The play explores the significant impact that sex and sexuality have on individuals’ lives, highlighting the extent to which they exert control on people’s psychology. Vogel’s approach is wide-ranging, showing the audience, for example, the important difference between physical and psychological maturity, while also investigating society’s sexual limits and transgressions. This asks the audience to examine the way sex and sexuality are conceptualized, both in the play’s 1960s setting and in the present day, particularly on the issue of how the young come to learn about sexuality. Despite its taboo subject matter, Vogel’s play ultimately embraces sexuality as natural and blames a society that treats all sex as deviant—and, in turn, withholds forthright information about sexuality from young people—for enabling sexual abuse and trauma.
How I Learned to Drive works hard to differentiate sexual maturity as a physiological process from sexual maturity as a psychological process. For the most part of her childhood reflections, Li’l Bit is not all that interested in having sex, but she does want to know more about it. Unfortunately for her, conversations with her mother and grandmother—played by the female and teenage choruses—fail to provide her with valuable information. The first conversation culminates in the teenage chorus/grandmother describing the sexual activities of Li’l Bit’s grandfather as being like “a bull,” suggesting violence and a lack of tenderness. The second conversation winds up with the two choruses arguing: Li’l Bit’s mother resents the grandmother for not teaching her more about the “facts of life,” blaming this for her early pregnancy, bad relationship, and, ultimately, unfulfilled life. Li’l Bit’s character thus demonstrates how difficult it can be to get good, practical help in coming to terms with sexuality when growing up.
Knowledge that Li’l Bit can’t avoid is an awareness of her changing body, and how this represents an increasing sexualization (firstly, in the eyes of others). Her breasts practically hypnotize Uncle Peck, and she knows he is governed by his lust. Li’l Bit’s disconnect between her attitude toward sex and her knowledge of her body’s effect on men is best described when she calls her breasts “alien life forces” or “radio transmitters sending out signals to men who get mesmerized, like sirens, calling them to dash themselves on these ‘rocks.’” There is a mismatch, then, between Li’l Bit’s body and her mind, in which she feels her sexualization to be a kind of invasion—especially when knowledge of sexuality is limited from her and often prioritizes men’s pleasure at the expense of women’s autonomy.
If Li’l Bit’s experiences offer an implicit critique of societal attitudes to sex, Uncle Peck’s character explores society’s limits and the subsequent transgressions of these limits. Uncle Peck knows full well that his attraction to Li’l Bit is outside of the accepted norm in the society he lives in but finds a way to justify and enable his desires. By doing so, he transgresses two of society’s most outwardly visible “lines”: incest and pedophilia. He is fully aware that what he does would not be deemed acceptable, which is why he is always keen to give Li’l Bit the false illusion of choice when they have sexual contact: “We are just enjoying each other’s company, I’ve told you, nothing is going to happen between us until you want it to.” His use of the word “until”—rather than, say, “unless”—is telling, showing that he is psychologically coercing Li’l Bit into accepting his advances. The way he uses private spaces—e.g. the car—to facilitate his sexual desires mirrors the way that society more widely considers incest and pedophilia as taboos, in turn driving them underground and out of sight.
Uncle Peck takes special care that whenever he “crosses the line” with Li’l Bit no one else is present—this protects him. But he also longs for the day when his “relationship” with Li’l Bit—if it’s fair to call it that—can be made legally legitimate. That’s why he excitedly sends her gifts every day in the countdown to her 18th birthday—because that’s when she will be legal. There’s similar reasoning behind his proposal to her: he hopes to make her “officially” his and retrospectively erase any sense of wrong-doing. And because they are not blood relatives, Peck sees divorcing his wife Aunt Mary and marrying Li’l Bit as a way of making his sexuality socially acceptable.
Though he doesn’t get his way, Vogel’s depiction of the fine line between societally contemptuous and societally acceptable behavior draws the audience’s attention to the instability of these categories. Uncle Peck, according to his (and the law’s) logic, could be Li’l Bit’s abuser one day and her husband the next. How I Learned to Drive works hard to ask these difficult questions about sex and sexuality, offering the audience no false comforts. Society’s attitudes to sex tend to become static over time—in turn manifested by its laws—but Vogel seems to be arguing that, rather than trying to block out the existence of abuse, pedophilia, and incest, society should be unafraid to talk about them in order to better protect its young.
Sexuality Quotes in How I Learned to Drive
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.
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.
LI’L BIT. 1967. In a parking lot of the Beltsville Agricultural Farms. The Initiation into a Boy's First Love.
PECK. (With a soft look on his face.) Of course, my favorite car will always be the ’56 Bel Air Sports Coupe. Chevy sold more ’55s, but the ’56! — a V-8 with Corvette option, 225 horse power; went from zero to sixty miles per hour in 8.9 seconds.
LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) Long after a mother's tits, but before a woman’s breasts:
PECK. Super-Turbo-Fire! What a Power Pack — mechanical lifters, twin four-barrel carbs, lightweight valves, dual exhausts —
LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) After the milk but before the beer:
PECK. A specific intake manifold, higher-lift camshaft, and the tightest squeeze Chevy had ever made —
LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) Long after he's squeezed down the birth canal but before he’s pushed his way back in: The boy falls in love with the thing that bears his weight with speed.
PECK. So if you’re going to drive with me, I want you to take this very seriously.
LI’L BIT. I will, Uncle Peck. I want you to teach me to drive.
PECK. Good. You’re going to pass your test on the first try. Perfect score. Before the next four weeks are over, you’re going to know this baby inside and out. Treat her with respect.
LI’L BIT. Why is it a “she?”
PECK. Good question. It doesn't have to be a “she” — but when you close your eyes and think of someone who responds to your touch — someone who performs just for you and gives you what you ask for—I guess I always see a “she.” You can call her what you like.
LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) I closed my eyes — and decided not to change the gender.
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. You know, you should take it as a compliment that the guys want to watch you jiggle. They’re guys. That’s what they’re supposed to do.
LI’L BIT. I guess you’re right. But sometimes I feel like these alien life forces, these two mounds of flesh have grafted the selves onto my chest, and they’re using me until they can “propagate” and take over the world and they’ll just keep growing, with a mind of their own until I collapse under their weight and they suck all the nourishment out of my body and I finally just waste away while they get bigger and bigger and — (Li’l Bit’s classmates are just staring at her in disbelief.)
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. — You are the strangest girl I have ever met. (Li’l Bit’s trying to joke but feels on the verge of tears.)
LI’L BIT. Or maybe someone’s implanted radio transmitters in my chest at a frequency I can’t hear, that girls can’t detect, but they’re sending out these signals to men who get mesmerized, like sirens, calling them to dash themselves on these “rocks” —
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. — 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.
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.
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.)