How I Learned to Drive is a memory play that deals with issues of victimization, sexual abuse, incest, and alcoholism. It is also a play about growth, acceptance, and forgiveness. Paula Vogel blends comedy, sadness, and pathos to examine a deeply dysfunctional family with a sexual predator in its midst. The humor allows Vogel to present disturbing scenes regarding the sexualization of children. This sexualization and exploitation are not only condoned but are also encouraged within the family.
The collision of tones complicates these issues and forces the audience to realize that the damaged characters are sympathetic and even deserving of forgiveness. Uncle Peck is not simply a pedophile. He is a mentor and teacher whose driving lessons give Li’l Bit the ability to realize her identity as an individual. Indeed, Peck gives her the strength, confidence, and power that will ultimately allow her to reject him. He gives her the power to bring about his ultimate destruction as well as the sense of kindness to forgive him.
Vogel has said that the play illustrates how people may receive great love from those who harm them. What makes the play controversial for some is Vogel’s resistance to portraying Li’l Bit as a victim. Not only does Li’l Bit receive gifts from Peck along with the abuse; she at times encourages the sexual aspect of the relationship. She sets limits on her uncle’s inappropriate behavior, but there are moments when she seems to invite such behavior. Eventually, she even follows in Peck’s footsteps, seducing teenage boys. Vogel presents the characters in such a way that Li’l Bit’s complicity is understandable and even forgivable.
Ultimately the play is more about the idea of growth and maturation than the destructive force of abuse. Li’l Bit does eventually become reconciled to her past and finds the ability to forgive her family, Uncle Peck, and most important, herself.