“Those twin emotions, love and outrage, warred in me. . . . Nothing was clean between us, especially not our love.” In these two sentences, the narrator of “Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Know” gives the reader a snapshot of what it means to live in the push-pull of a working-class family where women value their daughters more than anything but cannot or will not save them from the abuses of their abused men. The narrator is Dorothy Allison herself, and her story is a testimony to both the strength of her female family and her own strength in seeking both her own safety and her own bond with those she loves.
The plot of the story centers on Allison’s aunt, Alma, driving hundreds of miles to fetch Allison back home, where her mother is pining away for her. Allison is living a life of her own construction, born out of her politics and personal desires: She is living in a small lesbian commune, with a commitment to her writing and a refusal to participate in any of the elements of domesticity that she felt so oppressive to her and her aunts and mother. Aunt Alma arrives in righteous contempt, seeing Allison as living an empty life because it seems to be about personal pleasure and ambition, with no valuing of what should be the cornerstone of her existence—family devotion. Alma wants to know why Allison has stopped talking to her mother, and why her mother has turned to such deep despair. Alma, if she cannot rescue her dear niece, is determined to take that niece back to restore her sister.
The revelation of what has driven Allison to cut ties with her aunts and mother is unveiled as the aunt plays pool with herself as she lectures Allison. Allison watches her aunt, admiring her incredible strength and confi dence, lamenting that she has needed all that strength and more to endure the way poverty has destroyed men and women in her family, longing for the love the woman gives and at the same time furious that she did not use that strength to protect Allison when she was a child. Allison has told her mother exactly why she cannot have the babies that her family tells her it is her duty to have—a duty to love and family endurance: Allison’s stepfather raped her for years when she was a child, and her mother did nothing to protect her or acknowledge the problem because she could not raise the kids without his income, and because doing so would disrupt the family. Because Allison’s stepfather had a venereal disease that he passed on to Allison, she found out that she is sterile. But she is also ravaged by violation and betrayal in a way that makes her at all costs want to escape her family—especially the women who colluded to keep her rape a dirty secret. When her mother’s nagging about the importance of children pushes Allison to the edge, she rips into her mother with the truth, that the mother’s betrayal of her daughter is what led to her not only to be unable to produce more children but also to see her family as sacrifi cing female children to hold on to men undeserving of loyalty.
Aunt Alma pushes Allison to a confession she had left in order not to upset her family even more, and Allison, tired of being shamed as antifamily, lashes at her for being a hypocrite: “Don’t tell me you don’t know” is implicit in her accusation of her mother and her aunt. Allison feels most betrayed not even by the rape but by the way the women she loved sacrifi ced her in the name of the survival of the family as a whole. Throughout the story to its end, what tears the narrator apart is the unbreakable bond of love she has for the women in her family, the knowledge that the will to survival and the courage to face pain pour like a river from them into her being, and the inescapable fact that working-class women will do anything, even let their children be hurt, in order to support and maintain their men in a world that is out to destroy them physically and psychologically.
A shallow interpretation of this story would be to call it an incest narrative, but Allison is adamant that her work is political, not merely confessional. In the preface to the collection Trash, in which this story appears, she writes: “I write stories. I write fi ction. I put on the page a third look at what I’ve seen in life— the condensed and reinvented experience of a crosseyed working-class lesbian . . . who has made a decision to live, is determined to live, on the page and in the street, for me and mine.” Most incest narratives are framed in terms of the individual striking back at the family and branching out on her or his own. Allison, however, insists on solidarity, on an economic analysis of the forces distorting the strength of the working-class family. Her lesbianism, she makes clear in this story and others, is not the main source of her alienation—indeed, it is her solace in its offer of love and community. When she titles the story “Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Know,” it is also an accusation to the reader, asking whether we, too, refuse to see how we collude in the trashing of people, the victimizing of the most vulnerable.
Her work has the key feature of most working-class writing: to argue against the middle-class impulse to dismiss the poor as deserving of their oppression and as solely responsible for their problems (in a word, that they are “trash”), and to offer a testimonial to the family as courageous and committed in spite of strife. When Aunt Alma and Allison reconcile but do not resolve their division, they share a single word to say what each is worth to the other, both saying, “Precious.” Aunt Alma says it to mean that Allison, even if she does not become a mother, is deeply loved as a daughter, and always wanted. Allison, in saying it, affi rms that the love for her mother and aunts, even though not “clean” and riven with a sense of betrayal, is inescapable, is essential, and is life itself to her.
Allison, Dorothy. “Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Know.” In Trash. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1988.