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At the age of fifteen, Kelle Groom found that alcohol allowed her to connect with people and explore intimacy in ways she’d never been able to experience before. She began drinking before class, often blacked out at bars, and fell into destructive relationships. At nineteen, already an out-of-control alcoholic, she was pregnant. Accepting the heartbreaking fact that she was incapable of taking care of her son herself, she gave him up for adoption to her aunt and uncle. They named him Tommy and took him home with them to Massachusetts. When he was nine months old, the boy was diagnosed with leukemia—but Kelle’s parents, wanting the best for her, kept her mostly in the dark about his health. When Tommy died he was only fourteen months old. Having lost him irretrievably, Kelle went into an accelerating downward spiral of self-destruction. She emerged from this free fall only when her desire to stop drinking connected her with those who helped her to get sober.
In stirring, hypnotic prose, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl explores the most painful aspects of Kelle’s addiction and loss with unflinching honesty and bold determination. Urgent and vital, exquisite and raw, her story is as much about maternal love as it is about survival, as much about acceptance as it is about forgiveness. Kelle’s longing for her son remains twenty-five years after his death. It is an ache intensified, as she lost him twice—first to adoption and then to cancer. In this inspiring portrait of redemption, Kelle charts the journey that led her to accept her addiction and grief and to learn how to live in the world.
Through her family’s history and the story of her son’s cancer, Kelle traces with clarity and breathtaking grace the forces that shape a life, a death, and a literary voice.
Groom, a poet (Underwater City, etc.), gave birth to a son at age 19. Her aunt and uncle adopted him, named him Tommy, and took him with them to Massachusetts, where he died of leukemia 14 months later, in 1982. The backstory: Groom began drinking at age 14 ("My role model became the girl in Go Ask Alice"), had her first blackout at 15, was in the throes of alcoholism when she had Tommy. Although Groom tries to stop drinking the year Tommy dies, she's unable; at 20 she was abducted and raped. But by 1984 she's achieved sobriety, found a job, and made friends. Things get better: she finishes college, then grad school, and gets a job she likes at an artists' residency center. Through it all, she wonders about the details of her son's brief life. Groom moves back and forth between present and past, revealing tidbits of who she once was and who she's become. Her writing is a wonderfully compelling mix of simple and lyrical: there are stream-of-consciousness fragments ("Chain-link fence, metal door like on a submarine") and contemplative sentences ("I hoped that by writing about Tommy, I could find him").