts her angst from moments of gratitude. In the last vignette of this chapter, in another Target trip with her daughter, and under the glare of fluorescent lights, Jakiela pulls all the moments together, as if melding still pictures of a rose into a time-lapse film of its blooming.

Though she sleuths with the doggedness of a reporter, this author renders everyday messes with philosophy and poetry. Toward the end of the book, the writer shocks us by revealing a painful family secret. Throughout the book, it is through gathered shards, dropped one at a time, that Jakiela models how to both face and let go of ugly realities, while still holding onto comfort and hope. There is no “maybe” about this writer’s belief in truth-seeking.

Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoirs, The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious and Miss New York Has Everything, as well as the poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist!, and several limited-edition poetry chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and elsewhere. She’s worked as a bingo-hall waitress and a journalist, and spent nearly seven years as a New York City-based flight attendant for Delta Air Lines. She now teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and lives in Pittsburgh with her husband/author Dave Newman and their two children.

Stacy Pendergrast earned her MFA from Chatham University where she studied memoir. Her creative nonfiction has been featured in Sliver of Stone Magazine and Blue Mesa Review. She has also been a guest reader on NPR’s syndicated show, Tales from the South. Stacy is the Poetry Editor for The Low Valley Review, a literary and arts journal from NorthWest Arkansas Community College.