How did Marcia Butler, a distinguished oboist, save herself from a detached, withholding mother and a sexually abusive father? In “The Skin Above My Knee,” she reveals the answer and more. Her story is a tale of triumph over a childhood rife with abuse yet blessed with talent. Filled with insight and honesty, her memoir flows like a series of gorgeous musical phrases, taking the reader on a journey as uplifting as it is disturbing.
In the opening pages, we see her lying on the living room carpet on Sunday mornings as her mother callously vacuums around her. Four-year-old Marcia was swept away by listening to the radio voice of Kirsten Flagstad singing Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” “A new and pleasurable sensation sank deep into my tummy, like a very heavy anchor with no water to resist its plunge,” she writes. “Kirsten shook me awake. With the distance of time, I suppose it was love. . . . I was hooked.”
But Marcia was also hooked on trying to understand her mother. “I cobbled together weekly rituals through which I might pretend to be close to her and imaginatively pierce her thick veneer,” she writes. Sleep became Marcia’s method of comfort: “Everyone sleeps, but not everyone could use music the way I did. If sleep was an unconscious draft of lifesaving elixir, music was its waking counterpart.”
In fourth grade Marcia chose “the flute because its sweet, open quality most resembled Kirsten’s burnished, silvery voice.” But at age 12, when a music teacher asked the class for one volunteer to play the oboe, Marcia’s hand shot up. She realized that “while I wanted to fit in, I needed to stand out.”
Her father agreed to drive his daughter 30 minutes each way to oboe lessons. In return, Marcia was tacitly expected to “cozy up” when they got home. “I squirmed uncomfortably in his lap, as I tried to figure out what I was feeling. My father took hold of my shoulder to still me. He looked into my sweet little-girl blue eyes with his steel-trap blue raptor eyes.”
Add to this unwholesome mix an older sister named Jinx who was also abused. With Jinx, Dad’s preferred method of teaching her a lesson was “through force.” So Jinx was the punching bag, while Marcia became “the strange one who blew the oboe and shunned a typical teenager’s life.” As she explains it: “I had a different kind of best friend, other kids would learn, and it wasn’t a human being. I eschewed people for a stick of granadilla wood.”
Throughout high school, Marcia “practiced longer than seemed reasonable,” and with her “highly developed, almost desperate sense of discipline,” she became “a small-town star.” In the fall of 1973, when she was 18, Marcia was accepted into several superb music schools and chose the Mannes College, where she received a full scholarship. She moved to New York without parental support and found a job as a live-in nanny. But when the kids proved difficult and Marcia quit, she was out on her own in the big city, facing endless challenges.
A head of iceberg lettuce sometimes sufficed as her one meal of the day. She went to school, practiced many hours and worked at bars at night, and by the time she graduated from Mannes, she had established herself as a top freelance player, a chamber musician, a soloist. She got Broadway gigs.
Her distinctive sound set her apart. “Sound is like a fingerprint to musicians,” she writes. “To fully and freely express music with commitment, your sound must reside deep in a corner pocket, like a cube of sugar left on the tongue to disintegrate in its own time. You have a sound ringing in your ears all day every day that cannot be silenced. It is your essence — your soul turned inside out, exposing you for the world to notice, scrutinize, and perhaps love.”
And speaking of love, Marcia describes the poisonous imprint of her childhood as she went out into the world and interacted with men her own age: “After years on my father’s lap, my male object of desire was pure and simple: I had to fear him; I needed the danger.” Astonishingly, toxic parents, drugs and abusive men could never silence her greatest love: music. Her courageous memoir is a testament to the power of art to inspire and heal.
Eugenia Zukerman is the music director of Clarion Concerts in Columbia County, N.Y., as well as the artistic director of Classics on Hudson.
By Marcia Butler
Little, Brown. 258 pp. $27