A former-blogger, still friend of mine added Sounds Like Titanic on Goodreads, and I knew I had to read it. It’s about a college-age woman who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and made it to Columbia. She started playing violin when she was 8, which is considered ancient if you want to be a professional violinist. Her parents were not poor — they had white collar jobs — but Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman is surrounded by poverty and wants to leave her hometown. She chooses Columbia, much to her parents’ disdain, only because her high school boyfriend does, a boyfriend who is not originally from the holler but “the city,” code for “worth respect.”
To pay for college without her parents’ help, Chiccehitto Hindman signs up for the ROTC, but drops out almost immediately. Instead, she pays for her tuition by working three jobs, going to school full time, and selling 38 of her eggs. When she can’t even place in the college orchestra, her dreams of music major are destroyed. It’s circa 2001, and Chiccehitto Hindman works to earn a Middle Eastern Studies degree, spending time in Egypt and learning Arabic as planes crash into the Twin Towers and Americans argue with her that all people in the Middle East are terrorists.
But her college senior year is when it all gets weird. Responding to a want ad, Chiccehitto Hindman is hired into a professional orchestra without even an audition only to learn that The Composer, a real, famous darling of PBS, has his musicians play quietly in front of dead microphones while a CD blasts over speakers. Chiccehitto Hindman loses control as she questions what is real and fake, suffering from several panic attacks per day. She stays with The Composer’s orchestra for four years. The cheesy songs he composes sound so much like the Titanic soundtrack that he receives a cease and desist letter, but it is the music that makes Americans scared of terrorists calm during an uncertain time.
The writing style in Sounds Like Titanic is brilliant. Short chapters keep you reading in that way that short chapters do: just one more, one more, one more. . . Chiccehitto Hindman’s style allows her to jump around between places and years as needed without confusion, simply labeling each tiny chapter with a name and date.
When she writes about her time on the God Bless America tour with The Composer (who is called such because he is a real person, and Chiccehitto Hindman doesn’t want his identity revealed), she uses second person — “you” — which is a method people use to distance themselves from the writing. The author acknowledges that she is doing this, which plants readers firmly in meta-memoir territory, meaning the memoir is aware that it is a memoir and makes its awareness known.
Later, Chiccehitto Hindman includes a chapter in which she had a conversation with her friend who notes that in any normal book, when things get really awful, that would be the point during which some boyfriend would come in and tell Chiccehitto Hindman that she needs to stop fake playing because it’s hurting her psychologically. The author retorts that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but agrees to put the conversation in Sounds Like Titanic. These moments pull the reader into the realness and fakeness that the author works to untangle. The conversation is real, the boyfriend is made up. The story is real and happened to Chiccehitto Hindman, but by using “you,” it’s as if the suffering is not real. It is an effective writing style.
The whole memoir comments on two other themes beautifully: one is the American work ethic. If only a person works harder, he/she will receive just rewards. When children who believe in that motto grow into adults, they learn it is fake. In college, Chiccehitto Hindman uses drugs to keep herself awake for days on end so she can be successful. Ages five to eighteen she worked harder to prove she was worth something.
But the fake orchestra turns the American motto on its head. The Composer works hard, but is a psychotic man with a “velociraptor smile.” For his minimal efforts, he earns very little but gains the adoration of millions:
Other than a small trickle of revenue he received from the CD sales table at the concerts, The Composer is not getting paid by PBS for the tour. The audience members have “won” admission to the concert by pledging donations to their local PBS stations. The money for the RV and the hotels and our salaries is coming out of The Composer’s own pocket.
If you came to adulthood circa The Great Recession in the United States, Sounds Like Titanic will speak to you, revealing just how much “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” can cause misery, but also how men receive respect and adoration, even if they are fakes who don’t produce anything of value and can’t recognize Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (The Composer can’t).
The memoir also says a lot about growing up female in America, which tied in nicely with my post last week asking, Is Grab the Lapels actually feminist? Chiccehitto Hindman explores why a violin is actually a tool for girls by arguing it is like attaching a penis: with a violin, a girl or woman is worthy of respect and validation for reasons other than her body, respect that she would never get “in previous jobs as a waitress, receptionist, or assistant”:
By putting a violin under your chin — or even carrying a violin case through the puke-green corridors of your high school — it is as if you’re telling the world that you have authority on something, and in having this authority, you are more complex, more consequential than your young female body suggests.
Women are trapped in their willingness to work harder to prove their worth, which makes them succumb to mental health issues, which makes them seem weak, like men already thought:
Later, your dad will invite you to shadow him on a night shift in the emergency room for an article you are writing, and you will discover the ER at three o’clock in the morning is not full of blood and gore but women in their twenties having panic attacks. “I’m dying” when nothing is actually wrong. Panic attacks serve as confirmation of the very things women spend their lives working to negate: suspicions of female silliness, stupidity, hysteria.
I found that Chiccehitto Hindman had a lot to say about the life of women in her memoir that purported to be about fake playing the violin. It was so much more, and especially captured the hustle and desperation of women in their twenties trying to survive in a country that starts them further back from the finish line. She even touches on fatphobia and the unruliness of living in a female body. Control is key: of weight, finances, mental health, grades, relationships, a sex life. And we cannot live by controlling everything without losing everything.
An excellent memoir that I blasted through and highly recommend.