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Jessica Handler


Mystery and Beauty: Messages from Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach

I stumbled onto Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach for the first time nearly a decade ago. This was, not coincidentally, the same week that a spider wrote me a note.

My husband and I were seeking a pristine, untroubled place to clear our heads before immersing ourselves in deadlines and obligations. I’d been touring with my memoir, a story of family trouble. Mickey was drafting a novel about a dystopian society. Need I say we were deep in darkness? In a torrential rain, we left Atlanta for a rented Jekyll Island beach house on a street named for paradise. When we arrived, the sun shone.

We rented bikes and rode north along the main thoroughfare, heading for the tourist standards—the pier and a historic cemetery. Pedaling the wooden bike path across a marsh, I glimpsed a deserted beach and an expanse of open water. This, I thought. Here is what we’d come for. I called out to Mickey, biking ahead of me, for a detour. We circled back and crossed sand and scrub on foot.

What we found on the beach was a weird kind of vision, the final resting place of what seemed to be scores of sea-washed trees, some entirely horizontal to the sand, others arched, their limbs reaching skyward. Each trunk and branch shone as glossy silver-gray as an oyster’s flesh, each as smooth to the touch as sun-warmed skin.

My bike map identified this as Driftwood Beach and marked the spot with a cluster of cartoony purple trees. Driftwood to me meant sticks to toss on a campfire. Here, we walked among massive relics, a story of time and tide.

Some people see shapes in clouds. I saw shapes in the drift-trees: a sheep’s head bowed for petting, a fallen column from an architectural ruin. Some trunks were wider around than my embrace, others longer than my husband is tall—we measured them with our swimsuited bodies. Deep ripples imprinted the trees like messages in an alphabet gone extinct. The St. Simons lighthouse sparkled across the sound, but we were rooted in time.

Every morning, we wrote in the house on the street named for paradise. Each afternoon, we biked the two miles up-island to walk among downed oak and pine. With colored pencils, I tried and failed to capture their tales. This cemetery of trees, I learned later, was evidence of erosion: Soil washes away, trees fall.

I was hanging our wet towels and swimsuits on the clothesline when I saw the yellow and black spider. She had built her web between two spiky yucca plants. A zigzag of thick white silk disrupted the symmetry of her delicate spokes. Surely this golden orb weaver, the writer-spider, had crafted a message for me.

Listen for the world’s quiet, was what I read in her web. There are mysterious, beautiful stories here, if only you stop to find them.

Jessica Handler is the author of the novel The Magnetic Girl, winner of the 2020 Southern Book Prize, a Wall Street Journal Spring 2019 pick, and a Bitter Southerner Summer 2019 selection. Her other books include Invisible Sisters: A Memoir and Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR and in Newsweek and the Washington Post. She teaches creative writing at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and lectures internationally on writing.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.

6 reasons the New York Times story on Atlanta restaurants gave me cultural indigestion

NYT on Atlanta
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Last week, the New York Times indulged in its periodic scrutiny of Atlanta’s restaurant scene, declaring that a “city that often looked over its shoulder for culinary validation and inspiration is coming into its own.” On one hand, you could say it was nice that our hometown got such space and (measured) praise in America’s paper of record. The headline of the piece was “Atlanta Pulls a Chair to the Table for Culinary Greats,” but after reading it, perhaps a more accurate one would have been “Bless Their Hearts.” I didn’t take issue with the writer’s dining choices; Kim Severson is an accomplished food writer, an Atlanta resident, and a former bureau chief for the Gray Lady. What bothered me, frankly, was the condescending tone.

What do I mean? Let me unpack my objections and arrange them neatly on my veranda.

1. It seems that every New York Times writer filing dispatches from Atlanta is dutybound to mention two things: Traffic and Scarlett O’Hara. In this story, the evidence given for our traffic problem is that the drive to Decatur “can seem too long.” Well, from where? After all, Decatur actually has a MARTA station. But then again, the author never tells us where she’s driving from.

2. Then there’s Scarlett, whose de rigueur appearance is meant to be a stand-in for Atlanta diners who “place appearances ahead of everything else.” As we know, Scarlett didn’t eat the barbeque at Twelve Oaks, and eventually caved in to a raw turnip. If the New York Times has to bring Scarlett into the mix, does that mean it’s okay for me to compare New Yorkers to Jerry Seinfeld (a character who stocked his pantry with nothing more than cold cereal) or, I don’t know, Travis Bickle?

3. And of course, no story about Atlanta would be complete without mentioning—150 years after Appomattox—carpetbaggers. In this case, the carpetbaggers in question are the high-profile national chefs (Emeril Lagasse, Tom Colicchio, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten) who opened and then had to close their restaurants here. Atlanta, says chef Guenter Seeger, “is a difficult town for an outsider.” Tell me, chef, how can I explain that to the 2.8 million metro Atlantans born outside Georgia?

4. Our inventive local chefs, “don’t feel the need to prove themselves in bigger ponds.” The home of the world’s busiest airport, sixteen Fortune 500 companies, and two Nobel Prize winners remains a small pond. Isn’t that a bit like hearing your dotty old aunt exclaim year after adult year how you used to love Gorton’s fish sticks when you were little?

5. Empire State South founder Hugh Acheson is quoted as saying that until five years ago, Atlanta “kind of wanted to be Dallas. The really popular restaurants were all valet and neon signs and kind of nightclubby.” Really? I’m not recalling the neon at Holeman & Finch, the Porter, Bocado, or any of a bunch of other restaurants who were around five years ago. Maybe I couldn’t see the neon through the crowds. Acheson also stresses the importance of the “table touch,” which doesn’t sound like something I want when I’m eating dinner.

6. The slide show accompanying the story is titled “Rise Up”—which could be seen as a not-so-subtle reference to the Confederate rallying cry. To be fair, perhaps we’re rising up against squirrel, or Arby’s, or poorly made pimiento cheese. (Dear editors: You will nevertheless be ecstatic to know that my childhood piano teacher once referred to the Civil War as “The Great Disturbance.”)

I admit that my griping might mean I’m just another Southern stereotype—the thin-skinned hick with an inferiority complex. But until those sorry tropes are retired to the back burner where they belong, that’s a risk I’ll have to take. So Gray Lady and Kim Severson, get over it. It’s time to sit at the same table.

Vanity Fair turned me into a Southern stereotype—and I let them

Arrayed for the day As pictured in Vanity Fair’s February 2011 issue, from left to right: Sheri Joseph, Susan Rebecca White, Karin Slaughter (reclining), Amanda Gable, Joshilyn Jackson, Natasha Trethewey, Emily Giffin, Jessica Handler, and Kathryn Stockett.
As pictured in Vanity Fair’s February 2011 issue, from left to right: Sheri Joseph, Susan Rebecca White, Karin Slaughter (reclining), Amanda Gable, Joshilyn Jackson, Natasha Trethewey, Emily Giffin, Jessica Handler, and Kathryn Stockett.

Photograph by LuAnne DeMeo

In some circles, Southern is still an unsettling quirk, an excuse for caricature—like the mute and heroic Boo Radley or wanton Daisy Mae Scragg, heartthrob of Dogpatch. This realization first crossed my path the summer before eighth grade, when a bunkmate at camp in the Adirondacks demonstrated for me the miracle begot by the light switch on our wall. A counselor explained the wonders of our cabin’s flush toilet.

My sorry state of being Southern had preceded me.

“We have these in Atlanta,” I said, with a gargle of humiliation and rage that was received as banjo-picking idiocy. After I was gently asked how many slaves my family owned, I hid in my bunk for the next two months, scrawling furrows of blue ballpoint epithets in my journal. This was 1972. Surely my bunkmates knew better. And yet, as far as my Camp Echo Lake peers were concerned, I was Scarlett O’Hara.

Almost 40 years later, I was one of nine Southern female authors assembled by Vanity Fair magazine for a photo shoot to accompany an article about us. And there, on the Swan House lawn, was that quirk again, this time in the form of hats. Beribboned emblems of a fantasy South—yellow straw with a black band, wheat-colored straw with a brown bow—were piled in the arms of a wardrobe assistant, sweet and round and wide-brimmed to shade us from some blazing Southern sun.

We’d been ministered to by a celebrity hair stylist known for grooming seasons of women on What Not to Wear. A decision was made that the hats would damage our freshly curled, sugar-spun hair, and the hats (most of them, anyway) and assistant departed.

The Swan House, with its graceful scrollwork and breeze-welcoming windows, is the very picture of a genteel South. It is a showpiece of the Atlanta History Center, in whose excellent Kenan Research Center I worked on my first book. I spun through the library’s microfilm records to confirm my memories about Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, which I had attended as an eight-year-old; about the closing of Renewal House, the drug treatment center on Eighth Street that my father directed; about Atlanta’s famed “Strip” and the runaways and hippies who haunted my teenaged years.

A few weeks before the shoot, my book’s publicist had called to inquire about my clothing sizes: shoes, waist, inseam, dress, shirt size. I knew that we’d be presented in the article as Southerners. I grew up in Atlanta. I am Southern. I write about this all the time. I was anxious for any opportunity to promote my book, and I admit I’m an easy sell on anything presented as chic. A fancy journalist and a photographer wanted to include me—a debut memoirist—on a page alongside writers better known and more lauded than me.

Sure enough, my publicist’s questions bore fruit. On the day of the shoot, a wardrobe rack was hung with couture chosen by a stylist just for me. Eight more racks lined the room, a hand-picked wardrobe for each of us. Shoes overflowed from a steamer trunk. In coat rooms and alcoves, the nine of us zipped and tugged and inspected. In Oscar de la Renta and Swarovski, we became cake-frosted versions of ourselves.

The photographer wore a black patch over the eye not affixed to her viewfinder. She lifted the patch away when she stood, ignoring the diagram with our names that was on the grass beside her. From behind her camera, she gave us directions, saying, “You in the blue, turn to the one in the brown.” A wardrobe assistant obscured my tattoo with a shawl. Production assistants counted the rhythm aloud as we skipped, holding hands, toward the camera. We spent the entire day sitting this way and that; holding hands and skipping; pretending to serve and drink tea from delicate cups; holding our breaths, our postures, our tongues. Dazzled by opulence, I giggled. As I remember, there was a lot of laughing.

“You in the beige, sit up straight,” the photographer told me.

The weather had been wet, and my stiletto-heeled sandals sank into the mud. Keeping my balance, regretting the destruction of an expensive pair of shoes, I wondered why the assistants had artfully strewn autumn leaves in our path but neglected to first lay down a hard mat.

We had arrived as ourselves, but before the camera we reinforced the image that so many of our books intended to break. I had known going in that my own identity would be obscured by makeup and clothing more elaborate and costly than I would ever wear in real life. I knew when I accepted the invitation that my individuality wouldn’t be affirmed; after all, I worked behind the scenes in television for more than two decades. But it was only as I was sinking into the mud in five-inch heels that I realized I’d agreed to betray the contemporary South I’d worked so hard to portray.

Our photograph is one more contribution to that fantasy that obscures the real South. Yes, I saw a Confederate flag–draped pickup truck in rural North Carolina this summer. But I’ve seen them in Maine, too. In the 1980s, when I lived in a duplex in Arlington, Massachusetts, my home was the target of a sad little Molotov cocktail—a Pepsi bottle with a gas-soaked flaming rag in the neck. Why? Jewish names on the mailbox, the cop said. My housemates and I were lucky. Only the curtains on the front door were damaged.

Southerners aren’t always the backward ones.

A writer knows that no story has a plot without change. My South is full of change. The books we nine Southern authors wrote told stories of family wreckage, of leaving home and finding it, of childhood and growing old, of sexuality and racism. I know that in my writing I try to give voice to those who have lost theirs. But the Southern women our photo implied were caricatures of a long-ago era. With my rigid smile and flowing skirt, I let my voice be silenced as well.

A few semesters ago, one of my students projected the photo onto the wall as I came into the classroom. I could have made a teaching moment of the clash of images: the Professor Handler they knew in the classroom versus the Professor Handler looming on the wall. I could have told my students that within the photograph are too many white people. I could have pointed to women with advanced professional degrees, sometimes more than one to a person. I know there’s grief and sorrow and joy and humor in those women. And I know that there’s frustration in at least one of them—me.

Telling a true story can be a difficult act. Watching my students, college freshmen, gape at nine Southern women dressed as delusion, I did what I couldn’t bring myself to do at summer camp or in front of Vanity Fair’s camera.

I said, “Oh, shit.” And then I reached for the light switch, obliterating the image.

Jessica Handler is the author of Invisible Sisters: A Memoir and Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. Her nonfiction has appeared on WABE and in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and More magazine.

This article originally appeared in our November 2015 issue under the headline “You in the beige!”

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