How I Learned to Drive explores the effects of trauma on memory and, indeed, of memory on trauma. Told retrospectively from the viewpoint of Li’l Bit, who was sexually exploited in her adolescence by Uncle Peck, the play presents the way trauma inhabits the memory of its principal character. In fact, the play as a whole can be taken as an argument against the repression of traumatic memories; by placing her experiences out in the open, Li’l Bit aims to understand them better and, ultimately, to go beyond them.
Vogel’s play has an unusual form. Rather than have a conventional actor-character relationship, in which each actor plays a single role, Vogel uses only two principal characters: Li’l Bit and Peck. Instead of having all of the other characters appear on stage individually (e.g. Li’l Bit’s mother, grandmother, and grandfather), Vogel specifies that all of the other characters are to be played by three “Greek choruses.” This is a deliberate strategy intended to better represent Li’l Bit’s trauma as it is actually felt. Choruses were first used in ancient Greek theater, their main function being to comment on the action, to provide background information, and, by singing, to give musical expression to the play’s emotional content.
Vogel modifies the usual role of the chorus. In her play, the three choruses—dubbed Male, Female, and Teenage respectively—allows for a multitude of voices. These voices become a fragmentary background presence, almost like static on the radio. They also allow Vogel to make quick transgressions between time and space, and to give the audience content that isn’t limited by taking place within the confines of a typical conversation. In one scene, for example, the choruses allow Li’l Bit to relate several different high school experiences in quick succession, seamlessly shifting from the gym changing rooms to the school dance, linked together by the choruses’ role in playing different classmates—all of whom comment on her breasts. This mimics the way that memory actually works, with voices popping up unexpectedly without necessarily occurring in a linear, progressive order. The audience therefore gets a more accurate representation of Li’l Bit’s trauma. The whole play effectively takes place within her head, characters coming and go as though they were thoughts. The only character other than Li’l Bit to have a prominent role is Peck, her abuser, representing how integral he is to her memory.
But Vogel’s use of the chorus is not the only formal diversion from the “traditional” play format. The play begins with Li’l Bit as an adult in the present, introducing the basic premise of what is to follow. What follows is a series of memories or impressions, almost like sketches. And instead of going in chronological order, they are mostly told in reverse. That is, the play starts with a more recent memory, before the audience is taken deeper into the trauma by going further and further back in time. As part of these impressionistic recollections, the audience observes Li’l Bit’s trauma in its different stages. On more than one occasion, scenes from Li’l Bit’s life show her struggling to process the abuse she has suffered, made all the more difficult because she feels that at times she actively encouraged—almost wanted—Peck to behave that way.
One of these recollections details how Li’l Bit flunked out of college because she had taken to drinking alcohol every day, clearly an attempt to block out the memory of her experiences. Another details an encounter Li’l Bit has with a young man that results in genuinely consensual sex. This takes place in 1979 and Li’l Bit is older than the man. After they have finished, she lies there and thinks of Uncle Peck, wondering if she can now understand his attraction to her. Recollections like these show how far-reaching Li’l Bit’s trauma goes into her psyche; her own sexual experiences are violated by the presence of her memories with Uncle Peck.
This technique is shown to be powerfully effective in the play’s penultimate scene in which the audience is shown the first instance of genuine abuse. In this scene, Peck lets the eleven-year-old Li’l Bit have a go at driving his car. He gets her to sit on his lap because she can’t reach the pedals, and against her will touches her breasts before bringing himself to orgasm against her. Unlike the earlier recollections in the play—which are, paradoxically, later in the actual chronology of events of Li’l Bit’s life—Peck here doesn’t even attempt to coerce Li’l Bit into something resembling consent, and Li’l Bit can in no way be accused of encouraging his behavior; in fact, she cries out, “this isn’t happening.” The way Vogel manipulates the play’s sense of time, then, lulls the audience into a false sense of security or even sympathy regarding Peck before showing his abuse in the clearest, starkest terms. Only by vividly recalling that initial, unforgiveable trauma can Li’l Bit—and the audience—grasp the extent to which Peck abused and groomed her and, in turn, move on.
How I Learned to Drive, then, is a highly original take on how one person deals with trauma during the childhood, and how the resulting memories inform the life that that person goes on to lead. As the play nears its close, Li’l Bit explains how she finally managed to reject Uncle Peck. Then, back in the present, Li’l Bit gets into her car to drive away, appearing ready to move on—with her memories in tow.
Memory and Trauma ThemeTracker
Memory and Trauma 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. 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.
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.
LI’L BIT. Now that I’m old enough, there are some questions I would have liked to have asked him. Who did it to you, Uncle Peck? How old were you? Were you eleven? (Peck moves to the driver’s seat of the car and waits.) Sometimes I think of my uncle as a kind of Flying Dutch man. In the opera, the Dutchman is doomed to wander the sea; but every seven years he can come ashore, and if he finds a maiden who will love him of her own free will — he will be released.
And I see Uncle Peck in my mind, in his Chevy ’56, a spirit driving up and down the back roads of Carolina — looking for a young girl who, of her own free will, will love him. Release him.
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.)
LI’L BIT. The nearest sensation I feel — of flight in the body — I guess I feel when I’m driving. On a day like today. It’s five a.m. The radio says it’s going to be clear and crisp. I’ve got five hundred miles of highway ahead of me — and some back roads too. I filled the tank last night, and had the oil checked. Checked the tires, too. You’ve got to treat her... with respect.