On Justin Heckert’s “Her Own Flesh and Blood” (Atlanta Magazine, July 2011)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: Marianne Swanson married a man who would later contract AIDS while she was pregnant with their second child. Both her second and then her third baby died of AIDS. Her husband died. And then AIDS came after her, too. She didn’t expect to survive, but she did, and she was able to start a new life.

How does one begin a story that spans across 30 years, about a person who lost two children and a husband to AIDS? If you’re Justin Heckert, the key is not to give away the whole story in the first three paragraphs, but to illustrate an event that gives readers a mere sense of who this person is. He chooses to highlight a night at a carnival, when Marianne and her second husband had one of their first dates. In fact, Heckert doesn’t mention in the first section that Marianne is an AIDS survivor. It’s something he intends to be inferred later on in the section.

The way he tells this story that spans over 30 long years is not by telling it all in one long, chronological chunk, which would have been exhausting for readers. He tells two alternating stories. He sets it up this way at the end of the first “prologue” section:

There are two stories of her life. One really begins that night, with the Ferris wheel and the funnel cake, just after dusk at the fairgrounds. The other—well, that’s her story alone; she’s lived it. It’s been hers every day: when she gets up to take her pills in the morning; when she passes the pictures on the refrigerator; when her head spins after she takes more pills at night; when she wakes up from the vivid dreams; and when she goes to work and looks at the bulletin board, when the knob turns and her office door opens and . . .

(Interesting to note he ends the section in the middle of a sentence and then uses the ellipsis to continue it into the very next section, but in a different setting at the hospital she works at.)

The story he began with is one from the present, about how her second husband, Darrel, was able to help her live again. The one that’s “her story alone” is a sad path beginning in the 1980s, and each section from this story track is the story of a family member dying from AIDS, beginning with their second baby who lived only a year. These sad series of stories are countered by Heckert’s positive illustrations of Marianne’s present life in 2011, giving readers more of a balance, not overwhelming them with the despair that the other sections emit.

Heckert also illustrates the power of dialogue in this piece. He uses it to tell the hardest parts of the story:

“Thank God we have these meds,” she tells him. “Years ago, everyone was dying.”
He looks at her and has no idea.
He puts on his headphones and walks out the door.

And also the power of short sentences–how a mere description of actions can in fact describe so much more if used in the right places, like those above. 

This guy has been coming up the ranks at a strikingly fast pace over the years. Be sure to follow him.