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The Skin Above My Knee
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One of the Washington Post‘s “Books We’ve Loved So Far in 2017”
The unflinching story of a professional oboist who finds order and beauty in music as her personal life threatens to destroy her.
Music was everything for Marcia Butler. Growing up in an emotionally desolate home with an abusive father and a distant mother, she devoted herself to the discipline and rigor of the oboe, and quickly became a young prodigy on the rise in New York City’s competitive music scene.
But haunted by troubling childhood memories while balancing the challenges of a busy life as a working musician, Marcia succumbed to dangerous men, drugs and self-destruction. In her darkest moments, she asked the hardest question of all: Could music truly save her life?
A memoir of startling honesty and subtle, profound beauty, The Skin Above My Knee is the story of a woman finding strength in her creative gifts and artistic destiny. Filled with vivid portraits of 1970’s New York City, and fascinating insights into the intensity and precision necessary for a career in professional music, this is more than a narrative of a brilliant musician struggling to make it big in the big city. It is the story of a survivor.
The events in this book took place. As my memory is sometimes fallible, dialogue is approximate. Some names have been changed, and certain events have been reordered or compressed in order to serve the story. I’ve made best efforts to ensure accuracy of detail and emotion in the way I layered the two into this recounting of my life.
AUDIENCES MARVELED AT this young violinist—how he performed with effortless abandon, uninhibited by the technical challenges in the violin concerto repertoire. Tonight, our audience was newly enthralled, on the edge of their seats inside Carnegie Hall, as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto moved at breakneck pace. In the principal oboe chair, alongside the fifty-plus other musicians in the orchestra, I leaned forward, listening intently, not wanting to miss a second of the violinist’s nuanced interpretation. My eyes wandered over the conductor’s head to the upper balcony of Carnegie Hall—137 steps above the lobby. The very first time I performed on this stage, so many years before, I’d also gazed up to the farthest patron. Young and new to the freelance scene in New York City, and fresh out of music conservatory, I remember pinching myself for my good fortune: I had made it to that venerable and most august of concert halls.
Years later, I felt I knew the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto almost as well as the soloist; I’d performed it within the orchestra dozens of times over many years. Considered to be perfectly constructed, this iconic work of the violin repertoire emerged from Mendelssohn’s genius at age thirty-five. Unencumbered by compositional traditions of his time, he experimented with a concerto form in flux, ultimately becoming a critical composer in bridging the late-classical, muscular writing of Ludwig van Beethoven and what would become the lush and broadening romantic realm of Johannes Brahms. The violin concerto reveals what a precocious innovator Mendelssohn was, retaining the usual fast-slow-fast movements of classical concertos but breaking with form by having the soloist enter immediately at the beginning of the first movement rather than using a lengthy exposition by the orchestra to introduce the thematic material. All three movements are performed attacca, or without a break. Neither the violin soloist nor the orchestra has the opportunity to regroup after each movement, whether to retune or just relax. We begin, and then it is “go” until all noses cross the finish line. No matter how many times I’d performed that concerto, I felt compelled to jump out of my seat at the end along with the audience.
Along I played, in love with the soloist’s interpretation of this warhorse favorite, feeling as if I were part of an intricate Flemish tapestry made of silky sounds and woolen harmonies. We musicians in the orchestra carefully balanced our accompaniment, and I emerged occasionally with my own solo here and there. The flow was instinctive, as if we could play it in our sleep. But not quite. Music of the late-classical period can be repetitive and easy to mix up because melodies are repeated many times and whole sections may be revisited, albeit in a different key. It isn’t a matter of not knowing the piece well enough but of losing one’s presence in time, or perhaps the mind’s uncanny ability to function on different levels of consciousness simultaneously. And when a long work is performed, the mind wanders to surprising and perhaps unimaginable places—almost like dreaming onstage.
Perhaps this particular conductor was thinking about the reception afterward and the donors he needed to chat up. He certainly wasn’t thinking of the musicians before him, his arms offering us no assistance, his eyes shut as if enthralled. No matter. A conductor’s public persona often trumps his conducting skills. Charming potential donors brings in necessary revenue, after all. And while he was no genius on the podium, we knew that this conductor could effectively execute the public “fearless leader” aspect of his job and guide us with minimal help.
Other minds also wandered. Just before stepping onto the stage, a section violinist had a screaming fight with her husband by cell phone. We had all heard it, trying not to listen too carefully. She surely had other things on her mind as she crimped her violin under her chin, preparing to play her next entrance. My eyes drifted toward a friend in the viola section. Our eyes locked. She signaled a very subtle “Oh, brother” look, lifting her brows slightly. I knew just what she meant: she detested this conductor. Glancing back over to the violinist who’d fought with her husband, I noticed her hooded and dull stare while she played a particularly difficult passage in a tutti section. Yet the music continued, beautifully.
I indulged in my own momentary lapse, wondering how my new puppy was doing and worried because I’d left her at home alone for far too many hours. Now the third movement was beginning, so I refocused and started diligently counting my rests, preparing for my next entrance.
Many complex lives wove snugly together on the stage, and in spite of this communal daydreaming, the bitching and moaning by means of conspiratorial glances bandied back and forth, and the nonverbal high jinks, a wonderfully transcendent performance was emerging. Scattered minds and thoughts notwithstanding, we remained intensely occupied with the task at hand: the performance by a superb violinist and a sensitive and attuned orchestra of one of the greatest violin concertos ever written.
An orchestra functions not only on these levels but also as a tight, organic, undulating ball of kinetic energy, similar to an enormous shoal of minnows—thousands of which can span half a mile. Consider the whimsy of one minnow. Suddenly, that first minnow decides to make a 180-degree turn, and every single one of the others makes the same exact turn at precisely the same second. Spanning half a mile, where minnow number 1 can’t even see minnow number 50,000, they pivot on an invisible fulcrum. This intuition is undoubtedly primal and surely important for their survival: it is also wondrous to watch. That evening, our soloist made his own whimsical version of a 180-degree turn, and we became his personal school of minnows. The first little fish veered, and an orchestra awakened.
We felt the subtle rupture in the music, not sure of what had happened or even if it was significant. But as it turns out, it was big: the violin soloist skipped eight bars, heaven only knows why. Daydreaming or just losing his place, he jumped and kept on playing as if nothing had happened. But what occurred next was unfathomable, really, except if you consider the humble minnow.
When the violinist made his error, the principal trumpet player instantaneously took on the role of minnow number 2. He had been counting many rests, waiting for an important entrance, but when the soloist leaped, he jumped, too, and put the trumpet to his lips to play his heralding entrance. He did this without thinking, it seemed, and in a split second. Upon hearing the trumpet entrance, half the orchestra jumped eight bars and followed him. By beat 4, all fifty-plus musicians were perfectly aligned. That was all it took: four very fast beats.
A small smile appeared on the face of the violin soloist as he realized what he’d done—and how the orchestra had saved his performance. Mendelssohn may have known from his grave that eight bars had been deleted from his magnificent violin concerto. But the audience was none the wiser, because those four seconds were a mere blip on the radar. Our conductor, whose eyelids were still fluttering and shut, listening to his internal and solitary rapture, was the last to catch up.
Compositions are painstakingly rehearsed in order to establish the basic interpretive arc for how the work will be heard by an audience. But in performance, many previously agreed-upon subtle details and gestures worked through during rehearsal may be spontaneously tossed out. Skipping eight bars of music aside, musicians love it when something unexpected happens. These moments are experienced as group impulses, emanating from the collective beating heart of the ensemble. Calling this nonverbal communication is too simplistic. It is not just an intuitive understanding among highly skilled artists but rather a developed, honed expertise realized after thousands of hours of practice and a lifelong dedication on the part of each musician to the mastery of his or her instrument. Musicians are gifted, no doubt, but they are also muscled Clydesdales. Perhaps it was our dogged preparation that helped dig the violinist out of his potentially embarrassing mess. A piece of music, played perhaps thousands of times before, can be interpreted spontaneously or manipulated quickly because of an error, a fact profound in concept and occurrence. And thrilling. We call this making music.
When we finished the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the ecstatic audience clapped with extended and then renewed force. The soloist came back for several bows and played an encore of unaccompanied Bach. We left the stage and filed upstairs to the dressing rooms, another concert at Carnegie Hall under our belts.
“Nice job, Bill,” we simply said later to the trumpet player as he was packing up, getting ready for his commute home to Leonia, New Jersey. The section violinist had a make-up cry with her husband on the cell phone. I packed up my oboe quickly, rushing so that I could get home to let my pup out the door. The violin soloist didn’t show up to thank the orchestra—or the trumpet player, for that matter. Our conductor was nowhere to be found.
As I walked out the stage door of Carnegie Hall with my friend the violist, she took up her rant about the incompetence of conductors in general. Nodding in agreement, I let her vocal treatise float into the background. I was already musing about the performance that evening, dreaming again about the first time I performed at Carnegie Hall and how in awe I was of the sheer beauty of the space and the impeccable, world-class acoustics. Even now, after my many years of performing concerts all over the world, Carnegie Hall still softly rocks me—suddenly I felt very young.
I noticed the quickening of a deep vessel expanding within my heart; always beating, always pulsing. Walking down the subway steps, I remembered the very day when my guileless four-year-old ears first experienced the life-altering impact of music. I halted midstep and stood, motionless, needing to grab that fleeting, now ancient, sensation; to hold it close again for just a moment. My heart slowed, aching for the next beat.
WATCHING THE HOOVER sway back and forth across the living-room carpet, I lay flat on my back, my legs bent like a pitched roof. Loose, fuzzy tufts of the velvet-cut pile surrounded my head and tickled my nose, waiting to be sucked into the vacuum cleaner. A menacing rubber rope connected to the machine swung above me, snapping with a blurred smear. As I held my little four-year-old body very still, this lumbering machine moved toward then away from me, sounding like the bellows of a monstrous accordion. My mother deftly negotiated the space—rocking the vacuum and flipping the electrical cord over the sofa, over the club chair, over the lamps. Over me. The Hoover’s wheezing rumble receded far into the background, the cord now a tolerable blur. But other sound clusters crowded, as music pressed closer—around me, over me, into me.
Our home on Sunday mornings in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, resounded with the conclusion of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, as Norwegian opera singer Kirsten Flagstad sang Isolde’s final aria, the “Liebestod.” It was 1959. “Liebestod” translates as “love-death,” a complex concept sweeping far beyond my young capabilities, yet I implicitly understood this sung story to be simultaneously deeply sad and marvelously transcendent. Isolde stands over her dead lover, Tristan, and has taken poison that will hasten her own death in order to join him in the afterlife.
Dramatic sopranos gifted enough to sing the Wagnerian opera repertoire are rare indeed. The unparalleled Kirsten Flagstad, whose magnificent career waxed in the 1930s and waned in the early 1950s, was perhaps the rarest. All her vibrant vocal resonance was held in the facial mask, around the nose and eyes. Her voice was not at all nasal; she possessed a gloriously hollow quality. A once-in-a-century voice—never shrill, never mannered, and never what we have come to identify as “operatic.”
A new and pleasurable sensation sank deep into my tummy, like a very heavy anchor with no water to resist its plunge. This squishy giddiness was as alive and direct a sensation as anything yet available in my young life. Kirsten shook me awake. With the distance of time, I suppose it was love. Kirsten must have loved me.
I was hooked. When the vacuum started and my mother dropped the needle onto the vinyl LP grooves, I’d race to the living room, dive-bomb onto the carpet, and settle into ten minutes of sentient comfort. It almost hurt, but it could not be ignored. Wagner’s signature musical landscape was a backdrop onto which an aching melodic line could float—and then soar—telling Isolde’s story through Kirsten’s voice.
Do you see it, friends?
Don’t you see it?
As I listened to Kirsten and wondered what Isolde was singing about, I also ached for my mother, whose right hand remained at the top of her Hoover, the left tethered to the long electrical cord. By keeping us clothed, sheltered, and fed, she met our physical needs, but no additional juice came our way. We knew this, as children do, but just to press the seal onto the wax, we were told, often.
“Honestly, I don’t know what is the matter with you girls. I don’t play favorites. I treat you the same. You each get what the other gets. What more could you possibly want? Please.”
With this branded into my phyllo-thin skin, my mother was off to her bedroom with one of her frequent and debilitating migraines. With the door locked, curtains drawn, the house silenced, she mothered from a deafening distance. Our carefully deadened home, with a churchlike quiet, gave her comfort and provided the space she needed.
During the week I would discover many of the thin cracks and shallow crevices of my mother’s mind and what she could accept from me. A “can-do” problem solver, I cobbled together weekly rituals through which I might pretend to be close to her and imaginatively pierce her thick veneer.
The valedictorian of her high school and college, my mother kept the yearbooks documenting her many past achievements stacked on the living-room bookshelves. Once a week I pulled all the books down off the shelves and laid them neatly in front of me. Now I was ready. Turning the pages one at a time, and always starting from the beginning, I discovered and rediscovered my mother’s image in the group shots of clubs and associations. Held back till the very end of my devotional sessions was the final black-and-white glossy: a full-page portrait from the University of Toledo, her glorious face and hopeful expression gently tilted upward, revealing a slight smile. With her lips apart just a bit, she exposed her crooked front tooth, and I imagined she was about to laugh; a laugh that was meant for me. The caption: “Margery Bloor Wenner: Brains and Beauty.” It packed a wallop every time.
Friday evenings—after she had concluded her week of teaching Latin to high school students—provided a few minutes of my mother’s golden solo attention while I received my weekly hair shampooing. She would lift my tiny body and set me onto my back right on top of the kitchen counter, my head draped deep into the kitchen sink. Hair moistened, I held my breath, preparing myself for a rough and vigorous scrubbing as her long red nails dug deeply into my scalp. In my captive, supine position, I was tacitly given permission for just those few minutes to gaze at her, examine her intensely, and not look away. Shampoo burned the eyes in those days, so I had about a minute before the stinging set in. Then, succumbing to the pain, I reluctantly closed my eyes and blindly felt her hands roughly flutter over my head. The ritual hurt and burned, but I took it without a whimper.
Occasionally on Sunday mornings, with the Hoover safely wedged between us, I slacked off and let myself hope and imagine that she felt what I felt as I lay on the carpet and wallowed amid Isolde’s words through Kirsten’s voice. But that was all in my naive imagination. She dodged her young daughter’s body, occasionally sucking a few strands of my hair into the Hoover, which did push a yelp out of me. With no apology, she aimed the Hoover in the other direction, bringing about mixed emotions. I wanted her to see me, even if it hurt. But she was simply cleaning the rug. Chagrined, I saw my error and righteously banished her to a spot in the background chorus, blending harmoniously with her Hoover. Her psychic whipping umbilical cord receded, just a coiled-up prop to be thrown offstage. Kirsten retook center stage, planting her feet squarely at the threshold of my ears and young life. Kirsten was my mother.
As I bode my time throughout the very long week while I waited for shampoo, heavy picture books, and Kirsten on Sunday mornings, a gauzy gray cloud washed over me. I was born a pint-size Sartre, my life’s purpose the unanswerable question. This quandary, which I did not understand let alone want to face, demanded frequent relief. Sleep became the stopgap I could reach for, perhaps control, and I slept hard, often, like a dead dog. Not, however, to achieve the usual sense of relief after a long and tiring day; rather, when I slept, I could mentally tuck myself up on a very high shelf. For a time, my brain unraveled and relaxed, temporarily deadened to all troubling ideas and perceived slights. Midday, or at any time at all, I crawled unnoticed into my bed.
Everyone sleeps, but not everyone could use music the way I did. If sleep was an unconscious draft of lifesaving elixir, music was its waking counterpart: both offered me a way to forget my wearying existential dilemma and to shove aside the need for an answer, or for my mother. Wafting between one and the other, I could pry my eyes open for another day.
The principal flutist sits to your right; to your left, the second oboist. While playing, you sense their bodies shift to take a collective breath as the front row of the wind section performs a tutti passage. The string section fans out before you: violins, violas, cellos, and basses. But the musicians behind you are as good as invisible: the clarinets, the bassoons, the brass, and the percussionists.
A languid duet, played as a unison solo during the slow movement of a Schumann symphony, brings you in touch with the unseen principal clarinetist. He’s a friend and musical colleague of many years, with whom you’ve shared the joy of the birth of his kids and the sadness of his subsequent divorce. And because of this close personal relationship, your inner eye is attuned to his musical life and particularly his artistic gestures during performance.
As the solo begins, you can’t distinguish his sound from yours. At first, it’s unnerving. Your sounds are meshed, creating a new composite sound, and for several seconds you doubt you’re actually taking part at all. The intonation has no telltale beats, indicating pitch discrepancy—in short, it is perfect. Phrasing inflections ebb and flow as one. As you lose yourself in time, forgetting that you’re performing for an audience, the music seems to play itself: effortless, the oboe weightless in your hands. Yet all the while, you sense a pressure on the back of your head: the clarinetist’s eyes boring a hole into your skull.
At the end of the solo the full orchestra joins in again, to conclude the movement.
It was intimate; you feel slightly embarrassed and carry this memory and sensation with you for many years. It has rarely been duplicated. Transformation within the shifting universe of music is singular and dear, like a newborn with flexing fists.
“IF YOU DON’T practice, you won’t like it.”
Mr. Proud repeated this gentle declarative warning often, and I was inclined to take him at his word. I was his somewhat dour fourth-grade music student; he, my deadpan first music teacher—and neither of us seemed to have much to smile about. The serious nine-year-old girl and the no-nonsense grown-up quickly developed an easy simpatico.
When Mr. Proud demonstrated the flute, clarinet, and trumpet at the beginning of the school year, my eyes widened with recognition—a few puzzle pieces had just snapped together before me. Up until that moment, music was largely intuitive for me, but now the heavens ripped open as I connected the sounds echoing in the classroom with the orchestra that was so familiar to me on Sunday mornings. But I had to quickly select what was to be my personal steed. The trumpet was just too blaring; the clarinet too honking, with a spreading-out wheeze. I easily chose the flute because its sweet, open quality most resembled Kirsten’s burnished, silvery voice.
In the first lesson Mr. Proud taught the flute class how to blow into, or over, the mouthpiece of the flute. The room quickly filled with what sounded like children blowing over the tops of Coke bottles. Disoriented from the cacophony, I separated myself from my classmates, faced the corner of the room, and practiced the exercise for several minutes. A strong hand on my shoulder broke my concentration. Startled, I turned around and met Mr. Proud’s intense brown eyes.
“Why are you standing in the corner?”
“I don’t know.…I can’t stand all the crazy noise.”
“Neither can I. Okay. Show me what you can do.”
I scrutinized his impassive face for a few seconds and then gave him four very long and steady hoots, in succession.
He must have recognized the musically starved child before him. I was promptly sent home with a fingering chart, and in one week I managed to learn all twelve notes of the scale. Mr. Proud looked at me inquisitively in the second lesson: I could actually play the thing, after a fashion, and I could name all the notes to boot.
“Marcia, how did you learn all this in one week? Did you have help? Have you played another instrument?”
“No. But I know Kirsten.”
“She’s the lady who sings Isolde’s song in the Wagner.”
“You mean the composer Richard Wagner? How do you know about that?”
“She sings on Sunday mornings with the Hoover.”
My cryptic explanation surely baffled him, but he left it alone.
As the school year progressed, whatever he asked me to prepare, I would return having mastered the assignment. His comment never varied.
On a very subtle level, he was teaching me something profound, a concept that many never feel comfortable with. Mr. Proud showed me that I would be the arbiter of how “good” I was. That was a huge chunk of adult to be laid right at my small feet.
The big event under Mr. Proud’s yearlong fourth-grade tutelage was my performance of “Greensleeves” over the radio in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Mr. Proud met me at the Pittsfield library, where I sat patiently with my flute in my lap. Stage—or radio—fright quickly set in. My heart pounded so hard I could feel the blood pulsing on my scalp, even out through my eyeballs. Slowly I got myself under control by closing my eyes and pretending to be asleep. Gradually my heart slowed down to an ordinary pace, and my sweaty palms dried up. And finally, saliva returned to my parched mouth.
When Mr. Proud gently shook me awake, my eyes found the head of the microphone looming large in front of me. An old lady pointed to me and screamed in a whisper:
“Okay, play NOW!”
I blasted out “Greensleeves” to beat the band.
Years later, when I was hired to teach smart and talented college kids at Columbia University (who were actually there for other reasons, like public policy and rocket science), I would echo Mr. Proud’s gentle warning: “If you don’t practice, you won’t like it.” They had terrifyingly full schedules, yet they still wanted to continue playing through their college years. My students initially tried to cram their practicing into one or two days before the lesson. There are no shortcuts, and I urged them to practice every day, even for just fifteen minutes, because sustainable progress comes from a dogged routine. Mr. Proud remained a heroic and steady beacon throughout my life by imparting one simple gift: the early understanding that anything challenging is only truly loved when engaged in every day. The getting-better part is the gravy.
Mr. Proud would leave at the end of the school year in the mid-1960s to become a New York State organic farmer.
“Marcia, I won’t be back to teach you next year.”
“I’m going to farm organic vegetables in New York State.”
“Because it’s what I really want to do.”
“Don’t you really want to teach me?”
"A tale of triumph over a childhood rife with abuse, yet blessed with talent. Filled with insight and honesty, [Butler's] memoir flows like a series of gorgeous musical phrases, taking the reader on a journey as uplifting as it is disturbing.... Her courageous memoir is a testament to the power of art to inspire and heal."
- "Marcia Butler's original and lyrically written memoir charts her rise from oboe prodigy to freelance professional on the international classical scene. Transportive portraits of Carnegie Hall concerts share space with memories of childhood trauma and gritty slices from 1970s New York."—New York Magazine
- "For Marcia Butler, the oboe was a protective garment and a ticket to the world, though both applications came at a steep price.... The Skin Above My Knee ultimately succeeds because it leaves readers knowing a thing or two about an esoteric world."—Meghan Daum, New York Times Book Review
"Impressive.... [Butler's] imaginative prose fires the senses dramatically. Music aficionados will find an extraordinarily kindred spirit here, and lovers of memoir will find this a sensationally satisfying one."
- "A moving account of how passion and creativity can be powerful weapons against neglect, cruelty, and self-harm."—Publishers Weekly
"[Butler] writes lovingly and beautifully.... The light and the dark fight it out in this fierce, fiery memoir."
"Marcia Butler has written a beautiful memoir -- meticulously nuanced, daringly honest, and utterly inspiring. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that captures so fully the ability music has to transport, sustain, defend and elevate struggling human beings through difficult times."
—Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize winning music critic, The Washington Post, author of Parallel Play and Dawn Powell: A Biography
"Gorgeously written, The Skin Above My Knee takes the reader from the world's most lauded concert venues into the innermost sanctums of musician's lives in New York. Always honest and admirably adverse to self-pity, Marcia Butler's beautiful book cuts its devastating insights with poetic love for the world. My heart broke in several places, and leapt in several others. When I finished reading, I felt as if I understood music on a level usually reserved for world class musicians. Stunning."—Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M at The Cat's Pajamas
"Heartbreaking, page turning, and ultimately redemptive, The Skin Above My Knee is a dazzling memoir about life as an internationally recognized classical musician and about one woman's journey to the only sort of love that lasts-self-acceptance. An insider's look at the world of professional performance and a moving account of one woman's effort to transmute pain into beauty, this book will appeal to anyone who has ever wondered how you get to Carnegie Hall or how to survive family. Reader, she succeeds beautifully."—E.J. Levy, author of Love, In Theory
"In her debut memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, Marcia Butler shows us how music - listening to it, playing it, losing it, and rediscovering it - can save us. With bravery and honesty, she unflinchingly tells her story. And through it all, music resonates and becomes the soundtrack for us all."
—Ann Hood, author of The Book That Matters Most
"With clear-eyed courage and spare, lyrical prose, The Skin Above My Knee carries us not only into the mesmerizingly compelling world of a professional oboist, it also takes us into her love-starved childhood, her self-destructive young adulthood, and a descent into a solitary darkness that only her art can save from her; Marcia Butler has composed her own music here, and it is filled with passion and yearning and ultimately the kind of beauty that can save us all. This is a gorgeous book."
—Andre Dubus III
"In The Skin Above My Knee, a classical musician takes a walk on the wild side and almost doesn't make it up the stairs. Butler's remarkable memoir of a New York City freelance musician's life does for classical music what Patti Smith's Just Kids did for proto-punk, and Eileen Myles's Inferno did for Lower East Side poetry."
—Tim Tomlinson, author of Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire
"Fierce and lyrical, honest and darkly funny, Marcia Butler's memoir is so good, I found myself canceling plans with friends so I could stay home with this ravishing book. Her gift with language is rare. Not only can she describe her descent into a spiral of self-destructive behavior so vividly that you fear for her life, she will, in the end, carry you away with the poetry of her words as she describes the transcendent power of music."
—Patrica McCormick, author of the National Book Award finalist Sold
"Marcia Butler's amazing memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, could have remained a tale of damage and survivorship. But from the first page Butler announces bigger intentions than her own autobiography which in and of itself is mesmerizing. She weaves her journey as if it were music itself--at first a horn section begins playing whenever the parents enter the stage wings. But then we move to grander art and in the end the mature concerto triumphs. Always fueled by her startling musical talent and precocious intelligence, Marcia Butler is a winner and so is her must-read book."
—Nancy Zafris, author of The Home Jar
"Creativity is tricky and elusive. You can't buy it. You can't rent it. You can't borrow it. And you certainly can't fake it. Marcia Butler has it. In this superbly written memoir, Butler observes her own life, sharing the ups and downs of it and this mysterious gift which saved her. Now the rest of us who weren't fortunate enough to hear her perform can read this astounding journey into the heart of what creativity feels, tastes, and looks like, as well as see w hat goes into being an artist."
—Charles Salzberg, author of Swann's Lake of Despair
"Such is the miracle of art. But Butler also makes us confront its limits, as redemption in life is rarely whole or permanent. Music saved her from an unhappy home, but it could not fill the throbbing vacuum caused by a parent's lack of affection. Music did not rescue her from her attempts at self-destruction, though it did provide a place for her to experience a rare feeling of wholeness. Butler's unmistakable bravery turned a traumatized girl into a world-class musician, then into a writer of memorable grace and force. You hope, while reading Butler's transcendent words, that some of it will rub off on you."
—National Book Review
- On Sale
- Jan 1, 2030
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Back Bay Books