for The Tulsa Voice
At 14 years old, songwriter and author Allison Moorer awoke to the sound of gunshots outside her Alabama home. In the pre-dawn dark, her father shot her mother and then himself, leaving Moorer and her then-17-year-old sister orphaned. Moorer’s new memoir, both the book and its companion record, are called Blood. In them, she recounts her parents’ turbulent marriage, a childhood full of both music and fear, her ironclad relationship with her sister and fellow acclaimed musician Shelby Lynne and how that earth-shattering early morning altered her life forever.
The book is a heart-piercing work of heady prose told with astonishing detail and candor, touching on witnessing abuse, praying for the safety of her family and even reading her parents’ autopsy reports for the first time as an adult. The companion album is a case study in processing trauma through art. Combined, they’re a career-defining release of poetry found in mystery, in human complexity and in unhappy truths.
Immediately following a battery of interviews including high-profile features on CBS This Morning and NPR’s Fresh Air, Moorer embarked on a cross-country tour to speak about the book and perform a few selections from the record. She’ll be at the Woody Guthrie Center on Dec. 5 for a free reading presented in partnership with Magic City Books and the Bob Dylan Center.
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Becky Carman: What kinds of conversations did you have with Shelby before you started telling your story, since this is her story as well?
Allison Moorer: I didn’t talk it over with her; I just started the work. When I got into it, I let her know that I was doing it. I needed her in some instances to check my own memory, or I wanted to get her perspective. We did communicate about it some but not as much I guess as some people might think. It’s just about this very specific place and time in my life. I do feel like I am the witness for my immediate family, the four of us. I do feel a responsibility, especially to my sister, to make sure I get it as right as I can. She has told me that because I did do this work, she has been able to see her own experience in a different way and to see her own trauma in a way that she had maybe not allowed herself to see it before. That’s the biggest reward I can ask for.
Carman: Why was now the right time to tell your story?
Moorer: I’ve had some people ask me, ‘Why did you wait so long?’ And I don’t even really know how to answer that other than to say I certainly wasn’t prepared to write a book about this when my first record came out. I wasn’t even prepared to talk about this part of my life. What led me to write this—and this is crazy—but in 2010, about six weeks after my son was born, I was asked to be a guest on Maya Angelou’s radio show. Of course, I said, ‘Of course.’ She asked me about my childhood, my upbringing, and she said, ‘Well, now you have [your son] John Henry, so what are you going to tell him when he’s old enough to ask? How are you going to explain this to him?’ And I didn’t have an answer for her. That put the idea in me to start writing it down.
Carman: Unpacking a traumatic childhood event is one thing, and writing about it is another. Are those things separate for you, or was the writing a tool to work through this?
Moorer: I think I’m a person who processes through art. The exercise and the discipline of writing helped me uncover a lot of my feelings and a lot of detail about this subject. There were places I put myself to recall things that I had maybe not thought about since they happened, but I had my tools: I had made my stack of index cards with memories on them or topics that I wanted to look into or just words that seem to trigger me in some way. I’ve got a lot of photographs that I would look at, a lot of artifacts. I have to tell you, I remembered some things that shook me to my core. I remember several times just holding on to the side of my desk thinking, ‘How am I going to write this down? This is too painful, or this is too complex, or this is too much to try to put into a paragraph.’ I did my very best. I know that. And I wrote and rewrote. I think I wrote this book four times.
Carman: There’s a song on the record where your sister wrote music to your father’s words. Did you have to ask her to do that?
Moorer: She found the lyric in his briefcase shortly after they died, and she put music to it, so it’s been with us all this time. Neither one of us have ever officially recorded it, so I thought this record would be a good time to do that. I feel like it serves a couple of purposes. It is a window into his character for sure, because that lyric comes straight from him. It also let me say to him finally, ‘OK, you get to be heard.’ That was important to me.
Carman: In one of your journal entries recently, you talk about living on the ‘woo woo’ side of life, and in the book you talk about praying and about wanting to go to church. What do faith and spirituality look like in your life now?
Moorer: Being in touch with my own spirituality and keeping a really close relationship with faith—however it looks on whatever day that is—is really important to me. There’s so many things in life that we cannot control. In fact, we can’t control any of it, and the idea that we can is a total illusion. If I get too close to that, I can absolutely spin out. I started a meditation practice several years ago. I’ve always been interested in Buddhism and the concept of having absolutely no control over anything.
And you know, I can go both ways on that, because I am a person who seeks symbolism and seeks meaning. I can on one hand think, you know, there aren’t any accidents, and I don’t want there to be. There’s a reason for everything that happens, and we have a path, and we can choose how we walk it, but there is a greater plan than what we think there is. And then the other hand, I can think, well, none of this makes any sense … it’s absolute chaos. That presents a problem for me as a practical person. I’m like, well, which is it? I just figure I have to do the best with this that I can, and that means that I can only do something about me.
Also, I think if I stay in touch with my spiritual side, which calms me greatly, I’m able to do something like this. This process is making me highly vulnerable. Not only have I put all of this out into the world, I’m now having to talk about it. And it’s still not easy to talk about 33 years down the road. It’s still a painful subject, so I have to dig in there. The difference for me now, because I have done emotional work that I needed to do, is I don’t necessarily feel like the world is out to get me. Because this happened, I embodied the message that the world is not safe, that the world is a very dangerous place. I’ve operated on this sort of high-alert and hyper-vigilant system. What I’m trying to do now is be OK with that vulnerability and trust that anyone who asked me a question doesn’t want to hurt me.
Carman: Did any of the questions about your parents that you started with get answered?
Moorer: No. So many people throughout my life have indicated that my father was someone they admired, and I understand, especially from an intellectual perspective, how he was so attractive. He was charismatic. He was talented. He was smart. He was good-looking. A lot of these people showed up to his funeral and said, ‘He affected my life, he did this for me, or we love him for this,’ and I’ve never been able to figure out why we saw such a different person at home. I can blame a great deal of that on alcohol for sure. But that was one of my questions: Who was this person that I did not know? I didn’t get any big answer about how he turned into who he ended up being.
When I got the autopsy reports, I saw that there was a third cartridge found on the ground, and every time I would approach someone to try to help me figure that out, I would hit a dead end, or they would stop corresponding with me. I finally just had to say, ‘Well, I can stay on this track, and I can try to get an answer to this question, or I can just let it go and decide that something’s telling me I don’t need to know the answer to this question.’ I have to be OK with the unknown, or I can just stay on the hamster wheel forever. I just had to get off. The lesson for me was I have to make peace with the fact that I’m not going to know everything, and I’m not supposed to know everything.