How I Learned to Drive is a harrowing study in family dynamics. On the one hand, it shows the role that family plays as a support network: Li’l Bit views Uncle Peck as a replacement for her absent father, and she looks to her mother and grandmother for answers to her questions about sex and growing up. But Uncle Peck is first and foremost her abuser, and Li’l Bit’s discussions with her family don’t seem to help her make sense of her world at all. Overall, the play shows the complexity of emotions when it comes to family: familial loyalty rubs up against the failure of the family to properly take care Li’l Bit. Furthermore, the play draws attention to the uncomfortable fact that most sexual abuse, particularly pedophilia, is more often inflicted by one family member on another than it is by strangers.
Vogel shows how emotionally complicated family life can be. It’s easy for an external observer to condemn Uncle Peck’s sexual grooming and exploitation of Li’l Bit as an evil act, but this has to be seen in the full picture of their relationship to be truly understood. Li’l Bit looks up to Uncle Peck and does have a certain affection for him. He is the only family member to support her wish to get a good education and positions himself as her driving teacher. He also takes her out for meals and buys her presents, acting as a provider. This makes Li’l Bit see him as something of a father figure. This is reciprocated, best summed up by Uncle Peck’s grotesque statement to Li’l Bit that she is the “nearest to a son I’ll ever have.” This gives Li’l Bit a sense of loyalty towards Uncle Peck, which makes it psychologically difficult for her to refuse his sexual advances. Vogel is therefore careful not to oversimplify the abuse at the center of the play by building a sense of the more positive side of the relationship between Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck. She herself has even called the play a kind of “love story.”
This in turn makes Uncle Peck’s abuse of Li’l Bit all the more horrifying for the audience, as they see how Uncle Peck’s behavior is made possible by a complex interplay of emotions and manipulation. This “technique” of Uncle Peck’s is grounded in an appeal to the importance of family. Uncle Peck’s paternal role in Li’l’s life Bit allows him to get close to her physically, away from the other family members. That’s why the driving lessons are often the moments when he makes his advances. The car is a confined—and locked—space in which it is just the two of them, a situation that could only exist because of his position of trust. Li’l Bit tries to “draw the line” with Uncle Peck, indicating that she is aware of his sexual desire for her and the inappropriately incestuous (and adulterous) basis of this feeling (though for what it’s worth, they aren’t blood related). But Li’l Bit is confused by Uncle Peck’s paternalism, ultimately making her sympathetic for him (seen in the way she tries to stop him drinking alcohol). This leads to her reluctance to discourage Uncle Peck’s behavior, which in turn only compounds her confused feeling towards him. Uncle Peck’s sexualization of Li’l Bit is therefore made possible by his role in the family, underlining Vogel’s point that these abusive situations are rarely simple. This in turn is an implicit argument in favor of a greater understanding of the nuances of such scenarios, an understanding which Li’l Bit comes to by the end of the play. She finds the courage to sever her ties with Uncle Peck and, through the distance of a couple of decades, wonders, “who did it to you, Uncle Peck?”
A wider but important point made by Vogel is the way in which a family dynamic can passively facilitate abuse. Li’l Bit’s mother expresses concern about Uncle Peck’s apparent interest in Li’l Bit when, early on in the play’s chronology, Li’l Bit is keen to spend time with her uncle because he “listens” to her. She even tells her mother not to worry, because “nothing will happen.” There is an implied understanding between Li’l Bit and her mother, then, that Uncle Peck’s attentions are at least partly sexual. A comment by Uncle Peck’s wife, Aunt Mary (played by the female chorus), underscores this with dark comedy, saying, “Peck’s so good with them when they get to be this age.” She later blames Peck’s sexual deviances on Li’l Bit being “sly.”
Uncle Peck’s abuse, then, is hiding in plain sight, but everybody fails to do anything about it. A repeated phrase in the play—“family is family”—sums this up. Vogel suggests that people are sometimes guilty of letting bad behavior pass because of familial loyalty or an unwillingness to talk about it. By skillfully sketching Li’l Bit’s family dynamic, Vogel takes abuse out of the realm of abstract “evil” and brings it to life for her audience to bear witness. This is a valuable provocation, forcing the audience to acknowledge that abuse can happen in environments in which it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious or expected.
Family and Abuse ThemeTracker
Family and Abuse Quotes in How I Learned to Drive
It’s 1969. And I am very old, very cynical of the world, and I know it all. In short, I am seventeen years old, parking off a dark lane with a married man on an early summer night.
PECK. Don’t change the subject. I was talking about how good I am. (Beat.) Are you ever gonna let me show you how good I am?
LI’L BIT. Don’t go over the line now.
PECK. I won’t. I’m not gonna do anything you don’t want me
LI’L BIT. That’s right.
PECK. And I’ve been good all week.
LI’L BIT. You have?
PECK. Yes. All week. Not a single drink.
LI’L BIT. Good boy.
PECK. Do I get a reward? For not drinking?
LI’L BIT. A small one. It’s getting late.
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As mother). And of course, we were so excited to have a baby girl that when the nurse brought you in and said, “It’s a girl! It’s a baby girl!” I just had to see for myself. So we whipped your diapers down and parted your chubby little legs — and right between your legs there was—(Peck has come over during the above and chimes along:)
PECK. GREEK CHORUS.
Just a little bit. Just a little bit.
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As mother). And when you were born, you were so tiny that you fit in Uncle Peck’s outstretched hand. (Peck stretches his hand out.)
MALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Grandfather.) How is Shakespeare going to help her lie on her back in the dark? (Li’l Bit is on her feet.)
LI’L BIT. You’re getting old. Big Papa. You are going to die —v ery very soon. Maybe even tonight. And when you get to heaven, God’s going to be a beautiful black woman in a long white robe. She’s gonna look at your chart and say: Uh-oh. Fornication. Dog-ugly mean with blood relatives. Oh. Uh-oh. Voted for George Wallace. Well, one last chance: If you can name the play, all will be forgiven. And then she’ll quote: “The quality of mercy is not strained." Your answer? Oh, too bad — Merchant of Venice: Act IV, Scene iii. And then she’ll send your ass to fry in hell with all the other crackers. Excuse me, please.
PECK. Your grandfather’s ignorant. And you’re right — he’s going to die soon. But he’s family. Family is... family.
LI’L BIT. Grown-ups are always saying that. Family.
PECK. Well, when you get a little older, you’ll see what we’re saying.
LI’L BIT. Uh-huh. So family is another acquired taste, like French kissing?
PECK. Come again?
LI’L BIT. You know, at first it really grosses you out, but in time you grow to like it?
PECK. Girl, you are... a handful.
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. (As Grandmother.) Your grandfather only cares that I do two things: have the table set and the bed turned down.
And dramaturgically speaking, after the faltering and slightly comical “first act,” there was the very briefest of inter missions, and an extremely capable and forceful and sustained second act. And after the second act climax and a gentle denouement — before the post-play discussion — I lay on my back in the dark and I thought about you, Uncle Peck. Oh. Oh — this is the allure. Being older. Being the first. Being the translator, the teacher, the epicure, the already jaded. This is how the giver gets taken.
PECK. For a thirteen year old, you have a body a twenty-year-old woman would die for.
LI’L BIT. The boys in school don’t think so.
PECK. The boys in school are little Neanderthals in short pants. You’re ten years ahead of them in maturity; it’s gonna take a while for them to catch up. (Peck clicks another shot; we see a faint smile on Li’l Bit on the screen.)
Girls turn into women long before boys turn into men.
PECK. Well, Li’l Bit — let me explain it this way. There are some people who have a... a “fire” in the belly. I think they go to work on Wall Street or they run for office. And then there are people who have a “fire” in their heads — and they become writers or scientists or historians. (He smiles a little at
her.) You. You’ve got a “fire” in the head. And then there are people like me.
LI’L BIT. Where do you have... a fire?
PECK. I have a fire in my heart. And sometimes the drinking helps.
LI’L BIT. There’s got to be other things that can help.
PECK. I suppose there are.
LI’L BIT. Does it help — to talk to me?
PECK. Yes. It does. (Quiet.) I don’t get to see you very much.
LI’L BIT. — Well, what the hell were those numbers all about! Forty-four days to go —only two more weeks.—And then just numbers—69—68—67—like some serial killer!
PECK. Li’l Bit! Whoa! This is me you’re talking to—I was just trying to pick up your spirits, trying to celebrate your birthday.
LI’L BIT. My eighteenth birthday. I'm not a child, Uncle Peck. You were counting down to my eighteenth birthday.
LI’L BIT. So? So statutory rape is not in effect when a young woman turns eighteen. And you and I both know it. (Peck is walking on ice.)
PECK. I think you misunderstand.
LI’L BIT. 1 think I understand all too well. I know what you want to do five steps ahead of you doing it. Defensive Driving 101.
LI’L BIT. Uncle Peck — I’ve been thinking a lot about this — and I came here tonight to tell you that — I’m not doing very well. I’m getting very confused — I can’t concentrate on my work — and now that I’m away — I’ve been going over and over it in my mind — and I don’t want us to “see” each other anymore. Other than with the rest of the family.
PECK. (Quiet.) Are you seeing other men?
LI’L BIT. (Getting agitated.) I — no, that’s not the reason — I — well, yes, I am seeing other — listen, it’s not really any body’s business!
PECK. Are you in love with anyone else?
LI’L BIT. That’s not what this is about.
PECK. Li’l Bit. Listen. Listen. Open your eyes and look at me. Come on. Just open your eyes, honey. (Li’l Bit, eyes squeezed shut, refuses.) All right then. I just want you to listen. Li’l Bit — I’m going to ask you just this once. Of your own free will. Just lie down on the bed with me — our clothes on — just lie down with me, a man and a woman... and let’s... hold one another. Nothing else. Before you say anything else. I want the chance to... hold you. Because sometimes the body knows things that the mind isn’t listening to... and after I’ve held you, then I want you to tell me what you feel.
LI'L BIT. You’ll just... hold me?
PECK. Yes. And then you can tell me what you’re feeling. (Li’l Bit — half wanting to run, half wanting to get it over with, half wanting to be held by him.)
LI’L BIT. Yes. All right. Just hold. Nothing else.
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) I am not letting an eleven-year-old girl spend seven hours alone in the car with a man... I don’t like the way your uncle looks at you.
LI’L BIT. For god’s sake, mother! Just because you’ve gone through a bad time with my father — you think every man is evil!
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) Oh no, Li’l Bit not all men... We... we just haven’t been very lucky with the men in our family.
LI’L BIT. Just because you lost your husband — I still deserve a chance at having a father! Someone! A man who will look out for me! Don’t I get a chance?
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) I will feel terrible if something happens.
LI’L BIT. Mother! It’s in your head! Nothing will happen! I can take care of myself. And I can certainly handle Uncle Peck.
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) All right. But I’m warning you — if anything happens, I hold you responsible.
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Am I doing it right?
PECK. That’s right. Now, whatever you do, don’t let go of the wheel. You tell me whether to go faster or slower —
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Not so fast, Uncle Peck!
PECK. Li’l Bit — I need you to watch the road — (Peck puts his hands on Li’l Bit’s breasts. She relaxes against him, silent, accepting his touch.)
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Uncle Peck — what are you doing?
PECK. Keep driving. (He slips his hands under her blouse.)
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Uncle Peck — please don’t do this —
PECK. —Just a moment longer... (Peck tenses against Li’l Bit.)
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. (Trying not to cry.) This isn’t happening. (Peck tenses more, sharply. He buries his face in Li’l Bit’s neck, and moans softly.)