The first story Monica tells is of reading about Sarah Keeler's death and attending her funeral. Why do you think, as she says in the first sentence, that this "changes everything" (1)? How does it set the stage for the rest of the memoir?
Monica's dad loves recording other people's disasters, and creating disastrous circumstances for his family. What did you make of his odd hobby? What about his penchant for violence and putting his family at risk? Do you think there's a link?
Discuss Monica's mother. Monica describes her as "a human cork; she floated to the top of any awful situation" (7). What are some examples that support her description? Are there any instances when her mother behaves differently? Did your opinion of her mother change at all over the course of the book?
Monica is in an almost constant state of anxiety. What are the physical effects of her fear and uncertainty? What effects are less obvious?
In order to protect herself, and because she is left to her own devices, Monica learns early on to be a close observer and to draw her own conclusions. How do those skills influence her writing? What nuances or details might be different if she had been a less attentive, and perhaps happier, child?
Monica's childhood and adolescence are punctuated with death and she is both attracted to and frightened by it. What does she learn about herself when confronted with the possibility of death? Why does she like to imagine being dead? Is her reaction to Wendy Johnson's death different from her reaction to Sarah Keeler's?
The Kilner household (and funeral home) becomes a haven for Monica — a home away from home. What does their family — especially Julie and Dave — offer her? How do they influence her?
"While Joann made me feel challenged and excited," Monica writes, "with Becky I always felt comforted...Becky felt like an extension of me" (131). Describe the relationship Monica has with each of her sisters. How does each relationship evolve? Why do Becky and Monica grow apart in high school, at a time when they need each other most? How does JoAnn take over that role in Monica's life?
Monica becomes a talented actor early in high school and she pursues it through college and into a career. What attracts her to acting? How do you think her childhood experience might help to make her an especially gifted performer?
Given that their family life was so harrowing, one might assume that when the Petersons divorced Monica's home life would improve. Is that the case? How does Monica's mother act after the divorce? How does her father? Were you surprised?
Discuss Monica's relationships with men. Is there a pattern in the type of man she gravitates to? Do you think it would ever have been possible for her to have a fulfilling relationship with a man before she remembered and dealt with her sexual abuse?
The trauma of their childhood affects all of the Peterson children, but it propels them in different directions as they grow older. How does it shape each of their adult lives and choices? Did their ways of coping as adults change or remain the same from when they were young?
Were you surprised when, as an adult, Monica grew close to her father? Why do you think this occurred when it did? Do you think that closeness made it harder or easier for her when she discovers what he did to her and JoAnn? Although she intends to confront him about JoAnn's molestation, ultimately she "let him go without words" (276). What do you think of that choice?
When JoAnn's therapist suggests her mother is culpable, Monica is "incensed" (292). Yet her mother's denial and some of Monica's memories make her question what her mother knew. Do you think that she was aware of the abuse?
Monica's childhood is colored by two tragedies — physical and sexual abuse, and neglect and betrayal. Is one more damaging than the other? After reading Driving with Dead People, do you think that her parents genuinely loved her? Do you think she continues to love them?
What character traits — both good and bad — do you think that Monica developed as a result of her early years? How do you think those traits shaped Monica's life?
Monica is a character in her own book, as well as its author, but Driving with Dead People documents the experiences of her whole family. In writing a memoir an author strives to be as accurate as possible, but must rely on her own recollections. How might the memories of other members of her family differ from Monica's own? Do you think she presents an objective portrait of the Petersons? Discuss how she handles writing from JoAnn's perspective in part five of the book.
Why do you think Monica chose to write her story and share it? Which parts were the most difficult to read and which did you enjoy the most? Discuss her writing style and how she confronts the most sensitive and personal parts of her past.
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