Living Between Danger and Love

In the early morning hours of November 5, 1994, 27-year old Andrea O’Donnell, Women’s Studies major at San Diego State University, student director of the campus Women’s Resource Center, self-defense instructor, politically active and strong young woman, died in her own bedroom, strangled to death by her lover, Andres English-Howard. Convicted of murder in July 1995, Andres hanged himself in prison the night before he was to be sentenced.

Andrea’s death brought the reality of violence against women as close as it ever gets to the center of feminism. If it could happen to her, then it could happen to me, her friends thought. And they were right.

I knew Andrea well. Yet, I came to know her even better after her death. Still, after more than four years of living with her death and the echoes of it I keep hearing in other lives and deaths and near deaths, I cannot claim to have “the answer” to “what really happened” or “why it happened to her.” I have stopped trying to figure out why. Instead, I have come to believe that her story has another meaning; her story has a lot to tell us about who we think we are.

Writing is one way to figure out something that seems almost impossible to understand. Vivian Gornick calls the “something”, or event, we are writing about “the situation.” The “writing about” part results in the creation of the story.

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance that preoccupies the writer; sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer; the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say,” writes the memoirist, Vivian Gornick (The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, FSG, 2001, p. 13).

When Andrea was killed I understood immediately the situation I would be describing if I wrote about what happened. It took me a much longer time to figure out the story.

Standing right in the middle of my own life, I saw Andrea as a very personal, conflicted symbol of my own womanhood. It’s not that she was just like me; I was just like her. The twenty-seven years of her life spanned the length of the contemporary women’s movement in the United States, the time of my own political growth. I couldn’t help but see her through that history. I saw her as the daughter I might have been….

Telling her story also forced me to examine my own complicity in keeping secrets.

As I began to write this book I discovered the narrator’s voice I would need to tell the story. It was a voice that had to be a little more hesitant, less self-assured than the professorial voice I expressed in the classroom. Gornick again: “We pull from ourselves the narrator who will shape better than we alone can the inchoate flow of event into which we are continually being plunged.” (p. 24). This narrator took me places I had not expected or even wanted to go. And so as I wrote I began to dream stories from my childhood, stories I thought long ago buried, along with my parents who had been the protagonists in them.

The book I was writing began to wrap itself around a story of loss and mourning and the ways we search to make sense of the separations that wound us.

More recently, this book has had a second life. I have been involved in several community arts projects related to the issues it explores. One is with Eveoke Dance Theatre in San Diego, on a project called Refuge. And I have been writing a play based on Living Between Danger and Love. The play is a largely fictionalized dramatization of a daughter’s unsettled relationship with her mother and events that lead her to finally confront the truths in her past. I am hoping to arrange a staged reading of the play in the fall of 2011.

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