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Still Watersby Jennifer Lauck
Reading Group Guide
Reading group guide for Still Waters
1. Still Waters begins with Jenny going to live with her grandparents. She loves the very precise routine of their days (golf, cocktail hour, supermarket on Tuesday, etc.). Many children would find such routine boring, but what is it about Jenny's background that makes her cling to these structured days?
2. When her grandparents tell Jenny that she's going to live with her aunt and uncle, she says, "I want to tell them I'll try harder, do better..." [p. 23] Do you think Jenny (and other children who are neglected, abandoned, or abused) feels deep down inside that she is to blame for her circumstances in life? Why do you think she tried so hard to "be good," and not to tell anyone when things were wrong, or say "no" to people who might hurt her?
3. Throughout her childhood, Jenny is fixated on certain possessions — her pink trunk, her Princess bedroom set — as the last vestiges of her life before her parents died. What symbolism do you think these particular objects hold for Jenny? Do you have similar items from your past that you have held onto as tokens of happy or significant times in your life?
4. When Jenny moves in with Aunt Peggy and Uncle Dick, she and Peggy initially relate to each other as friends and confidants. Over the years their relationship changes, becoming highly adversarial. Why and when do you think this shift occurs between them? Do you think Peggy and Jenny have mixed feelings about each other, or are they very clear-cut?
5. When Jenny goes to stay with her cousin Sharon, Sharon's boyfriend molests Jenny. How to you think this incident fits in with Jenny's view of the adults in her life? Do you think it affects how Jenny relates to the men in her life?
6. The issue of telling the truth comes up a lot in Still Waters. In fact, it often seems like everyone around Jenny is lying or holding in their true feelings. How do you think Jenny learns the importance of honesty and openness, despite what she sees around her?
7. The intensity of Jenny's first relationship (with Luke) seems to frighten her. She says, "I get lost with Luke, with Randy, I know exactly where I am." [p. 164] Why do you think getting "lost" in a relationship is so scary for Jenny? Is this a normal adolescent reaction, or do you think it has more to do with her past?
8. Jenny repeatedly mentions the image she holds of her father in her head, "smiling, driving, wearing a sweater..." [p. 195] When children lose a parent so young, they often put that parent on a pedestal, remembering him or her as unflawed. Think about the difference between what you thought of your parent(s) as a child and what you think about them now that you're an adult. What significance do you think this particular image of her father holds for Jenny?
9. Jenny's Aunt Georgia tells her, "You're a survivor, you always were." [p. 262] What makes someone "a survivor"? What traits does Jenny possess that help her get through this difficult life? How do you think you would have coped in her situation?
10. What do you think Jenny hopes to accomplish by visiting the seminary and college where Bryan lived — and the spot where he died? Do you think it's important to do things like this in order to truly understand and accept someone's death? In the end, do you think she has forgiven Bryan and other members of her family who treated her poorly?
11. Between her adoptive parents, her boyfriends, and her brother, Jenny is convinced that no one really loves her for her. By the end of the book, do you think that she finally discovers unconditional love?
A conversation with Jennifer Lauck
1. Have any of the members of the family you wrote about in Still Waters contacted you since its publication? If so, how did they react to the book and their characterizations in it — were they remorseful, angry, or did they own up to it?
I've not been contacted by any family from my father's side. Through extended family, that is cousins, I've heard there is a great deal of anger, resentment, even denial. One aunt reportedly said I was intent on bringing shame to the Laucks and this was a rather interesting comment. I believe the shame was already in the shadows and my telling the story simply brought it into plain view. Many in the extended family, who have first-hand dealings with Aunt Peggy, Uncle Dick, and Uncle Leonard, say I was extremely generous in my portrayal.
On my mother's side of the family, there has always been a tremendous amount of support and encouragement. I remain in close contact with Aunt Georgia and Uncle Charles and feel blessed that, finally, I have them in my life and in the lives of my children.
2. How did your view of religion change after you visited the seminary where Bryan lived? Do you think Bryan would have been a good priest?
The priests and monks of Conception and the sisters of Clyde showed me another side to Catholicism, a softer side. I appreciated the deep humanity that emanated from almost everyone I met and how they were searching for meaning in many of the same ways that I was. Most of my previous beliefs about Catholicism were based on a rigid structure of rules that you had to follow or else be condemned to severe punishment. I've learned that those beliefs are not in line with the true teachings of the Church. Although I am not a practicing Catholic, I do appreciate the power of spirituality through the door of Catholicism and how fulfilling it can be to have a community or even a church, to direct that spirituality.
On the question of Bryan, it is difficult to know what would have become of him. How deep was his depression? How intense was his pain? Could he have lifted through both depression and pain to heal others or would they have tainted his ability to give sound and loving advice? These are questions that I cannot answer. I would like to believe his soul was drawn to philosophy and faith so that, given time and maturity, he would have found true peace. Bryan's potential (and that of so many young men who struggle with inner demons) lies in those questions. That is the powerful tragedy of Bryan's life and death.
3. What can you tell us about the process of writing Blackbird and Still Waters? Did you find it cathartic?
Next to having my beautiful children, writing out my life has been the single most important thing I've done to heal.
4. How do you feel about what happened between you and your grandparents? They seemed to be the only people left in your family you felt close to, and they ended up letting you down. Did you ever forgive them?
Forgiveness has many faces but for me, it is the act of true empathy. My grandparents made very human decisions and mistakes. In writing about all this, I learned that their decisions were made from a foundation of hostile emotions and in most cases, decisions made that way always come back to haunt you. They may have let me down but, thanks to the writing, they have also become my greatest teachers.
5. How and when will you tell your son and daughter the story of your past?
Children are busy enough negotiating the maze of childhood. My past is my own but if I learn the lessons well, I can use my lessons to teach my children. That is primarily how I intend to tell my children about my past, in small, digestible bits that can help them along their journey.
6. On top of everything else you've been through, how has the fact that you were adopted played into your feelings of being abandoned? Have you ever tried to search for your birth parents?
I haven't searched much for my birth parents. It's not something that seems very important right now.
I did feel very deeply for my birth mother recently though. It was the night my daughter was born. The doctor and nurses had left, my husband went home too and I was alone with this sweet little girl in my arms. We lay in the quiet dark room together, her sleeping in a tiny bundle, so warm and perfect in my arms. I felt so lucky and complete because she was here and safe and mine. In the way that thoughts and memories move, I imagined 38 years earlier, to the day I was born and taken away from my mother immediately. How awful that first night must have been for her and how empty her arms must have felt. For the first time ever, I felt as if I knew her in some way, perhaps knew a small amount of her suffering.
The bigger question, "do I belong?" has haunted me and been re-asked in many different relationships throughout my life. That is, when I've had the most difficulty with boyfriends, girlfriends or family, I fall back into this idea that I don't really belong, after all, my own mother gave me away. Finding my "birth parents" isn't going to change this element of my personality. The fact is, I was adopted and in my search for place, I've come to realize most of us feel orphaned in some way, even those with living parents and siblings. I'm not as interested in finding my birth parents as I am in finding a way to feel truly connected with people.
7. Still Waters covers about 25 years of your life. Was there a particular period during that time span that was the most difficult for you? Which was the happiest?
The best time of my life is right now and I can chart that back to beginning when my son was born. I love my children and I am very lucky to have a good friend in my husband.
The most difficult has to go back to childhood and being a witness to my mother's dark struggle with her body that ended so tragically. Her death marked the beginning of a long period of deep unhappiness that lasted until the day I moved out of Dick and Peggy's house.
8. You've described yourself as a "survivor." Yet you not only survived, you wrote two acclaimed books based on your experiences and managed to harness a painful past into incredible personal strength. Do you think you would be the person you are today if you hadn't gone through such adversity?
I feel that I am here, that we all are here, to learn. Life is like a big compost pile with layers and layers of rotten junk that really stinks but, if used properly, can grow the very best fruits and vegetables and grains. You can turn the cycle of compost over and over again and that is the harnessing of energy that creates intense personal growth. I am the person that I am today because I pay very close attention to what my life has to teach.
9. Both of your memoirs read very much like novels. Do you ever plan to write fiction?
I wrote both books first person present tense in order to tell the story through the moment of experience. I wanted to hear the purity of a little kid's voice and that's why it feels like a novel. Also, with first person, you are right there with the narrator, which I think is very powerful. I am working on a fiction-based story right now, using that same technique. It just feels very honest.
10. Do you feel that you've resolved the issues of your past, or do you expect that you'll have to keep working on them for some time?
The idea that we ever resolve issues of the past is appealing but not realistic. We are the product of our experiences; everything we believe and know comes from them. Unless we are truly enlightened, we can't have real "freedom." I see my journey is to keep looking at my life and digging for layers of understanding.
Copyright © 2001 by Jennifer Lauck
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