How I Learned to Drive

by Paula Vogel

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The Play

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How I Learned to Drive uses a series of nonlinear scenes from the memory of Li’l Bit, who reveals her complex emotional and sexual relationship with her Uncle Peck. The scenes jump instantaneously back and forth in time on a neutral stage with minimal props. Li’l Bit is portrayed at various ages.

A one-act play, How I Learned to Drive begins with a disembodied voice saying “Safety First—You and Driver Education.” This technique is used throughout the play to indicate how and where each scene is located within the overall narrative. On a bare stage with only two chairs representing a Buick Riviera, Li’l Bit takes her place, in the present, speaking directly to the audience. She describes suburban Maryland in 1969 “before the malls took over.” A young Li’l Bit then steps into the scene, now seventeen years old. She is sitting in a parked car on a summer night with an older, married man—her Uncle Peck. In what appears to be a not completely unpleasant experience, Peck fondles and kisses Li’l Bit’s breasts.

Members of the Greek Chorus assume their roles as Li’l Bit’s relatives at a typical family dinner, which consists of vulgar jokes and crude comments about Li’l Bit’s well-endowed figure. A protective and gentle Uncle Peck shields Li’l Bit from the insults. The scene ends with Li’l Bit bartering a secret, late-night rendezvous with Peck in exchange for the keys to his car.

Li’l Bit informs the audience that, despite the many rumors as to why she was expelled from college, the real reason was most likely her excessive drinking and late-night road trips. Driving intoxicated on the Maryland beltway, she never received a ticket. Uncle Peck, she tells the audience, taught her well.

The action jumps backward to when Li’l Bit is sixteen and has just earned her driver’s license and Peck brings her to an elegant inn to celebrate. Peck has Li’l Bit served several cocktails. As Li’l Bit becomes increasingly intoxicated, the Female Greek Chorus comes forward in the role of mother to deliver a guide to “social drinking” while getting quite drunk herself. Dinner ends, and Peck carries the drunken and dizzy Li’l Bit back to the car. She flirts, then shies away from Peck, finally passionately kissing him in a moment of drunken confusion. Li’l Bit then expresses worry that what they are doing is wrong and will cause harm. Peck convinces her that the relationship will not progress until she wants it to, confident in the expectation that at some point in the future Li’l Bit will want to fully consummate the affair. The scene ends with Li’l Bit passed out in the seat beside Peck.

Peck takes little Cousin Bobby fishing. During the fishing lesson Peck employs his strategies of deception and seduction on the young boy. A sexual encounter between the two is implied.

A revealing dialogue among Li’l Bit, her mother, and her grandmother follows. Li’l Bit is “instructed” in the nature of sex from her elders’ point of view, which is crude, vulgar, and devoid of romance.

Li’l Bit steps out of the past and describes her seduction of a young man she meets on a bus ride in 1979. In this seduction Li’l Bit thinks of Uncle Peck and for the first time understands the allure that seducing children has for Peck.

As Peck instructs Li’l Bit in a driving lesson, erotic photographs of young women and cars flash upstage. Though Li’l Bit nervously flirts with Peck, he is all business, intent on teaching Li’l Bit to drive with confidence and aggression.

An adolescent...

(This entire section contains 1137 words.)

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Li’l Bit is featured in the next several scenes, which take place in ninth grade. Painfully self-conscious of her maturing figure, Li’l Bit is the target of jokes and tricks played on her by classmates.

“The photo shoot” scene takes place one year earlier in Peck’s basement. The shoot begins in a tense, businesslike manner. Yet as Li’l Bit relaxes, her poses become more erotic and seductive. Peck unbuttons her blouse and arranges each shot in ever more sexually explicit poses. Peck reveals that he intends to submit the photographs to Playboy when Li’l Bit turns eighteen. She becomes upset, but Peck assures her that if she wishes, the photos will always remain a secret between them. The scene ends as Li’l Bit, reassured, begins to unbutton and open her blouse and the shooting resumes.

Aunt Mary reveals to the audience that she is aware, at least to some degree, of the relationship between Peck and Li’l Bit. Ironically she defends her husband and places the blame on the young girl.

The action jumps back in time to Li’l Bit’s thirteenth Christmas. As she watches Peck cleaning the dinner dishes, they arrange to meet secretly every week to “talk.” Peck explains that his heavy drinking is the result of his loneliness and passionate nature. Peck encourages Li’l Bit in the belief that only she can help him.

The Greek Chorus comes forward to read the notes Peck has sent to Li’l Bit while she is away at college. As the notes become more desperate, it is clear that Li’l Bit has not responded to his gifts and cards. Though she has asked him not to, Peck travels to Philadelphia to visit Li’l Bit for her eighteenth birthday. Li’l Bit explains to Peck that she is failing her courses. She is confused and conflicted and tells him that their relationship must end. Desperately he begs Li’l Bit to lie down on the bed with him and allow him to hold her. She lies down reluctantly and nearly gives in to his desperate attempt at seduction. Peck offers her a ring, asking her to marry him. This proposal is more than she can handle. She tells him good-bye, never to see him again.

She tells the audience that over the next seven years Peck descended into alcoholism, lost his job and his wife, and, finally, even lost his driver’s license. He died in a drunken fall down the basement steps.

The play ends with Li’l Bit’s very first driving lesson. She is eleven years old and steers the car while sitting on Uncle Peck’s lap. She takes the wheel in both hands, leaving Peck free to fondle her breasts and press himself into her. The scene ends with his orgasmic moans.

In her final monologue Li’l Bit explains that at the age of thirty-five, and with the passage of time, she has come to understand, and perhaps even forgive, Uncle Peck.

Dramatic Devices

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How I Learned to Drive is staged in a style that is both presentational (includes the audience) and representational (excludes the audience). At times characters narrate action directly to the audience while other scenes are presented in almost cinematic realism. Told in a series of nonchronological cross-cuts, the actions of Li’l Bit, Uncle Peck, and the family are examined over a period of several years. This blurring of temporal chronology allows the audience to see into the deliberations and consequences of the characters’ actions in a unique way. The play is a memory told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. The audience sees the end of Li’l Bit’s relationship with Uncle Peck before it has even begun. The audience also sees the effects of the abuse before they see the cause.

The title of the play derives from its main action: the driving lessons Uncle Peck gives to Li’l Bit. The lessons become a metaphor for two of the major rites of passage for American youth: earning one’s driver’s license as well as sexual initiation, an event that often occurs in a car. This metaphor is supported through the use of phrases and terminology from driving manuals. Images of traffic signs are seen and heard to guide Li’l Bit’s navigation on the road of life. They also help her find her way through the sexual landscape of her relationship with Peck.

Complicating the presentation of the play is the use of a modern Greek chorus of three actors who perform the roles of several characters. They also help to frame the narrative by appearing as neutral characters spaced throughout the playing area and reciting the phrases from driving lectures and manuals, which allude to the time, place, or emotional tone of each scene. The Teenage Greek Chorus is used to fragment Li’l Bit’s character. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the play, the Teenage Greek Chorus steps into the role of eleven-year-old Li’l Bit. Peck fondles her breasts and presses himself into her as the older Li’l Bit looks on and comments to the audience.

Humor is used as a device to further complicate the story and mediate the disturbing nature of the subject of the play. The humor helps the audience to disengage or step back from the action in order to contemplate the themes from a less emotional stance.

Music and advertising images from the 1960’s are used to accentuate the sexualization of young girls and reinforce the theme of pedophilia. The “you’re sixteen” genre hits, such as Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s “This Girl Is a Woman Now,” support the sexualization-of-girls theme. Li’l Bit herself is further eroticized through the use of images projected on a screen upstage during the photo shoot scene.

Historical Context

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Intercourse between an adult and a child is called ‘‘statutory rape'': that is, a rape that might not seem to fit the definition of the word because both participants consent in having sex but that is considered rape according to legal statute because children are considered unable to knowingly give such consent. The age at which a young person can legally consent to sex is different in different states but generally it is between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. In HowI Learned to Drive, Uncle Peck anxiously counts the days leading up to Li'l Bit's eighteenth birthday, and she easily recognizes that he has been waiting for the opportunity to have sex with her legally, without fear of being put in jail for statutory rape.

Laws against sex with children have always been enforced in this country. In the 1960s, though, there was a sexual revolution that swept away much of the social stigma attached to many sexual practices. Starting in the 1950s, when Playboy magazine made pornography a mainstream commercial venture, and carrying on through the late 1960s and early 1970s, when there was a counter-culture revolution of college students who found their identity in social disobedience against the Vietnam War, sexuality came to be seen as a private matter, not a governmental one. Laws punishing homosexuality were challenged, in some cases successfully, and other laws were changed to make it easier to obtain divorces, giving people more leeway in determining what they could consider an unsatisfactory marriage. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, questions were constantly raised regarding which sexual practices were morally wrong and which were just deemed wrong by obsolete traditions.

The same social shift that powered the sexual revolution also drove the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Feminists brought attention to subjects that had always been known but seldom talked about in public, subjects like rape, spousal abuse, and incest. In the 1970s, books began appearing that examined the psychological damage done by adults who sexually abuse children. One of the earliest and best-known of these was Louise Armstrong's Kiss Daddy Goodnight, which was about her being molested by her father throughout her childhood; it became a bestseller in 1978. In the wake of Armstrong's success, more and more women began to speak out about being sexually abused by older people, usually male relatives. Throughout the 1980s, the stigma attached to having been abused dwindled, as victims of the experience banded together, bolstering each other's pride in having had the strength to survive.

The support groups for survivors of childhood abuse grew so quickly and were so widespread that a backlash against them arose in the 1990s. To some extent, this backlash came from animosity toward celebrities who told their stories of being sexually abused during childhood. As Oprah Winfrey, Suzanne Sommers, Rosanne Barr, and others came out in public about their difficult origins, many Americans sympathized, but others, finding no sympathy for the rich and famous, cast a cold eye toward the subject. The more it seemed that everyone had a story of childhood abuse, the more people tuned out the horror of the subject.

One extreme theory regarding sexual abuse of children was responsible for both the rapid growth of incidents reported and the growing firmness of skeptics. Repressed Memory Syndrome is based in the Freudian theory that a person suffering a traumatic experience is inclined to lose the memory of that event but that the memory can be accessed later to piece together what actually happened. Working with this idea, stories began making headlines during the 1990s of people suddenly "remembering" that they were abused by their parents. Suspicions rose when the stories became more and more outrageous. People claimed memories of having been forced to participate in Satanic sex and murder cults fifty years earlier; grown children accused parents and grandparents of abuses when no other physical or behavioral evidence backed up their claims. As news reports of cases relying on Repressed Memory Syndrome became more common, the methods that were used to bring these memories out were called into question. In many cases, psychoanalysts led patients to claim that they remembered childhood sexual abuse by asking them guided, leading questions. (For instance, if a person remembered being given a bath by an older relative, the researcher might ask, ‘‘And where did his/her hands go on you?’’) Often, the repressed memories were brought out using techniques that have not been accepted as hard psychological science, such as hypnosis, visualization, and trance therapy. Sexual abuse is certainly a traumatic experience, and repression is recognized as the mind's way of dealing with trauma, but most researchers doubt the claims made by proponents of Repressed Memory Syndrome. The sensationalism and scientific dubiousness of this field has fueled the backlash against victims of sexual abuse, which in turn has encouraged writers like Paula Vogel to look at the situation from less traditional perspectives.

Literary Style

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The music that Paula Vogel's script for this play suggests is music that spans two generations. The Motown music that she mentions several times, as well as songs by Roy Orbison, Jan and Dean, and the Beach Boys, are all historically correct for action that is taking place in the mid- to late-1960s. Stylistically, they are romantic songs with hints of sexuality and with roots in the harmonically rich doo-wop music of the 1950s. This is most important for understanding the playwright's point when, at the end of the discussion about sex, the chorus members who have been speaking for Li'l Bit's mother, grandmother, and grandfather break into song, singing in three-part harmony and evoking the kind of music that lovers would listen to on the radio, as the scene dissolves to Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck in his car. Though the play deals with child molestation, a subject that is generally treated with deadly seriousness, the music that Vogel suggests to accompany it is romantic, wistful, beautiful, and nostalgic. Using this music, the play is able to evoke the mood that surrounded Li'l Bit in her adolescent confusion, as opposed to the harsh facts of the case as the audience and the grown-up Li'l Bit can see them.

The scenes of this play are presented, for the most part, in reverse chronological order from how they occurred in life. In the earliest scene, Li'l Bit is seventeen, driving, and already in a physical relationship with her uncle Peck, although intercourse has not taken place between them. Subsequent scenes show her at sixteen, when she receives her driver's license; at fifteen, when the other children at school notice that her breasts have developed; and at thirteen, when she agrees to meet in secret with Peck and he arranges to shoot photographs of her in his basement. The story reaches its climax when the results of this relationship come to fruition, on Li'l Bit's eighteenth birthday. They can finally have an adult relationship, and Peck eagerly anticipates the reward for the "patience" that he has mentioned over the years, but Li'l Bit puts an end to what has been going on instead, leaving him to destroy himself with alcohol. The last scene, with eleven-year-old Li'l Bit pestering her mother until she allows her to ride alone in the car with Peck and his subsequent first driving lesson with the girl, functions as an after-the-fact reminder of how their relationship developed, showing Li'l Bit as pursuing it from the beginning, even when he was not present to egg her on, and the start of Peck's obsession with her breasts.

One more element to the play's structure is the inclusion of dramatic monologues throughout. Most are from the grown-up Li'l Bit, who starts the play addressing the audience as if she is conducting a lecture in drivers' education. At various times in the play, different characters give titles to the scenes as they are being presented, such as the three ‘‘On Men, Sex, and Women'' segments or "Uncle Peck teaches cousin Bobby to fish’’ and ‘‘Aunt Mary on behalf of her husband.’’ One of the most notable individual pieces is Li'l Bit's mother's lecture, ‘‘A mother's guide to social drinking,’’ which is addressed to the audience while a scene is acted out of Peck getting Li'l Bit drunk. Like the drivers' education lectures, this serves to ridicule social formality, which conflicts with basic urges and emotions.

The main symbol in this play is, of course, Uncle Peck teaching his niece to drive, which represents an older man's attempt to initiate a young woman into a life of sex. It is a fitting symbol because the two, driving lessons and seduction, have so many points in common. The car has often been thought of as a sexual image, not only because of the power that its engine gives to its driver but also because it is a safe haven for lovers to meet in private, away from the attention of society. The relationship between Peck and Li'l Bit resembles a driving lesson in that he has experience and patience and she has power: the car is as much a powerful machine as her body. The day that she receives her driver's license marks a rite of passage, a celebration that is commemorated with another rite, her first drink. (This is paralleled later in the play when Peck drinks his life away, and Li' lB it makes a point of mentioning that he lost, after his job and wife, his driver's license.) One of the clearest connections made between learning to drive and sexual initiation is in their final scene together, when Peck puts eleven-year-old Li'l Bit on his lap to drive the car. To her, the opportunity to control a car is awe-inspiring, racing down the highway, until he puts his hand inside of her blouse, forever uniting sex and driving in her mind. One last connection between the two, a bittersweet one, comes when Li'l Bit, a grown woman, takes off driving and sees Peck in her mirror. The rear view mirror is a fitting symbol for looking backward at the events of one's life, as Li'l Bit does in this play.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: Popular music, such as the songs referred to in the notes for this play, hints at sexual activity.

Today: Many popular songs directly refer to couples having sex.

1960s: Pedophilia is not spoken of. A child lodging a complaint about an older relative's improper conduct could expect not to be believed.

Today: Pedophilia is talked about every day on daytime television. Support groups have been established to give serious attention to charges that family members might not want to admit.

1960s-1970s: Alcohol use is considered an acceptable leisure activity. A "gentleman" is more likely to be able to buy a drink for a sixteen-year-old girl, as Peck does in the play.

Today: After noting the correlation between alcohol and automobile fatalities, most states have become strict about enforcing underage drinking laws.

1960s: America's reliance on mass transit falls to a third of what it had been during World War II, due to the availability of private automobiles and the thousands of miles of road that were built during the 1950s and 1960s.

Today: Many people are abandoning cars in urban areas and switching to mass transit because the roads are too crowded.

Media Adaptations

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An unabridged version of How I Learned to Drive, starring Glenna Headly and Randall Arney, was made available on both audiocassette and compact disc from L.A. Theater Works in 1999.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Daniels, Robert L., Review of How I Learned to Drive, in Variety, March 24, 1997, p. 42.

Isherwood, Charles, Review of The Mineola Twins, in Variety, February 22, 1999, p. 159.

Kanfer, Stefan, Review of How I Learned to Drive, in New Leader, June 30, 1997, p. 21.

Schultze, Quentin J., et al.,"The Heart of Rock and Roll: The Landscape of a Musical Style,’’ in Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Stone, Laurie, Review of How I Learned to Drive, in the Nation, July 28, 1997, p. 34.

Vogel, Paula, How I Learned to Drive, Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1998.

Armstrong, Louise, Rocking the Cradle of Sexual Politics, Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Armstrong, whose book Kiss Daddy Goodnight opened a new era of open talk about pedophilia, discusses how the culture's view of offenses against children changed from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Holtzman, Linda, Media Messages: What Film, Television and Popular Music Teach Us about Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, M. E. Sharpe, 2000.
Holtzman, a former chair of the Department of Communications at Webster University, dissects the ways in which people like Li'l Bit have derived their self-images from mass culture throughout the years.

Kincaid, James, Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, Duke University Press, 1998.
Kincaid's premise is that Western culture, while pretending to protect children from the complexity of sex, actually makes them sexual objects by making their purity an erotic trait.

Marsh, Peter, and Peter Collett, Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car, Faber and Faber, 1987.
This book examines some of the attitudes about driving, including feelings of power and control and freedom, that Li'l Bit discusses in the play.


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Sources for Further Study

Guare, John, ed. Conjunctions 25: The New American Theatre. Annandale-On-Hudson, N.Y.: Bard College, 1995.

Mead, Rebecca. “Drive-by Shooting.” New York 30 (April 7, 1997): 46-47.

Savran, David. The Playwright’s Voice: American Dramatists on Memory, Writing, and the Politics of Culture. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999.

Scanlan, Dick. “Say Uncle.” Advocate, June 10, 1997, 61-63.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide