Excerpt: ‘I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive’

In her first book of prose, the poet Lynn Melnick blends memoir with cultural observation to trace the importance of Dolly Parton as role model and inspiration.

i've had to think up a way to survive, lynn melnick, university of texas press

Seven Bridges Road
Little Sparrow, 2001, 3:29

The first time I remember hearing a Dolly Parton song start to finish was in the triage room of a hospital, as I waited to be admitted to a drug rehabilitation program in West Los Angeles. I was fourteen. It was 1988, and Dolly and Kenny Rogers were singing 1983’s “Islands in the Stream” across LA’s KOST-FM. I knew her voice, of course. It would have been hard to be anywhere near a radio or television in the last fifty years without getting to know Dolly’s warm, clarion soprano. But while I grew up on folk songs—basically country for blue states—music like Dolly’s was often scorned in my parents’ home, and by my friends. My friends and I spent our time chasing down heavy metal bands on the Sunset Strip and would not have given Dolly the time of day. Many people of my generation—or at least those born outside the reign of country radio—first knew of Dolly as a straight-talking goofball on The Tonight Show, a set of giant tits, someone your grandma got a kick out of, someone who, my father would say with derision, was “famous for being famous.” Meanwhile, Dolly had been churning out hits for decades, possessed of a preternatural talent for writing and for singing authentic emotion into every song. Class and gender stereotypes could not and would not obscure her absolute genius or stop her from going where she wanted to go.

I don’t remember my parents in the moment they signed me into rehab, not their probably weary faces—younger than my own now—or much of what they said, only that the high cost of hospitalization was mentioned, and a joke made about hitting the annual insurance deductible in one night. March 3. A date I have marked every year in the thirty-plus years since. As a parent of a teenager myself now, I assume there was significant pain involved, some bewilderment, but also perhaps some acknowledgment of this predictable next step in the falling-apart sequence I’d been slowly enacting since I was raped by a teenage boy on overgrown 1970s carpeting before I’d turned ten years old. Now halfway through ninth grade, I had already been expelled from school twice; reckless behavior, followed by variously successful attempts to cover it up, was how I spent my free time while other kids studied or kissed or participated in team sports.

I welcomed the stay at Glen Recovery Center. If I couldn’t just be given an entirely new self, at least I wanted to make it clear to the world that the one I inhabited was wrecked. Being in rehab seemed like a rubber stamp to that effect. Less fond of cocaine and whiskey than of the exhilaration of forgetting, I craved the fresh environment. My parents filled out intake forms, and I was asked to create a list of people I approved to visit me. I sat with the lined sheet of paper on my lap even though I knew I didn’t want to see anyone. Outside, on Pico Boulevard, the Santa Ana winds blew through the tops of the palm trees visible from the windows of the triage room. I could hear the traffic flow east toward the tall vacant buildings of Downtown after dark and west toward Twentieth Century–Fox Studios and eventually the Pacific Ocean. It was a relief to abandon whatever promise I’d held as a curious, shy girl in my brother’s hand-me-down Sears dungarees and a cherished Strawberry Shortcake turtleneck shirt, the outfit I’d worn to school on picture day a couple months before my body was violated on that deep pile of beige shag carpet.

I’d worked hard since then to convince the outside world to join me in giving up on my potential. But Dolly’s voice from the hospital’s ceiling speakers held a different kind of promise than that which I’d failed to meet. It was a release, a renewal, euphoric. When I heard Dolly’s voice over the four-plus minutes of “Islands in the Stream,” I knew I needed to hear it again. Though it would be a few months before I purchased a Greatest Hits cassette tape from the bargain bin at a Thrifty Drugs, the multifaceted clarity of her voice hooked me instantly. I needed to feel that euphoria in my body again. I needed to believe in that bright precision, in an artistry as unstoppable as Dolly herself.

Resilience. Longevity. Outlast those who would doubt you. Just keep going. In my darkest moments, that’s been the light she shone on me. With over one hundred singles, fifty albums, 160 million records sold, more than four hundred television appearances, and scores of awards, Dolly has become even more of an icon in recent years, claimed and reclaimed by fans across a startling number of demographics and featured prominently and with due reverence everywhere, from memes and kitsch merchandise to awards shows and a Ken Burns PBS series. Dolly is an icon of feminine strength and yet also an objectified caricature of womanhood. She’s super savvy while often playing the rattlebrain—a deflection, perhaps, a feint of self-protection in a world where big talent and business acumen prove threatening when coming from a woman. She’s a phenomenally accomplished artist who giggles it off as she keeps marching forward (in five-inch heels) through the life she wants. She’s an American Dream.•

Excerpted from I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton, by Lynn Melnick, © 2022, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.

University of Texas Press

I've Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton


Lynn Melnick is the author of three books of poetry and a contributor to Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.
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