Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison was first published in 1995. This book consists of incidents and circumstances that are significantly deep and touching. It has heartwarming and unbelievably sad to read, in-depth accounts and insights into the horrors that the author had gone though in her past.

“Two or three things I know, two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that to go on living I have to tell stories, that stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world” (Allison 72).

Read Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison!

Since the book is a memoir, readers have no choice but to delve into the harsh realities that people have to face in real life. I must start by saying that the author has identified herself as a feminist author. She was a board member of Feminists for Academic Freedom and in the advisory board for Feminists for Free Expression. This book follows her famous novel Bastard out of Carolina, and it seems to provide a back story or a true account of what happened to her, while continuing the story beyond the novel.

The truth telling becomes something essential in this book. Allison’s truth telling affects the story line as well as the narrative style in Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. This is explained further in a review written about the book for ‘The Southern Literary Journal’:

Seeking to represent her childhood trauma through narrative, Dorothy Allison naturally decided at first to write an autobiographical novel. Though she was always open in interviews about the direct connections between Bastard Out of Carolina and her own life, the novel is itself on the borderline between fiction and non-fiction. Why then would Allison choose to present the basic story in the non-fictional genre of memoir, after having received so much acclaim for the more familiar version of the novel? When she asserts that “the need to make my world believable to people who have never experienced it is part of why I write fiction. I know that some things must be felt to be understood, that despair, for example, can never be adequately analyzed; it must be lived” (“Question” 14), she seems to be telling us that in a fictional format she can best avoid what she calls “pseudo-porn,” a narrative which produces a pornography of victimization through graphic and gratuitous detail (Strong 8).

The book starts with her telling us the power and importance of storytelling, how much stories are needed. She speaks of how she told stories to her sisters and even now, she would tell stories to outrage people, but she will work in order to make people believe her stories. She speaks of the painful death of her mother and the importance of her mother. She mentions ‘running away’, how running away is good and women run away for good reasons. The important thing is to leave the reason to run away, behind you.

None of the women in her family ran away. They stuck through harsh economic conditions as a poor family in the Deep South. They stuck through abusive, loveless marriages. Running away was not approved as a good thing for a woman. Talking or saying what you thought was not a good idea either. The women in her family or even in that part of the country were hard working, rough and determined. She mentions how being beautiful or female was not allowed.

So what was the role of women? They gave birth; they cooked and took care of their men. The women in her family were described as ‘man like’, sexless and bearers of burdens, babies and contempt. She speaks of being raped at five by her step- father. He also beat her for his own pleasure until she was sixteen, that’s when she finally stood up to him, she said to him, “You can’t break me, and you are never going to touch me again” (Allison 68). She speaks of running away, learning to shoot a rifle, learning karate, finally learning how to love her body, and how she doesn’t know love or never understood it most of her life, she only knows sex. She says, “I am not supposed to talk about hating that man when I grew up to be a lesbian, a dyke, stubborn, competitive and perversely lustful” (45).

Her narrative style is not traditional at all, for she is direct and sharp. She doesn’t hide behind words, instead she is provocative. This style is very effective for it gets all the raw emotions through to the reader. The book is divided into sections. Each section speaks of an incident or a situation she underwent in her life. She ends each section with an italicized quote that drives the point of that section home. These quotes are short and gut wrenching. They make the reader think, and the quotes are designed in a way to automatically get the reader to connect to or relate to what Allison has written in the text. This method is very effective because, not all readers have undergone what she has gone though in her life time, but by relating in some way to what she has written, she is building a network of comrades who will not stay silent when society abuses or oppresses them.

Her writing opens blind eyes. She asks readers who are suffering to take action and readers with power to support those who are suffering. Each quote begins with, “Two or three things I know for sure,” Allison first heard this from her Aunt Dot who said that she doesn’t know much but there are two or three things she is sure of in life. The simplicity of knowing two or three things, but the depth that these two or three things carry, reoccurs throughout the book. Her writing style is powerful by way of simplicity. Her words are placed like bricks that form stories and emotion. This is why I say that her text is as rebellious as she is.

To explain her unconventional narrative patterns further, I would like to turn to her keynote address at the PEN Hemingway awards ceremony. In this address her words for aspiring writers were,

Try to put down on the page what you know. Try. Relive everything you have lived and aim to put on that medium, whatever it may be, what you have felt. I do not require that you understand. I write so much that I do not understand. But put on it what you have felt. Put on it what you are willing to be in the room with, exposed, be ashamed of, and be redeemed by. The doorway is simple. Step through humiliation. Step through being thought absurd. Give me a book. (17)

Dorothy Allison has achieved a lot professionally and has come a long way as a writer. She was a rebel on paper and in life. As a women writer, her various achievements stand as evidence for overcoming oppression to become a successful woman writer. According to Allison’s website, “She was the first of her family to graduate high school. An award winning editor for Quest, Conditions, and Outlook—early feminist and Lesbian & Gay journals, Allison’s chapbook of poetry, The Women Who Hate Me, was published with Long Haul Press in 1983. Her short story collection, Trash (1988) was published by Firebrand Books.”

She has won many awards throughout her career so far including, two Lambda Literary Awards for her book Trash; this book also won the American Library Association Prize for Lesbian and Gay writing. Something that really inspired her and changed her life was the early feminist movement. This is apparent when Allison says, “It was like opening your eyes under water. It hurt, but suddenly everything that had been dark and mysterious became visible and open to change” However, to actually publish her work she first had to get over the prejudices that haunted her.

As a woman writer, Allison has a deeply rooted sense of identity that shapes her, and her literature. In an interview conducted by LeMahieu, Allison was asked, “A number of years ago you suggested that the central fact of your life was being “Born in 1949 in Greenville, SC, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family.” Does that fact continue to be essential for you as you move further away from that experience?” In reply she said,

“You never move away from that experience. Yes, absolutely central. You get older, you get skills for dealing with it, you develop a sense of humor, you get Jesus. He helps, or she: I have days when I think Jesus was female. But it never goes away. There is a basic level of uncertainty and insecurity, and the world colludes.”

Bastard out of Carolina was a novel that put her on the spotlight. It was a finalist at the National Book Award in 1992. It won the ALA award for lesbian Gay writing, the Ferro Grumley prize and it was turned into an award winning movie. According to, her other notable award winning books include,

Cavedweller (1998), The expanded edition of Trash (2002) included the prize winning short story, “Compassion” selected for both Best American Short Stories 2003 and Best New Stories from the South 2003. Fall 2009, Allison was The McGee Professor and writer in residence at Davidson College, in North Carolina.Spring, 2007, Allison was Emory University Center for Humanistic Inquiry’s Distinguished Visiting Professor. Summer, 2007, she was Famosa in residence at Macondo in San Antonio, Texas.2006, she was writer in residence at Columbia College in Chicago.

Her achievements don’t end here, there are lists full of awards and honors she has received as a celebrated contemporary woman writer. In this memoir, Dorothy Allison talks about important themes such as inequality related to social class and gender, oppression of women, self-image issues in women. Most importantly, she includes personal experiences that touch upon themes such as domestic violence against women, sexual, physical and verbal abuse towards women and the eventual female rebellion against such acts.

The author has included painful childhood and adult memories in both her novel and this memoir work, which proves that she wrote through the pain in order to educate the masses about the deeper issues that still exist within society that needs to be addressed. Silence will not help create the environment to stand up against classism, sexism or abuse; it will only shut out hope for victims currently in this situation. In an interview with Carolyn Meghan she was asked, “Is the writing what saves you?” To this Allison answered,

“Oh, absolutely. It became the way out of an enormous amount of guilt. It became the way I figured things out. When I couldn’t find my story, I wrote it. I trusted books; I grew up that way. And so I made my own story, writing it down so that it would be real, and I could see it and step outside of it. It was some kind of comfort, and yes… sometimes the whole purpose is to make yourself a heroine.”

Dorothy Allison has, for the most part, conquered these traumas by telling stories about oppression and rebellion that happen in dark corners of the society hidden from its usual view. Beyond what Allison has said, beyond her truth is room for readers to think. I was personally amazed at the burst of strength an oppressed person displays all at once. How does strength sneak up on you and burst out of you during moments you didn’t see it coming when you didn’t even know you had that sort of strength? It could be an adrenaline rush due to the pressure and torment of the moment or it could be the ‘breaking point’ after years of torture, the escape of strength hidden deep inside the oppressed person occurs.

This leads to the question; what could possibly justify physical abuse, rape and sexual abuse in the minds of an older male family member or male partner? According to my own reflections, the sad truth in many cases is, the oppressor is psychologically challenged to the point where he can’t judge what is right and what is wrong. Also they seem to think that they are abusing the ‘oppressed person’ for the right reasons. They believe that they are educating and disciplining these often young subjects, and that it is their duty to do so.

“Two or three things I know for sure, but none of them is why a man would rape a child, why a man would beat a child” ( Allison 43).

I was really fortunate enough to get the opportunity to meet her last year, and to get a signed copy of my favorite book by her, which is of course Two or Three Things I Know for Sure.

Read Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison!


Dig deeper:

LeMahieu, Michael. and Dorothy. Allison. “An Interview with Dorothy Allison.” Contemporary Literature 51.4 (2011), 651-676.

Allison, Dorothy. “PEN Hemingway Keynote Address Delivered at the John F. Kennedy Library 28 March 2010: ‘Humiliation, Ambition, and that Sob in the Spine’.” Hemingway Review 30.1 (2010), 8-17.

Adams, Timothy Dow. “Telling Stories in Dorothy Allison’s ‘Two or Three Things I Know for Sure’.” The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, Nineteenth Century Southern Writers (Spring, 2004), pp. 82-99

Allison, Dorothy. Two or three things I know for sure. New York: Plume, 1996. Print.

Carolyn E., Megan and Dorothy. Allison. “Moving toward Truth: An Interview with Dorothy Allison” The Kenyon Review, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 71-83.

Dorothy Allison. <>. Web. 12/11/12

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