three books fanned out on a table featuring ink pens, glasses, and paper fan

My Place in the Spiral

My Place in the Spiral weaves together photography, feminism, and literary criticism. In her dynamic multi-genre, hybrid text that investigates the way our pasts inform our future selves.

The result is an intriguing journey through family dynamics, religion, and mother-daughter relationships. Threads of familial connection come together in My Place in the Spiral, creating an understanding of how our lives mirror a spiral. Bearing witness to experiences reverberating through generations, Beardsall explores the echoes of time between the present and the past, family and self, rootedness and displacement.

What people are saying about My Place in the Spiral:

“I am here. I once was here. I will return here. The here always remains,” states author Rebecca Beardsall in her part memoir/part photo album My Place in the Spiral. In the author’s insightful and intriguing journey to research and spiral back to two women ahead of their times—her grandmother Ruth and great-grandmother Mary—Beardsall forges for us a path of understanding. Comparing faces, mannerisms, conversations, houses, educations, beliefs, superstitions, and dreams, she leads us from her New Zealand and Western Washington homes back to her Pennsylvania German heritage.

We, too, are in these pages, detectives uncovering clues to better understand, perhaps, our own identities. Mennonite upbringing re-stitched with feminism and literary theory? The future superimposed with sepia-toned photographs? Yes. In My Place in the Spiral, “the past…[serves as] a vision of [the] future….[t]he gyre of memory… looping back again.” In these pages, Rebecca Beardsall gives us the people we love alongside the ancestors we may never have met. In doing so, she encourages us to rediscover in them our present and future lives.

Marjorie Maddox, author of the prose collection What She Was Saying

Through Beardsall’s use of photographs and narrative captions, it’s as if we have all been invited to an intimate family slideshow. My Place in the Spiral begins with a look at time, at memory, and at our place in all of it and ends with the satisfaction that Beardsall has found herself, her nana, and her great-grandmother connected in the those spiraled lines that are always retreating and returning all at once.

Rebecca Beardsall’s quest to find out how and why she has always connected with her nana and great-grandmother is a literary journey through photographs and travel. With each turn of the page, we see what she sees, the closing of the distant connection between two women she had always wanted to meet but couldn’t and the warmth that grows inside of her with every discovery that she is more like them than she could have imagined.

Kase Johnstun, author of Beyond the Grip of Craniosynostosis

Many—perhaps all—of my favorite books are about humanity’s relationship time. The most obvious might even include actual machines for traveling through time, H.G. Wells’s Victorian nightmare isn’t just about future social consequences, it’s a chilling reminder of our own historical contingency in the present. An old standby like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is not just a sentimental holiday tale about a sinner coming to repentance; the story stays with audiences because it finds a way—through past, present, and future—to get at all of the terror, wonder, grief, and joy that makes up a single life. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—and perhaps the broader novel he’s writing throughout his entire œuvre, invites readers to contemplate the way time shapes us, not just as individuals or communities, but as a species. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse V gives the lie to structuring our lives around a beginning, middle, and end. Stephen King’s It is a thousand-page reminder of Faulkner’s old observation—in evil clown form—that the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past. Chris Ware’s Building Stories forces us, through form, to witness time happening on several different ontological and institutional simultaneously: an apartment building is born, grows, ages, and perhaps even faces its own mortality as much as its inhabitants.

Rebecca Beardsall’s My Place in the Spiral is ostensibly about her search to find out something about her grandmother. And it is that, and that simple story is interesting enough in its own right. But it’s also about more far more than that. The book takes us through old photographs—some of people, but also houses, streets, and cemeteries. Through photographs and footnotes, the book asks us to suspend ourselves in multiple moments in the same moment, to see one body in multiple bodies (or is it multiple bodies in one body?) and, in doing so, to confront any number of quietly sublime truths about our complicated relationship to time. At various points, the book reminded me of Mitchell, Vonnegut, and Dickens; yet the book goes beyond those now dusty meditations on time to propose yet a new relationship to time. My Place in the Spiral uses family history to bend time back on itself so effortlessly that the reader is simultaneously always completely confident about where they are in the story, yet utterly unable to articulate where they are in the story. The story runs through your hand a bit like sunlight or cold river water or time itself: beautiful, important, impossible to capture or contain, let alone describe.

Readers will find themselves in My Place in the Spiral, I think, because we have all looked into a mirror and watched an unexpected ancestor peer back out. We’ve all looked at the ways our bodies are positioned and realized that we are drinking tea and reading a book in exactly the same way that our father did. We have all looked at our daughters and suddenly watched a long-lost grandmother spring to life. Time does not progress. It swirls. It eddies. It flows faster. Sometimes it stops, even doubles back on itself.

Nathan R. Elliott, Ph.D