A review of The Part That Burns by Jeannine Ouellette

Reviewed by Frank Fitzpatrick

The Part That Burns
by Jeannine Ouellette
Split/Lip Press
Jan 4, 2021, Paperback : 172 pages, ISBN-13 : 978-1952897061

Jeannine Ouellette’s courageous and gripping memoir The Part That Burns should be read by everyone. Her life story provides clear insight into how childhood sexual abuse impacts both the victims and their families.

Like Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club, Ouellette’s story takes place in two distinct geographic areas. The author of The Part That Burns spent her entire childhood in a gypsy-like existence as her mother and stepfather moved them from Minnesota to Wyoming. Unlike her mother who ignored her daughter’s abuse, the author reveals to the reader very early in her book how it began when she was a small child. “I was four when I first learned to play. Once you learn, you don’t forget.”

The book is not written in chronological order as the author skips around from various periods in her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as she reveals how the sexual abuse she suffered impacted her entire life including the dissolution of her first marriage.

In addition to the molestation, Ouellette is physically and emotionally abused by her mentally ill mother who often throws her out of the house for minor infractions. Initially she is taken in by her biological father and step-mother, but when that doesn’t work out she ends up in foster care until she is able to move out on her own at eighteen.

Ouellette’s memoir is also an inspiring account of survival.  While many children who suffer abuse turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve their pain, the author sought her own escape through nature. The following passage is also a reflection of her beautiful language skills. “One day I find a hidden canyon full of wildflowers. This is the kind of place where I might find a doorway. Not my favorite kind of doorway, where two branches meet to form an arch that you can step through into another dimension. I won’t find that, because there are no trees in the canyon. But maybe, I could find another doorway, like a circle of wildflowers where the sun casts its rays at precisely the right slant to open the door to a new world.”

This metaphor is repeated often. “Here is the thing about doorways: once you step through them, you can’t go back. Even if you do, you will never see the world the same way as before.”

Another theme which runs throughout this memoir is her contention that the abuse that she suffered left DNA fingerprints on her body which can never be removed. “The body knows what it knows, and skin remembers.” Ouellette also describes how she came to believe that the trauma from her sexual abuse even manifested itself into the body of her unborn first child. “I didn’t know about cellular memories before I decided, recklessly, to allow babies into my body. When I’m fiery and floating, I watch myself from above. My body is not me. I am the part that burns.”

While this memoir chronicles what the author refers to as her “brokenness” as a result of what she endured, it really is a story of healing. Writing this book was a very big part of that process for Ouellette. “Maybe healing, when it happens, is the result of a quantum entanglement, the swirling of a thousand winds. Maybe it comes when you give your daughter your own heart like another stuffed toy she will drag with her everywhere…”

In the last quarter of her memoir, Ouellette engages in a dialogue with her daughter Sophie which reinforces her theory about the cellular effects of abuse. While this at first changed the flow in the story for me, it did not detract from what is both a courageous and well written account of her trauma. 

I hope that Ouellette’s book gains a wide audience as her story will provide a better understanding about child sex abuse and its long lasting effects on both its victims and their families.  I am also positive that her memoir will encourage some children who are currently suffering from sexual abuse to break their silence and end their own suffering.