I was utterly captivated by Marcia Butler’s memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. As Butler says in a YouTube video, music saved her life. It was the one constant in a world full of discouragement and outright destruction.
Butler discovered music at a young age, and really began to connect when she started to play herself. While she started with the flute, it was the oboe that became her North Star. From the outside, her family looked like a fairly typical middle class family. But the truth was more insidious.
I particularly felt Butler’s pain regarding her relationship with her mother. While her father was more overtly abusive, it was her mother’s distance and failure to ever engage that struck the deepest chord. That primary relationship of mother and daughter is integral to every woman’s life. We often assume that it’s always filled with sweetness and light, support and love. Well, Butler is here to tell us it’s not. And I second that emotion.
After high school, Butler attended music school in Manhattan, navigating the new situation without the slightest parental support. As much as she held the oboe to play, this is when the oboe really starts to hold her up. It becomes her lifeline, the normality in a life of twenty-something exploration and bad decisions.
Those bad decisions start to add up to bad relationships, drinking and drugs without much control. Butler’s story could be the memoir of a lot of folks during the 70s and 80s in New York City. But she has music, with transcendent moments to recharge and ground her. Her music career gives her focus and purpose.
I believe in the power of reinvention. In Butler’s case, the child became the young woman, who then became a full adult. The student became a professional freelancer, who continued to extend her skills to other musical forms. The musician became a writer, and so on. I salute Marcia Butler for her strength and courage to persist and keep reinventing in the face of tremendous odds.
Butler’s book is a dichotomy of cringe-worthy craziness and the healing power of music. She skillfully manages the delicate balance of both sides. As in a music score, there are moments of adagio, moving to allegretto, and even some presto. Butler weaves the stories and various tones together in a way that left me feeling uplifted at the end, despite the darkness of many chapters. This is a fantastic memoir—you won’t be able to stop reading it!
Many thanks to the author for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.