How I Learned to Drive Summary

Paula Vogel

How I Learned to Drive

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How I Learned to Drive Summary

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How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel, an American playwright, had its debut at the off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre in New York City on March 16, 1997. Vogel, who was awarded the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play, utilizes a non-chronological timeline and a variation on the classic Greek chorus to explore the abusive and complex sexual relationship between Li’l Bit and her uncle, Peck, from Li’l Bit’s adolescent years through her adulthood. While traditional, even stereotypical, victim blame is explored, this issue is not cut and dried. Guilt, power struggles, and levels of responsibility all come under consideration. The work is very much a memory play, evoking the same tension of being trapped by one’s past that narrator Tom Wingfield is stifled by in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. In his review of the play in the New York Times, Ben Brantley says of the delicate nature of the subject matter, “The work begins with a comic blitheness and detachment that immediately disarm. Then before you’re even aware of it, you’ve fallen into dark, decidedly uncomfortable territory, and it’s way too late to pull back.”

The one-act play opens in a parking lot in Maryland in 1969. Li’l Bit is seventeen. She is in Uncle Peck’s car, where he admires her body and unfastens her bra. She talks of her plan to attend college in the fall; the action then shifts to her giving the audience information about her family’s background. Points she shares include that the family bestows nicknames inspired by genitalia, that her mother is an alcoholic, and that Peck is the one who supports her plans for her future. It was after a celebratory dinner in 1968, we learn, that Li’l Bit was seduced by Peck; he heeded her cry for him to stop, and said he would wait for her to agree to become intimate. Through continuing monologues, it is revealed that earlier, when Peck taught Li’l Bit to drive, he was apparently sincerely concerned for her safety, adding to the girl’s confusion over his abuse.

Other scenes unfold, showing how as a schoolgirl Li’l Bit was harassed because of her large breasts in 1966, and how, in 1965, Peck photographed her in suggestive poses. At this point her Aunt Mary defends her husband (Peck) to the audience, accusing her niece of coming on to him, and believing everything will be fine once Li’l Bit is away at college. Meanwhile, an additional flashback explains that as far back as 1962, when she was eleven, Li’l Bit, in spite of her mother’s reservations, insisted on going on drives with her uncle. In a scene that foreshadows the victim-blame theme, the mother warns her daughter that she is responsible for anything bad that might happen.

In a monologue interjected by a member of the Greek chorus, a memory is given from the perspective of Uncle Peck. Peck gives a fishing lesson to Cousin BB, with the implication being that it was as much a cover for abusing the boy as driving lessons were for his actions toward Li’l Bit. This leads to Li’l Bit stepping back into the narrative role and sharing a conversation she once had with her mother and grandmother about sex. In that conversation, the mother tried to explain about sexual consent and the grandmother warned that Li’l Bit was too young to know about sex. Li’l Bit then tells of a one-time tryst she had with a seventeen year old boy when she was a decade older, suggesting some understanding on her part of the allure of the young that Peck experienced. When the memories of the conversation with the older women in her life become too painful, L’il Bit changes the memory. Adding to the “driving” theme of the play, she compares the changing of memories to the changing of a car radio.

By the end of the play Li’l Bit is moving on with her life. She feels grateful to Peck for one thing in her life, which is that feeling of freedom she has when driving. She is able to leave her past behind symbolically when she looks in her rearview mirror and sees Uncle Peck there. She drives off, leaving the uncertainties and confusions of her past literally and figuratively in the rearview mirror. As far as Uncle Peck’s fate, in spite of the uncertainties that his niece felt about his role in her life, ultimately, we learn, he met what can be considered a fitting end. He turned to alcohol, which led to his losing his job and his once supportive wife. Consistent with the “driving” theme of the play, alcohol also caused him to be stripped of his driver’s license. He died in a drunken fall down his basement stairs. At the end of the play, Li’l Bit, forever torn among conflicting feelings, muses on her uncle’s motivation for molesting her and wonders if he experienced the same in his youth.