How I Learned to Drive Study Guide

How I Learned to Drive

How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel

The play How I Learned to Drive focuses on the incestuous affair between a young girl, Li'l Bit, and her Uncle Peck. The play spans years and consists of several flashbacks with an adult Li'l Bit acting as the narrator. A coming of age story, the play doesn't offer a condemnation of Uncle Peck's behavior. Instead, Li'l Bit seeks to understand it and forgive it. She also feels grateful to her Uncle, as he taught her how to drive, which gave her freedom.

How I Learned to Drive Book Summary

The play tells the story of a woman nicknamed Li'l Bit as she comes to terms with her sexually abusive relationship with her Uncle Peck throughout her adolescence. Aside from Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck, a Greek Chorus of three is on hand to play all of the other characters in their lives. The script is a memory play told largely out of chronological order, with the first scene taking place in 1969 in a "parking lot outlooking Rural Maryland". Li'l Bit is seventeen years old and sitting in her Uncle Peck's car. Peck uses this opportunity to unhook her brassiere through her shirt, an act that Li'l Bit finds uncomfortable. Li'l Bit mentions how she is graduating high school and going to a "fancy college" in the fall, while Uncle Peck continues to admire her body.

Li'l Bit breaks from this scene to give an oral history on her immediate family. She explains that her family's penchant for handing out nicknames based on genitalia is why she was branded with the alias Li'l Bit for life. This includes her alcoholic mother, the "titless wonder", her misogynistic grandfather "Big Papa", her submissive grandmother, and her young Cousin BB (Blue Balls). A typical family dinner in 1969 has Li'l Bit's family (played by the three Greek Chorus members) cracking jokes about how "well endowed" she is. Here, the audience is shown that Peck is the only family member who supports Li'l Bit's dreams of going to school. When a frustrated Li'l Bit leaves the dinner after Grandfather goes too far with his insults, Peck's wife Mary (Li'l Bit's maternal aunt) asks him to comfort her, showing that she is ignorant of his abuse.

After the dinner, Li'l Bit reveals that she would be lose her scholarship and be expelled from college because of a drinking problem. She recalls how she would spend most of that year driving on highways, marveling at how well Peck had taught her to drive. She then has a memory of 1968, where Uncle Peck takes her to a fancy Eastern Shore restaurant as a reward for passing her driver's test on the first try. Peck slyly orders oysters and martinis for Li'l Bit to consume, while the girl's mother appears to give less than stellar advice on drinking alcohol. As the scene progresses, both Li'l Bit and her mother become increasingly drunk on martinis, showcasing how unhelpful the mother was at giving proper advice to her child. Peck carries the drunk Li'l Bit to his car and lays her down, and propositions her. He immediately backs off when Li'l Bit drunkenly cries for him not to touch her. He says he will wait for her to say it's OK.

The Teenage Greek Chorus member briefly takes over to introduce a memory that is not Li'l Bit's. In a monologue, Uncle Peck gives the unseen Cousin BB a fishing lesson, where it is strongly implied that he uses this as a cover to molest the boy the same way he used driving to abuse Li'l Bit. Li'l Bit takes control once again to recount a conversation she had with her mother and grandmother about sex. Mother tries to be helpful in explaining topics such as orgasms and saying no, while Grandmother wails that Li'l Bit is too young to know about sex and uses scare tactics to keep her from doing it until she is married. The adult Li'l Bit breaks the memory to explain that she would go on to have a one night stand with a seventeen year old boy while she was over twenty one, making her wonder if that makes her just like Uncle Peck. She then returns to the memory, which had converted into an argument between Mother and the Grandparents. Unable to deal with that memory again, Li'l Bit changes the memory (as part of the driving metaphor, she likens this to changing stations on the radio) to when Uncle Peck first taught her how to start up a car. In a scene of genuine concern beyond her body, Peck gives reasonable advice on how to be safe on the road, further confusing Li'l Bit as to why he could abuse her while still being helpful.

The next scene is a series of vignettes on Li'l Bit's school days in 1966, where she faced ridicule and even sexual harassment from the other students on account of her large breasts. She remembers a boy asking her to dance at a school sock hop, but Li'l Bit refuses, implying that she is wary of men from her experiences.

The scenes shifts to 1965, where Uncle Peck takes provocative photos of Li'l Bit in the style of 1950's pin up girls. During this uncomfortable moment for Li'l Bit, Aunt Mary takes the stage to defend her husband's actions to the audience. She claims that he is a good man, and that it is all Li'l Bit's fault for leading him on. She believes that her marriage can be saved the second her niece goes off to college.

On Christmas 1964, Thirteen year old Li'l Bit helps Uncle Peck wash the dishes. It is there that Peck gets the idea to take Li'l Bit out driving once a week in order to continue molesting her. Li'l Bit agrees to this arrangement, despite her confusion towards Peck's relationship with her.

The scene flashes forward to 1969, where Li'l Bit is experiencing her freshman year in college. The Greek Chorus lists a series of letters and gifts that Peck sends her throughout her first semester, with each note counting down how many days are left until her eighteenth birthday. Startled by how unhinged her uncle has become, Li'l Bit arranges a meeting in a Philadelphia hotel room on December 10th, 1969. Li'l Bit yells at Uncle Peck for becoming so possessive, while he insists that his niece is the love of his life. Li'l Bit reveals that the years of trauma from Peck has finally caught up with her, leading to her not focusing in school and failing her courses. After he gets down and proposes to Li'l Bit, vowing to divorce Aunt Mary, Li'l Bit turns him down and cuts him out of her life for good. She never sees Peck again after she leaves the hotel room.

Li'l Bit returns to the present to explain what became of Peck after she left: He turned to alcohol after years of sobriety, leading to the loss of his job, his marriage, and his driver's license. He would go on to die after drunkenly falling down a flight of stairs in his basement. Li'l Bit takes this time to reflect on why her uncle molested her, questioning if someone did it to him when he was her age.

Li'l Bit has one more memory to share: the Summer of 1962. An 11-year-old Li'l Bit fights with her mother about going out driving with Uncle Peck. Mother is wary of him, but finally relents, telling Li'l Bit that she holds her responsible for any misdeeds. In the following scene, Li'l Bit sits in the car with Uncle Peck, only she doesn't speak her lines out loud. The Teenage Greek Chorus, acting as young L'il Bit, does so. Peck molests his niece for the first time.

The script then returns to the present. Li'l Bit reflects on how she is ready to move on with her life, and that despite everything she has been through, she can thank her Uncle Peck for one thing: The freedom she feels when she drives. The final scene has Li'l Bit alone in her car, and as she adjusts her rear view mirror, she notices Uncle Peck in the back. After smiling at him, she steps on the gas pedal and drives away, finally leaving Peck in the past as she drives off to a new chapter of her life.

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