Lorrie Jorgensen’s First Gear: A Motorcycle Memoir takes the reader on lonely roads like Ontario’s Highway 11 as it arcs north over Lake Superior, and in memory through incest, rape, alcoholism and, perhaps worst of all, the court process of confronting her childhood abuser.
Jorgensen writes passionately about motorcycling, and she puts the reader on the bike. “The centre dashed lines rip by like newspapers coming off a printing press,” she says. “My boots are inches away from asphalt that races past like the belt on a sander.” These are images any rider will have, but would not have formulated, and she or he will nod in recognition with “its abrasiveness always waiting to scrape the best off of you, leaving your body bleeding and broken. The gap is the difference between exhilaration and death.” It is not all exhilaration. She renders the strain of backing a loaded bike up an incline, the hassle of getting in and out of rain gear, the problem of peeing in parking lots (you get backsplash from asphalt; ditches are better). Jorgensen knows the ride.
She celebrates the spirit of Northern Ontario, a quirky combination of humour and perseverance embodied in the giant flying saucer at Moonbeam, the huge raptor in Mattice, and the three-storey high snowman, wearing sunglasses and holding a fishing pole, in Beardmore. And the emptiness, the wonder of being able to travel for 200 kilometres in Canada’s most populous province and see nothing, no town, no settlements, scarcely another vehicle.
Jorgensen also renders the mental ride, the movement in and out from reverie to the road. There is a meditative aspect to motorcycling that is not at all like sitting on a yoga mat. Slippery tar strips suddenly yank your mind back to the road. The buffeting from big trucks shakes even a big Harley. Yet this empties your thoughts. Then the solitude and the rhythm of the engine return you to reflection, and you get deeper by moving in and out, each time a little further out, beyond the superficial hurt, or hate, or love to explore the deeper, subtler aspects of your own responses, your exchanges with others.
Jorgensen’s inner landscape unfolds haltingly. There is the ongoing, often humorous, letter to Bev, her dead mother, “Dear Mom … I’m sorry you came east wrapped up in a plastic bag like wall compound sold at home improvement stores … in … the kind of box you’d find in the local bakery, but not much different.” But there is also the gnawing never-resolvable question of why her mother did not protect her from her father’s abuse. Jorgensen drives by the old house where she used to gnaw on the window ledge, and wonders if the paint had lead in it, which would be a good excuse for her crazy behaviour in her teens.
She speaks of her decade of depression that was like “living in the grip of a crazed King Kong,” that squeezed and batted her until she “felt like one of those weird sponge-squeeze toys that never quite gets its shape back.” She took to drinking alone in a windowless basement. She remembers how she wished someone would run over her so that people could see she was damaged.
It is not all grim, though. Jorgensen is funny and self-deprecating, especially on body image. She tells us, “My breasts look like wide flat zucchinis or two halves of a butternut squash. I had two choices, either tuck them in or roll them up,” and goes on for half a page about the options for arranging them in her sports bra (“the perky, pointing upwards look … the low slung, heavy-breasted one where the nipples are pointing to the promised land”). And she banters with the good and bad food angels on her shoulder: “Fatty chick says, Think of the home fries with ketchup and salt … Skinny bitch says, Do you want to eat your way out of your six hundred dollar Harley leather jacket?”
Her reactions to the abuse are complex and this is the part of the ride I knew nothing about. I learned how delicate the balance is in offering help. Jorgensen despises the grim-faced psychiatrist who, when she says she has come because her father abused her when she was young, says, “So, you’re not over it yet?” But she also resents the therapist who offers to support her in any way, even if it means going to court. Jorgensen writes that she had seen her only five or six times, and “so I saw her offer as untimely, too eager and self serving … putting herself on my team and in the game without me asking her first.” Her best support comes from other abuse survivors.
The final third of the book charts her decision to report the abuse, and the consequences that follow. She goes to the police station, and her father is charged with rape, incest and sexual assault. Her mother phones and says flatly, “I heard you went for a drive.” The section is harrowing. The tension rises toward the end as we switch between the motorcycle ride in the dark and the trial of her father (although it feels like she is on trial) for abuse.
She finds there is no room in Val d’Or and she will have to ride through the darkness of La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve. She hops on behind a semi, then another semi pulls in behind. At first she thinks it is going to crowd her and then she realizes he is hanging back, giving her the benefit of his lights to see the road, while the taillights of the one in front guide her. The great thing about narrative non-fiction is that life provides its own symbolism. The two trucks that bracket her and shepherd her through the park parallel the two friends in court Paula and Kathy, whose smiles help her make it through the cross-examination.
The rhythm between the ride and the remembrance becomes faster and faster, until in the last 25 pages she is cross-cutting twice a page. It is a time-honoured way to build suspense—as the passages become shorter the tension builds—but it is not just a structural device here. It is as if Jorgensen cannot face the event except in fragments. Any journey is also a psychic journey, and the dark ride corresponds to the dark days: the worst is not the abuse; it is testifying about it 24 years later. I do not know what surviving abuse is like but this writing rings true. In any case, Jorgensen captures the back-and-forth process we all experience in working through our turmoil. She has nailed the ride.
The book itself is nicely produced by Inanna Publishers, but one caveat: I do not think it is just English teachers who will be put off by “my grandmother showed John and I newspaper clippings,” and other instances of the same error. Jorgensen’s writing is worth the editorial care (I speak as someone who has been saved by good copyeditors from appalling lapses) and it is clear she has other sharp, funny, personal stories to tell. Maybe Top Gear: A Tale of Women in the Trades?