How I Learned to Drive

by Paula Vogel

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Themes and Meanings

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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.


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Growing Up
Audiences can sometimes miss the fact that How I Learned to Drive is a play about growing up. One reason for this is that the main character, Li'l Bit, already has grown-up attitudes and responsibilities when she is young. The earliest chronological scene takes place in 1962, when Li'l Bit is eleven. Warned against the danger of riding in a car with her uncle, she not only shows an awareness of the possibility that he will take a sexual interest but also a cool confidence that she can control the situation. In addition, at the age of eleven, she is intelligent enough to understand her own psychological motive for being attracted to Peck: ‘‘Just because you lost your husband—" she tells her mother, "I still deserve a chance at having a father! Someone! A man who will look out for me! Don't I get a chance?’’ Even this young, Li'l Bit is intellectually mature, understanding her situation more clearly than many adults would. The fact that she has an adult perspective about sex throughout the play helps to obscure the fact that she still needs to grow up emotionally, to distance herself from her family, especially from Uncle Peck.

Another reason that this play does not seem like a story about growing up is its structure. The play starts with Li'l Bit as a grown woman, nearly thirty-five, and it moves backward through her life, reaching the earliest time frame at the end. The action all reveals details of the relationship between Li'l Bit and Peck, but not in the way that Li'l Bit experienced it. She seems mature from the very first scene, when she...

(This entire section contains 1302 words.)

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is seventeen, and the narrator explains, ‘‘I am very old, very cynical of the world, and I know it all.’’ The play questions assumptions that often connect growing up to chronological development, which is actually not such an important part of maturity.

What does make this a play about growing up is the emotional development that takes place in Li'l Bit, leading up to the point near the end at which she is able to end her unhealthy relationship with her uncle. To reach this point, she needs to understand the elements of her life that drove her to that relationship, including the mocking from classmates and other family members that lowered her self-esteem and increased her desire to take care of Peck, to help him stop drinking, to defend him from gossip, and so forth. To reach this point with her, the audience needs to see how the relationship developed, but they do not need to see its development in actual chronological order. For Li'l Bit, growing up means understanding, not just accumulating experience, and understanding does not follow a straight path.

Legally, the relationship between Peck and Li'l Bit is not an incestuous one, because he is only related to her by marriage and not by blood. He is right when he points out that once she is eighteen, they could be married if he divorced his wife. Morally, however, it is an incestuous relationship because of the social roles that they have. He has been present since Li'l Bit's birth—‘‘I held you, one day old, right in this hand’’ is a line that is repeated several times throughout the play. Although they do not have a blood relationship, he has been a father figure to Li'l Bit throughout her entire life, and it would be impossible to push this emotional bond aside after eighteen years. When Li'l Bit expresses her horror at his proposal of marriage, she emphasizes this, stating, ‘‘Family is family,’’ echoing the fact that he told her the same thing in an earlier scene, showing that she is old enough to recognize the social ties that once seemed irrelevant to her.

The relationship between Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck in this play is based on the vulnerability that each of them feels. The audience sees how Li' l Bit's family encourages her insecurities. They emphasize sex at a time when she is too young to understand it, and when she does ask about it, her grandmother tries to make her feel that it is disgusting and unpleasant for women but inevitable because men want it. Her mother's bitterness toward Li'l Bit's father makes her all that more determined to do better in love than her mother. With this social dynamic already established, Li'l Bit is made to feel even more self-conscious when she reaches puberty and her breasts develop. Her family draws attention to them, making them the topic of conversation at Sunday dinner; her classmates, both male and female, treat her breasts with awe, as if Li'l Bit is not one of them but some other sort of creature. Her relationship with Peck counters this vulnerability and makes her feel a sense of empowerment. He is the only family member to go to her with calm, soothing words when everyone else is making her feel self-conscious. Even at a young age, she is able to dictate the terms of their relationship. When she is thirteen and agreeing to meet with him in secret, she is able to make him accept her demand, "You've got to let me—draw the line. And once it's drawn, you mustn't cross it.’’ Later in their relationship, she can make him beg like a child for the favor of unhooking her bra in exchange for ‘‘being good.’’ Uncle Peck's subservience makes up for the ways the world makes her feel vulnerable.

The relationship also helps Peck overcome his own feelings of vulnerability. He is aware of being out of his element, a Southerner. He feels most comfortable sitting barefoot at a South Carolina fishing hole. When Li'l Bit asks why he doesn't go back there to live, he responds, "I think it's better if my mother doesn't have a daily reminder of her disappointment.’’ During the same conversation, he tries to sidetrack her questions about fighting in the war, changing the subject at the earliest opportunity. Later, Aunt Mary refers to the trauma of his war experience as "whatever has burrowed deeper than the scar tissue,’’ and she explains that her way of dealing with it is to keep conversations superficial. It is clear that Peck is using his relationship with Li'l Bit to recapture some of his lost childhood, when he felt secure.

Gender Roles
‘‘Rage is not attractive in a girl,’’ a female classmate tells Li'l Bit when she screams at Jerome for grabbing her breast. Her statement reinforces the attitude that Li'l Bit has already learned at home, from her mother and grandmother, that women are expected to put up with being sex objects, that it is their responsibility. Her grandmother shows this attitude most clearly when she talks about her relationship with Li' lB it's grandfather. Throughout their married life, they have had sex almost every day, because he demands it, even though she has never been interested in it. Though Li'l Bit's mother is not involved with anyone sexually at any point in the play, she still sends a similar message when she warns that men are only after sex and that women must stay sober and alert to fight off their advances. In her relationship with Peck, which gives her the upper hand over a grown man, Li'l Bit seems to be taking a different attitude than the one she was taught, but deep down she really believes in traditional gender roles. She accepts that cars are female after Peck explains that he calls his car a "she" because ‘‘when you close your eyes and think of someone who responds to your touch—someone who performs for you and gives you just what you ask for—I guess I always see a 'she.'’’