I discovered Louise DeSalvo (1942-2018) in Helen Barolini’s The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian-American Women. DeSalvo is another writer with much to share about the Italian-American experience, as well as being a writer, and life in general.
Read our post on Barolini here: Italian American Writer Helen Barolini: The Dream Book
This post will focus on DeSalvo’s first memoir, Vertigo (2002), one of four she ultimately published. I will certainly read at least one more of her memoirs, Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family (2004), but I may read them all since getting to know DeSalvo better than I do already is alluring.
DeSalvo also wrote two books on being a writer and writing, both definitely worth the read. They are Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (2000) and The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity (2014).
DeSalvo was a Virginia Woolf scholar. Her book Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work (1989) remains highly regarded, as do her other scholarly works. Through sustained intense research on Woolf, she becomes DeSalvo’s mentor, her model. Virginia Woolf awakens DeSalvo to feminism and to being a woman who writes and lives life fully.
In Vertigo: A Memoir, DeSalvo leads us through her life in a chronological fashion, for the most part. She witnesses and explores her metamorphosis, from a very small child in the cocoon of an almost suffocating family, to the beautiful and liberated butterfly she becomes, alighting in the wider world, living a life she could not have imagined for herself.
As with most nasty women writers, DeSalvo is refreshingly honest, authentic and unafraid. This bold stance is not new to DeSalvo the writer, who as a child, and a puny one at that, would speak up, challenge adults, and doggedly struggle to secure her footing in a world that felt off-kilter.
While reading the passages in the memoir describing when the men were away due to WWII, I was shocked by DeSalvo’s unabashed honesty! Although shocked, I knew precisely what she meant and wondered why we uphold lives that are restrictive, instead of ones that are more communally joyous.
“Before the war, hellos between women and children were exchanged politely and briefly, as we passed one another on the stairs, or on the streets outside…Families went to church on Sundays when everyone dressed up in their best to show how affluent they wished they were, and parents trundled their children in perambulators or strollers up and down sidewalks.
“But after the men left for war, the women, who were left behind to raise their families single-handedly, threw open all the doors to their apartments, and children began to clatter up and down the five flights of stairs at all hours of the day and night. Women and children wandered from one apartment to another without ceremony or invitation. Children played together on landings, and in the weedy enclosed courtyard, which was completely off limits when the men were in residence – the sound of shrieking voices was too trying for them after their long, hard day’s work”(51).
My little taste of this abandon were the nights my father wouldn’t be home for dinner. Those nights my mother would cook breakfast for dinner, forget the meat and potatoes! The lightness of such an off-script meal was an absolute delight. It was like a party those nights. Pancakes never tasted so good! Nothing against my father, of course, but when he was home, the meal was expected to be the standard fare and behavior was more subdued. When dad was away, the cats would play!
DeSalvo goes on:
“Although the women say they miss their men (and try to teach their children to miss them as well), and although they spend hours of every day penning long accounts of their brave and unhappy lives alone to their husbands in combat, their lives, and those of their children, are far happier than either before their husbands go to war or after their husbands return home”(53).
This is a hard truth for many, I would imagine. In these passages, there’s not necessarily blame aimed at the men, but a recognition of the common misery created by the patriarchy, the strict standards of the nuclear family.
DeSalvo describes herself:
“I was a girl, too young for school, very small for my age, and working-class, and Italian. In the eyes of the world, I wasn’t worth much, and wouldn’t amount to anything. But my father had already told me that I had a “big mouth,” a penchant for “back talk,” and that, whenever we argued, (which was often), I needed to have the last word. He said it in a way that was critical, but also admiring. I did have a big mouth; I expressed my opinions whether they were wanted or not; I always talked back if someone said something that I regarded as wrong, or stupid, despite the consequences; I never started talking unless I was sure I had something to say, and never stopped talking until I had proven my point and gotten the other person to agree with me, or give up in despair”(77).
Like myself, DeSalvo was a third generation Italian-American, subject to unfair and outdated traditions, such as hanging all the hopes of the family on one lone star, usually the first-born male. But the lone star in the Sciacchetano family, her father’s, is little Louise.
“I don’t know why I am singled out this way. Nor do I know whether I would have been singled out in this way despite my accomplishments, if my father wasn’t my grandparents only son, or if I had an older brother or cousin, for, in Italian-American families, males usually get the best treatment. But in many Italian-American families, one child is often selected by family elders to carry all the hopes for success of the family. For whatever reason, in my family, I am that child”(69).
On the surface, this attention from her grandparents is flattering, but it creates a chasm with her cousins. This dynamic on top of feeling like an outsider at school perpetuates a sense of aloneness, a feeling of not fitting in. As she grows, DeSalvo looks for ways to escape her home. Between the constant arguing with her father and her mother and sister’s depression, she adopts a rebellious stance, a means to survival in her toughest teen years.
Although life at home is not ideal, her parents do take DeSalvo’s early interest in reading and studying seriously and set a desk up for her, creating a space in the house where she can work. She often spends hours there, even though she has completed her school assignments, simply to be left alone.
DeSalvo is honest and detailed about her promiscuous teen years; years when she decides to conduct herself as she chooses, unbeknownst to her parents. This behavior involves a lot of riskiness and although she’s unsure about the wisdom of her choices, she is determined to find her own way. That she survives high school into college rather unscathed provides her readers a sense of relief!
“I just want to be a girl who does whatever she wants, who doesn’t follow the rules of how a girl is supposed to behave.
“What I have noticed even at age thirteen is that doing what you’re supposed to do if you’re a woman doesn’t necessarily bring rewards”(133).
DeSalvo points out examples of women in her life who have followed all the rules, putting their own needs and passions aside. And their husbands left them anyway. She is observant, a writer in the making, and is able to see what she wants versus what she does not want.
“Yet there aren’t any marriages I have seen or read about that are like the one I’d like to have for myself – a working partnership, with tenderness and respect…
“There aren’t any women who are married when I’ve read about or seen who are what I’d like to be when I grow up. And there aren’t any women who aren’t married whom I’ve read about or seen who are what I’d like to be when I grow up.
“And though I’m cocky, and have a big mouth, and my father always tells me I have all the answers, I know I don’t have any of the answers about love, about being grown up”(160).
This is minefield territory she encounters, even into her marriage that almost ends after the birth of her first child and her husband’s affair. DeSalvo navigates this rough patch with bewilderment and grace, moving beyond surviving to thriving.
It becomes clear she will go to college and her mother is the one who actually suggests Douglass College (Rutgers University), primarily for its affordability. DeSalvo reluctantly agrees and later admits that it was a great choice.
“I am the first person in our Italian-American family – the first of ten cousins – to go to college. My paternal grandparents are proud of me…My grandmother has slipped a $10 bill into my hand the last time I have seen her. She wipes the tears in her eyes with the handkerchief she keeps in the sleeve of her dress. Her tears come easily. Her life has been hard. My grandfather, though he favors me, is a very difficult husband who often abandoned his family to return to Italy. My grandmother tells me she hopes my life will be easier than hers”(196).
In many ways, with an education and increased options, DeSalvo’s life is easier than her grandmother’s, having come directly from Italy. Maybe easier isn’t the best word because DeSalvo’s life is not easy, but it’s safe to say she is able to cultivate more fulfillment, in all aspects of her life.
DeSalvo, though admittedly “boy crazy” agrees to attend this all-girls school.
“I am lucky, on many counts, in choosing Douglass, an all-girls school, though I don’t realize this at first. An all-girls school will become a haven where I can test and sharpen my intellect, away from the distracting influence of boys, where I will learn that I have the interest and ability to do rigorous intellectual work, where I will have brilliant women professors as role models”(197).
College is a true turning point for DeSalvo. Academia becomes her life, one she never could have dreamed for herself. She steps into this realm with courage and passion, along with a strong dose of doubt.
Eventually spending hour upon hour, days, weeks, months and years with Virginia Woolf greatly impacts DeSalvo as a writer and a person.
“As I record the progress of Virginia Woolf’s days to figure out what she was doing as she was writing The Voyage Out, I start realizing that this was one hell of a woman, filled with incredible energy, so different from my original impression of her…I decide that it would be foolish of me to spend endless days alone inside the libraries working on Woolf when the great woman of my dreams had spent no small portion of hers walking around the countryside, cultivating important relationships, particularly with women, taking tea, learning to bake bread, teaching, getting involved in politics, becoming an essayist, a novelist, integrating work and pleasure, and having what seemed to be, in contrast to my confined scholarly life, a hell of a good time”(228).
This is another revelation in DeSalvo’s life, one that instructs her to establish a balance between living and working. One that enables her to accomplish all that she does, both personally and professionally.
“When I first started my work on Woolf, I wasn’t a feminist. I read her novels, first. And A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, later. Reading these, while trying to earn a degree, manage a household, and raise children, showed me the many of my struggles weren’t idiosyncratic: they were rooted in assumptions about how women and men should behave. These assumptions Woolf taught me, were not immutable. Society could change if individual women made changes in the way they lived their private lives. Although my feminism has informed all the writing I do, to me the most important part of being a feminist meant changing the way our household functioned…Woolf’s own marriage was a model for this”(240).
Her commitment to creating a life she cherishes leads to her shepherding others into this world of writing while living, writing to enhance life, creating a rich and full existence.
Here are a few of our posts on Virginia Woolf:
I haven’t mentioned some of DeSalvo’s most intense chapters in Vertigo, the one about her sister’s suicide and the chapters that explore her complex and strained relationship with her mother. As one reads, it’s clear that DeSalvo is discovering much about her life at the same time as the reader. Truly, both the writing and reading of this memoir exudes and promulgates healing.
Early on in Vertigo DeSalvo states:
“As a working-class girl, born and raised in Hoboken, New Jersey, how could I hope to fulfill a life’s ambition, to do serious intellectual work, to become a critic, a writer? Though I had read scores of books, not one had been written by an Italian-American woman. I had no role model among the women of my background to urge me on”(51).
Yet not only does DeSalvo discover role models, such as Virginia Woolf and Helen Barolini, but she herself becomes a powerful model and remains so.
Louise DeSalvo is a Nasty Woman Writer.
DeSalvo, Louise. Vertigo. Penguin Books, USA, 1996.