"How I Learned to Drive" Summary

A Full Length Play by Paula Vogel

How I Learned to Drive
How safe is a niece when her uncle is her driving instructor?. FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In How I Learned to Drive, a woman nicknamed "Lil Bit" recalls memories of emotional manipulation and sexual molestation, all of which are tied together with driving lessons.

When Uncle Peck volunteers to teach his niece how to drive, he uses the private time as an opportunity to take advantage of the girl. Much of the story is told in reverse, starting with the protagonist in her teen years and echoing back to the first occurrence of molestation (when she is only eleven years old).

The Good

As the chair of Yale's Playwriting Department, Paula Vogel hopes that each of her students will embrace originality. In an interview on Youtube, Vogel seeks playwrights who are "fearless and want to experiment, who want to make sure that they never write the same play twice." She leads by example; Vogel's work lives up to the same expectations. Compare How I Learned to Drive with her AIDS tragicomedy The Baltimore Waltz and you'll understand how her plot-lines and style vary from one play to the next.

Some of the many strengths of How I Learned to DriveĀ include:

  • Humor and wit steer the play away from over-bearing life lessons.
  • A mock-Greek chorus allows for a multitude of interesting characters.
  • It's never boring: The non-linear style jumps from one year to the next.

The Not-So-Good

Because the play strives not to preach in the style of an "ABC After School Special" (that's a shout-out to my fellow Generation X-ers), there's a sense of (intentional) moral ambiguity spread throughout the play.

Near the end of this drama, Lil Bit wonders aloud, "Who did it to you, Uncle Peck? How old were you? Were you eleven?" The implication is that the child molester was himself a victim, and while that may be a common thread among real-life predators, it doesn't explain the level of sympathy that is offered to a creep like Peck.

Check out the end of her monologue when Lil Bit compares her Uncle to the Flying Dutchman:

And I see Uncle Peck in my mind, in his Chevy '56, a spirit driving up and down the back roads of Carolina - looking for a young girl who, of her own free will, will love him. Release him.

The details mentioned above are all psychologically realistic elements, all of which make for great discussion in the classroom or the theater lobby. However, there is a scene in the middle of the play, a lengthy monologue delivered by Uncle Peck, which depicts him fishing with a young boy and luring him into a tree house to take advantage of the poor kid. Basically, Uncle Peck is a pathetic, repulsive serial-molester with a coating of "nice guy/car enthusiast." The character Li'L Bit is not his only victim, a fact to be mindful of if the reader leans towards pity for the antagonist.

The Playwright's Goals

According to a PBS interview, playwright Paula Vogel felt "dissatisfied looking at the movie-of-the-week approach," and decided to create How I Learned to Drive as an homage to Nabokov's Lolita, focusing on the female perspective instead of the male point-of-view. The result is a play that depicts a pedophile as a very flawed, yet very human character.

The audience may be disgusted by his actions, but Vogel, in the same interview, feels that "it's a mistake to demonize the people who hurt us, and that's how I wanted to approach the play." The result is a drama that combines humor, pathos, psychology and raw emotions.

Is Uncle Peck Really a Slime Ball?

Yes. He definitely is. However, he is not as invidious or as violent as the antagonists from movies such as The Lovely Bones or Joyce Carol Oats's story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" In each of those narratives, the villains are predatory, seeking to victimize and then eliminate the victim. In contrast, Uncle Peck actually hopes to develop a "normal" long-term romantic relationship with his niece.

During several incidents throughout the play, Peck continues to tell her "I won't do anything until you want me to." These intimate albeit disturbing moments generate feelings of trust and control within Lil Bit, when in truth her uncle is instilling a cycle of abnormal, self-destructive behavior that will affect the protagonist well into adulthood.

During the scenes in which Lil Bit discusses her present-day life as an adult woman, she indicates that she has become dependent on alcohol and on at least one occasion she has seduced a teenage boy, perhaps to have the same sort of control and influence her uncle once possessed over her.

Uncle Peck is not the only loathsome character in the play. Li'l Bit's family members, including her mother, are oblivious to the warning signs of a sexual predator. The grandfather is openly misogynistic. Worst of all, Uncle Peck's wife (Li'l Bit's aunt) knows of her husband's incestuous relationship, but she does nothing to stop him. You have probably heard of the phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child." Well, in the case of How I Learned to Drive, it takes a village to destroy a child's innocence.

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Bradford, Wade. ""How I Learned to Drive" Summary." ThoughtCo, Jul. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-i-learned-to-drive-2713661. Bradford, Wade. (2017, July 10). "How I Learned to Drive" Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-i-learned-to-drive-2713661 Bradford, Wade. ""How I Learned to Drive" Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-i-learned-to-drive-2713661 (accessed January 19, 2018).