A squat little cinder block shop tucked away in a quiet mountain cove on the outskirts of Waynesville caught fire 43 years ago, around suppertime one night.
Authors often dig into their childhood to mine for the coal and diamonds of their books. Sometimes they use the picks and shovels of fiction; Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Wolfe come most famously to mind as writers who frequently turned to the terrors and triumphs of their adolescence and early life to make their books. In our own day, Pat Conroy in The Great Santini, Maya Angelou’s In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Sandra Cisneros in The House On Mango Street all gained early fame from novels based on a difficult childhood.
In the last 50 years, memoirs have become a popular means of exploring childhood and family relationships. These accounts nearly always focus on the traumatic events and dysfunctional family life. Happy childhoods doubtless produce fewer sales, except in the case of humorous books like Shirley Jackson’s splendid Raising Demons. Here we have only to look at the best-seller lists of the last 20 years to come up with a few examples: the ironically titled A Childhood by Harry Crews; Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, the story of an Irish childhood awash in drink and poverty; Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It; Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors; Kaylie Jones’s Lies My Mother Never Told Me; and many more.
In Moonshiner’s Daughter (ISBN 978-0-578-05420-9, $14.95), Mary Judith Messer tells the tale of her own harsh childhood and adolescence in Haywood County. Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, a time before the War on Poverty did much to ease the suffering of the Appalachian poor, a time, too, when Alcoholics Anonymous had not yet made deep inroads into a culture of poverty whose primary form of entertainment often turned around a jug and a still, Messer faced adversity at nearly every level of her life.
First, there was the hardscrabble poverty in which she lived. Often she, her sisters, and her brother lacked even the rudiments of life: food, shoes, heat in the winter. Worse, both her mother and father, themselves products of a harsh youth, were, by any standard, terrible parents. They may have loved each other, and frequently they showed love to their children, but they also viciously beat them, terrorized them with threats, often cheated on each other in their marriage, and made costly juvenile judgments in terms of how they lived their lives.
It was not poverty, however, which destroyed their lives. Many families here in the mountains and elsewhere rise above straitened circumstances. No, it was liquor that ruled Messer‘s parents and destroyed any possibility for order and discipline in their lives. Like other Appalachian men before him, Terry Lee Long, Messer’s father, kept a still in the woods and sold moonshine to make some cash. Unfortunately, he also drank up any profit to be made from the still. In nearly every scene in which Long appears in Moonshiner’s Daughter, he is drunk, and rarely, it seemed, was he a happy or even a contented drunk. Liquor turned Terry Long mean as one of the many copperheads living on their Fine’s Creek farm, and he took his meanness out on his family, beating his wife unconscious several times and whipping the children simply out of cussedness.
Long was sent to prison on several occasions for making illegal whiskey, but his children found no respite in his absence. In what began as a rape, two neighbor boys, and then a grown man, have sexual relations with Messer’s older sister, 13-year-old Cheryl. With the father in the federal clink, the family had even less to eat and could not chop enough wood to stay warm. At one point, having taken firewood from the walls of their old barn, the children under orders of their mother then burned the barn to conceal the act from their father (For some reason, they only removed a horse from the barn; they incinerated the chickens and all the equine tack along with the barn).
Messer was eventually rescued from this ordeal through the efforts of the Queen family, who hire her as a mother’s helper at the Queen ranch in Maggie Valley. She traveled with the family to Washington and later went to New York City, where she lived with her older sister. Life there remained a struggle; both young women had trouble holding jobs, and Messer was raped by a photographer who demanded sex from her in exchange for some pictures he had made of Messer’s nephew.
Though a powerful statement, Moonshiner’s Daughter does contain some flaws. There are a number of printing and unintentional errors of grammar in the book. Even more bothersome, the book leaves readers with a number of unanswered questions. Messer never explains why, on the front cover of the book and in another picture, the faces of her siblings as children are whited out. Nor does she tell us the ultimate fate of her younger siblings. Did they too escape the sad history of their family? And why, after the photographer rapes her, does she then send her sister back to pick up the photographs? She herself tells us that the photos even today remind her of the rape. This rape also left Messer pregnant. When a male benefactor helps her find a place in a Catholic convent catering to unwed mothers while she awaits the birth of the child, Brenda Lee, whom she then gave up for adoption, Messer follows the practices of the Catholic Church, taking communion and going to confession, yet she never explains why she felt compelled to do so. It seems unlikely that only Catholic girls were assisted in this fashion, but Moonshiner’s Daughter doesn’t tell us if that this was indeed the case.
Despite these faults, Moonshiner’s Daughter gives us a slice of Appalachia from a time now vanished from these mountains. Drug abuse and alcohol continue to plague families here as elsewhere, but the grinding farm life and the moonshining have largely given way to the more general ills of modern life. Messer’s voice — direct, simple, conversational — lends a force to her writing that should attract many readers.
Moonshiner’s Daughter by Mary Judith Messer. Doing Well Now Publishers. 218 pagegs
Inside Mary J. Messer’s cozy Bargain Books in Waynesville, hundreds of thousands of books are stacked ceiling high.
Messer sits herself close to the door so she can greet customers as soon as they walk in and help them navigate the immense selection.
Nowadays, many are coming there specifically to pick up Messer’s own memoir, Moonshiner’s Daughter, a special addition made to the bookstore’s hefty stock earlier this summer. “Growing up poor in the Smokies … how did we survive?” the book’s subtitle reads.
For Messer, not writing a memoir was not an option.
Long after the physical pain of cruel beatings by her mother, father, principal and teachers dissipated, Messer continued to think daily of her miserable childhood in Haywood County during the 1940s and 1950s.
“I hurt all the time, seemed like I couldn’t get along a day without thinking about what all happened to me, my brother and my sister,” Messer said.
Messer felt compelled write down her recollections before they slipped away. On slow days at the bookstore, Messer would run out to her car in the parking lot, scribbling her memories as quickly as she could into a composition notebook.
“I just couldn’t write it fast enough,” said Messer. “I was afraid that I would not get it wrote down on paper, that it would leave my mind.”
With the publication of her memoir after a few hurdles, Messer is finally discovering relief from the weight of her story.
She now talks candidly of incredible suffering long kept behind closed doors, episodes that are painful to read about, let alone experience.
“It feels so…wonderful that finally, my story is out there,” said Messer. “It seems like a whole building has been lifted off top of me.”
One customer told Messer she’d buy the memoir, even though Messer had practically recounted the entire story to her already.
Messer breaks into tears as she tells the story of the last brutal beating she suffered at the hands of her father.
Messer had been left alone to look after the house, while her parents went off for two days of drunken revelry, taking Messer’s younger siblings along.
A neighbor convinced her to stay over since young Messer was terrified of staying alone at home in the dark.
But her parents and siblings came back early, and Messer’s mother told her to come home promptly, warning her that her father was ready to kill her.
Messer walked home at a crawling pace and tried to avoid her father while he lay sleeping. He had cut off the biggest limbs from the cherry tree in preparation, but her mother had given him smaller limbs to use on Messer.
Soon enough, Messer’s father woke up. He came over to her, grabbed her arm and jerked her out the door.
“He took those limbs and broke every one of them up,” said Messer. “He whipped me till blood was running out of my back and out of my legs.”
After all the limbs broke to pieces, her father grabbed a long wooden stick used for fires and beat her for even longer. He continued thrashing Messer even as she passed out. She remembers regaining consciousness three times, and each time, her father refused to quit.
Afterward, Messer was laid in bed. When her mother offered her soup, she stubbornly refused to eat.
“I didn’t want to get out of bed. I just wanted to be in heaven. I wanted to be dead and done with it,” Messer said.
“I remember looking up at the stars, I so wished I was sitting on a star. I wished I was out of this earth.”
Years before, Messer’s mother would regularly lock herself in a room and attempt to poison herself or hang herself, even with the children looking on.
Messer and her young siblings would scream, banging on the door and trying to rescue their mother. “We all cried, ‘Please don’t die mama,’” Messer said.
Messer’s father would often be sent away to jail for making moonshine, leaving her mother, who likely suffered from mental illness, alone with the children.
She, too, became an alcoholic and would stay up all night, cranking loud music and dancing with young boys. During this time, Messer witnessed the rape of her sister on multiple occasions, apparently with the mother’s knowledge and consent.
Messer herself was a victim of child molestation by a janitor in school who targeted young, poor girls and would give them a nickel for ice cream each time they traveled down to the school basement with him. A shopkeeper on Main Street molested Messer while her mother prowled nearby stores on the hunt for items to shoplift.
On top of the overwhelming physical and sexual abuse, Messer had to live in extreme poverty.
Growing up mostly in shacks, Messer long considered running water and electricity a luxury. She and her sister would often have to walk barefoot in the snow to carry water from the spring to her family multiple times each day.
They had to go to sleep hungry and woke up hours in advance to make the mile-long walk down a rocky hill teeming with snakes to get to their school bus stop — only to get on and be teased mercilessly by classmates about their poverty.
Principals and teachers often seemed to take up sides against the Messer children. Once, Messer was whipped so hard by a school principal that she couldn’t sit on the bus ride home without feeling excruciating pain.
While Messer’s older sister was married off to a moonshiner in his 40s when she was only 15, a kind neighbor rescued Messer for good.
The Queen family offered to take her on as a mother’s helper for the summer. Messer recalls the family treated her as one of their own.
“Every time they got a dollar, I got a dollar,” said Messer. “When they went to the movies, I went to the movies.”
It took hard work to take care of the young Queen children, but for the first time, Messer had her own room and was fed regularly.
Later, Messer’s parents gave her permission to move with the Queen family to northern Virginia since she made enough money to cover their house payments. Her father would usually squander the money he made on making more moonshine for himself.
Messer joined her older sister, who had run away from her husband, in New York. During her time in the city, Messer was raped and impregnated by a photographer. She was forced to give up the baby for adoption because she could not afford to keep it.
Messer eventually moved back to Haywood County, married and had a family of her own.
Messer was determined early on to lead a better life, even if her abusers were never brought to justice.
“I rose above it, A lot of people turned to drugs, turned to alcohol,” said Messer. “I had it in my mind from a very young age. I’m going to get out of this hell one way or another.”
To this day, Messer refuses to touch a drop of alcohol after seeing its horrifying impact. She said she can’t even stand the smell of beer.
Messer is thankful that plenty of resources are now available for people that continue to suffer from the same tragedies that she experienced when she was young.
“They can find shelter,” said Messer. “They’re not like my mother having to stay and get her teeth knocked out, running away dead of winter, sleeping in barns.”
With her memoir finally published and in the hands of readers across the region, Messer is now focusing on one last goal: forgiving.
“I do have to work on this. It’s very hard,” said Messer. “I cannot get this off my heart, what was done to me, and what has happened in my life. I just want to be able to forgive.”
Mary J. Messer will sign copies of Moonshiner’s Daughter at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 21, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. Call 828.586.9499 for more information.
Part of the proceeds of Messer’s book will benefit REACH of Haywood County, which assists survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse.