Andrea Jarrell's I'm the One Who Got Away, a gracefully written memoir that moves like a novel, swirls around the heartbreaking story of how she and her mother escaped her abusive father when Jarrell was only a baby. Told and retold by her mother throughout Jarrell's childhood, the story of their escape becomes the foundational myth of Jarrell's life, her cautionary tale and unconscious road map into the future. Hers was a childhood literally and figuratively on the run, just Jarrell and her mother against the world.
Grown and with a family of her own and a successful career in marketing, Jarrell thought she'd left all that trauma and fear behind. But when an acquaintance is murdered by an abusive boyfriend, Jarrell is overcome with grief, though she hardly knew the victim, whose "death revealed what I was only beginning to realize—how desperate I was to escape my mother's choices and the life I feared I was destined to live."
Jarrell had been trying to write this book for years. "For a long time," she says, "my parents' story was the itch I couldn't scratch—there was something in that story that felt important. I wanted to bring that out and make sense of it. But where was my story in it?" She first tried it as a novel when she was in graduate school in the early 2000s (Jarrell earned an M.F.A. from the program at Bennington College), but it wasn't a novel she was after, and it would take another 15 years for the book to finally come out.
Jarrell spent those years working on herself, and on her craft, until she felt "the real readiness came on so many levels." That meant "work that was not about making art but was me getting healthier as a person, as a partner, and as a parent," she says.
Then Jarrell was ready to find the book's form and voice. Jo Ann Beard's landmark nonfiction work, Boys of My Youth, was one major source of inspiration. "Beard's essays conjured a living, breathing world on the page the way fiction does, but her stories were true," says Jarrell. "Given that so much of what I wanted to write about was autobiographical, the freedom to write like a fiction writer while writing true stories really intrigued me. I like the creative pressure of the truth." Indeed, I'm the One Who Got Away applies Beard's novelistic sense of scene and pacing to Jarrell's story, which flashes backward and forward across time and is always awake to the ways real people can transform into vivid characters on the page.
Bits of the memoir began to take shape as Jarrell published essays in various places, most notably her 2012 "Modern Love" piece, titled "A Measure of Desire," in the New York Times. "The ‘Modern Love' essay," she says, "became a road map that helped me work out the questions I was trying to answer in the book: How do we make ourselves both safe enough and vulnerable enough to love and be loved? As a woman living in this society, what does it mean to be both desirable and to own one's desires? Do I have to earn happiness, or can I accept it with grace even when I feel I don't deserve it?"
Though it had always been Jarrell's dream to write and publish books, her career in marketing and communications "has been creative and fun and rewarding, so it was easy to get distracted from writing day to day," she says. Then, "a little less than a decade ago, I realized if I was going to live the life I wanted I was going to have to give my writing the time and care I have devoted to my clients."
That's exactly what she did. The result is I'm the One Who Got Away, a powerful memoir that will appeal to readers looking for ways to reimagine their own pasts, as well as to anyone who loves a great story told well. She wants those readers to believe that "if you're brave enough, you can make a happy life no matter how that life begins.