One would think all childhood discoveries are the joyous sort, filling the young ones with wide-eyed wonder and doting parents with pride and love. But the rite of passage Marcia Butler describes in her new memoir, about being a professional oboist while living a complicated double life in New York, sounds a definitive down note.
As professional musician for 25 years, Butler performed as a principal oboist and soloist on some of the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestra players — including pianist Andre Watts, composer and pianist Keith Jarrett and soprano Dawn Upshaw. But her early home life in the 1950s was full of physical and sexual abuse, perpetuated by her father and tacitly condoned by her mother.
“Music saved my life,” Butler said last week, ahead of her visit to Print bookstore for a reading from her new work, The Skin Above My Knee, on Thursday, March 16. But it was a life that would always be beset by depression, substance abuse, and dangerous decisions.
When Butler was young, the memoir tells, her father regularly abused her older sister, Jinx, while her mother ignored her pleas to step in. The household was always on edge, the family members awaiting his next violent outburst while attempting countermeasures to assuage his rage.
In order to get her father to drive her to music lesson, Butler has to sit on his lap, a recurring act she perceived to be perverse. Even at four years old she senses something was wrong about it, but she trades on those intuitions so she can get to class.
Her life under the lights, she tells The Phoenix in a phone interview, always distracted others from her secrets and herself from their resulting pain. “My mother was profoundly distancing. My father acted on Jinx in an overt, physical way and on me in a covert way,” she said. “I always thought she had the harder time because my father’s abuse toward me was secret. We had this unspoken childhood agreement: he was brought to arousal while I was on his lap, and he would bring me to oboe lessons.”
Her memoir, published last month by Little, Brown and Company, details this harrowing journey as Butler, inspired by an early love for classical German opera, finds the drive to become a professional musician no matter the cost.
Along the way, she provides wonderfully rich and detailed interludes on classical music and the instruments and personalities that populate it, along with vignettes describing what musicians experience on stage before the lights go up, and what the stomach, head, and fingers feel during a performance. These passages blend with first-person accounts of her fractured home life, damaging relationships, tales of resorting to theft for survival, drug abuse, suicide attempts, cancer diagnoses.
“I was living parallel lives, of a professional oboist as well as living on a seedy level, and I wanted to delineate those two narratives,” Butler says. “This way of psychologically separating my personal life with my professional life was actually the way I lived my life.”
While the sections may seem thematically discordant, they both come back to the music. When she was a child, her mother would vacuum to the strains of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Norwegian opera singer Kirsten Flagstad sang Isolde’s final aria, the Liebestod, while Butler lay on the carpet, feeling and hearing the buzzes.
“I didn’t know what it was about, but I sensed that this was a profound universal expression of love,” she said. Liebestod means love-death, and it was not too long before the young music student learned that the two go hand-in-hand.
“It was quite the experience for a four-year-old to have,” she said. “As instruments dropped in my lap as I grew older, I instinctively knew to hang onto this thing.”
“It’s a great book for musicians to read,” says Kate Beever, a local musician and founder of Maine Music & Health, a music therapy organization in southern Maine. “It tells her story, but also gives that extra thing to think about. If you go back and listen to the music and think about how she related to it, you start to think of it in a new way. If I learn about the composer’s life, I learn there’s a different aspect to the music.”
Beever employs music therapy with disabled clients, using instruments to help them find tactile and audible treatment. Her professional clients struggle mainly with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and she works with them in medical settings. She’s also taken them on the road, one time visiting the State Theatre to have them perform on stage, to feel the thrill even if in an empty venue.
While she says parts of the memoir made for tough reading, she loved the way Butler references actual pieces of music as we’re carried through the plot.
In Butler’s story, when not steeped in her music (or obsessively hand-making reeds), she lives a meager existence, surviving on a head of lettuce and saltines for meals. She steals from her roommate and uses phony subway tokens until she’s able to land a restaurant job. That work introduced her to a lifestyle of late nights, drinking and using drugs, and eventually the promiscuity she says she was initiated into at a young age.
“There was so much shame,” she says. “It felt devious, secretive, like everything was hidden. Growing up, not much was said about sex. Nothing was explained by my mother, of course, but I was experiencing sex (albeit in an abstracted form, which was really about power) with my father. It was a destructive, devastating exchange. When I got to New York City, I didn’t have a healthy understanding of what sex or love meant and I was unable to say no to anyone. I thought if a man wanted to be with me, I had to say yes. You think it’s freedom to say yes, but it’s a cage.”
Her relationships came to include such toxic exchanges that suicide seemed a viable escape. But for the intervention of a passerby, her suicide attempt walking into New York City traffic would have succeeded.
“I darted out and within seconds she pushed me to the side,” Butler said of the time she walked into traffic, amazed that someone had been watching her. “I was saved. It’s amazing what people see in New York City. Sometimes you see nothing, sometimes you see everything.”
Through that story and the many other tales within The Skin Above My Knee, Butler keeps the lens focused squarely on what she can be accountable for.
“I’m careful in the memoir not to take prisoners,” Butler says. “I report what happened to me. I wanted my book to be very clean and just about my own interactions with these people. Who knows what made these men behave the way they did? But you need a wide bandwidth of compassion.”
The art of using music as medicine, and practice and performance as therapy, has long been an industry truism. Portland has renown as a musical town, and musicians and their fans alike often seek the stage lights for solace from hard times. But not everything works toward the cure.
“Music therapy, in terms of self-medication, can be an escape, especially for children when they’re dealing with stuff they don’t understand,” Beever says. “It seems like there could be nothing wrong with music, but for some it can be detrimental. In same way you can drown yourself with anything — working out, for example. It’s the same with music. A person could be playing all the time and blocking out the world.
“I sometimes worry about people who say ‘music is my therapy.’ It’s good to have other activities — writing poetry, getting together with friends, getting out in nature.”
Beever says the Portland music scene doesn’t always provide the greatest of settings. “In bars, at parties — it’s like a cycle of unhealthiness. The music, the art itself, can be really healing, but the setting where a lot of us are forced to present our music can be detrimental, especially the rock scene. You go play, everyone’s drinking, you’re up late.”
But for Butler, music was the only way out, and well worth the risk.
Marcia Butler discusses her memoir The Skin Above My Knee | March 16, 7 p.m. | Print: A Bookstore, 273 Congress St., Portland | printbookstore.com