“Hillary Leftwich Is Tougher than Me: A Review of Her New Memoir ‘Aura’” by Jonathan Bluebird Montgomery

I guess I’ll start it like this:

I haven’t read enough women.

It’s one of many regrets about the way I’ve related to women throughout my life.

The way I’ve looked at women.

The way I’ve spoken to women. 

The way I’ve written about women.

Not being more curious about women’s experiences.

Not feeling more compassion for what women go thru.

I realize I’m just another product of a toxic culture and have been trying to improve this in recent years, as social justice has found its way more in the public consciousness, and I’ve learned more from women in my life. 

But I still have a ways to go, and, in fact, just as recently as last week I read something unintentionally offensive at the Listen to Your Skin reading (a space particularly aiming toward vulnerability, safety, and inclusion) and made many in the audience feel uncomfortable with my objectifying imagery and aggressive delivery. I have since apologized for this.

I haven’t read enough women or, for that matter, any others who identify differently from me.

But I can read more of these voices going forward, such as Hillary Leftwich’s brilliant new memoir Aura (released this summer from Portland’s Future Tense Books), which was revelatory in a number of ways for me.

I’ve known Hillary for a few years now. I first remember seeing her at an FBomb Flash Fiction Reading maybe around 2015. She was just another new face at the time, probably receiving the ‘virgin’ chant just like everyone does at their first FBomb. 

But it didn’t take long for her to rise to become one of the most prominent members of the Denver lit scene. From hosting the At the Inkwell reading series, to leading Lighthouse workshops, to getting stories and books published by reputable presses (Ghost Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, CCM), to starting a business Alchemy Author Services (I actually paid for her where-to-submit service and it helped me get a story published!), to getting hired for creative writing professor gigs at University of Denver and Colorado College, all the while making deep connections with damn near everyone who matters in local literature. She now seems to be thriving in a way that so many writers dream of but struggle to achieve. 

I’m one of those. For the last few years my writing life, which at one point felt like it had so much promise and momentum, had plateaued and even declined into stagnancy and bitterness. I’d see someone like Hillary’s success and (even tho I have personally always liked her and she even has even written articles for BPS in the past) think How is she doing this? Is her writing even that great? How is she so motivated? Does she really deserve this? Why her and not me? 

Well, the answers to all these questions can be found in Aura… 

It’s a thorough autobiographical account of Hillary’s life from her childhood up til I think just before the time I first saw her emerge on the lit scene. It is addressed to her now teenage son so that he may better understand his mother’s life and maybe help guide him to become a decent man in a world of men who have consistently demeaned, deceived, discouraged, and abused her. 

Hillary’s life is pretty hard from the beginning – a child of divorce, a social outsider bullied by other girls, living in the toxic military/fundamentalist Christian backdrop of Colorado Springs. She is drawn to witchcraft at an early age, and several chapters throughout are descriptions of actual spells, which increasingly take on weight as it becomes clear how much Hillary needs them as a coping tool, trying to gain some control of the chaotic and unfair life situations she so often felt otherwise powerless to stop. 

Again, it is really the men who are mostly at the center of this. From Hillary observing boys laughing at a teacher’s menstrual blood, to having to clean up sex stains from husbands who cheat on their spouse’s in cheap motels, to delivering pizzas to frat guys who give a shitty tip because she didn’t smile enough, to getting involved with a series of lovers who at best were immature and neglectful and at worst complete monsters.

The main villain of the story is the father of Hillary’s son, a man who fakes medical emergencies for attention, chokes pets, verbally abuses his pregnant partner as she goes into labor, and generally causes substantial physical and emotional damage to both Hillary and her son. While it can sicken the stomach to read the details, it simultaneously creates a page-turning suspense wondering just how she’s going to finally escape him. I found myself literally punching at the air and yelling at the book demanding the character explain how the fuck he could behave like this. How could someone believe so unquestioningly that the harm of others was necessary for their own self-soothing? 

Even after she finally does break free from him, Hillary still has to deal with the struggles of being a single mother – desperate to find work to make ends meet (Hillary has worked a pretty impressive variety of different jobs, including private eye!), seeking a decent partner who will love and support them, and fighting in court for sole custody of her child. There isn’t a moment to catch her breath as her son soon develops a form of epilepsy from which he suffers at least one very serious touch-and-go hospitalization. 

The narration is creatively broken up by not only spells, but also real legal and medical documents and baby scrapbooks. And the second half of the book is interspersed with chapters which are verbatim rejection letters from editors. Hillary had always been interested in becoming a writer but seemed to find little encouragement for it, outside of her father when she was a child. In the chaos of her adult life those dreams seem even more unattainable, but as she slowly finds herself emerging out of her darkest eras, writing starts to enter her life in a significant way again.

Even as Hillary gains more clarity on the type of life she wants, she still has trouble escaping old habits, including a brief unfortunate detour to Florida for another unfulfilling marriage. Interestingly, there isn’t a single epiphanic moment which leads her to finally pursue what she deserves, but just a gradual, not always progressive, grind towards it. She eventually ends up in a well-earned, somewhat more calm situation in Denver where more time and energy can open up for her writing life.

The book essentially concludes with Hillary’s first publication, which she announces to applause at the check cashing joint she must frequent. I found myself tearing up at this scene, not only because I was so emotionally invested in her character by this point and empathizing with her joy, but I felt so ashamed of myself for any thought I’d ever had questioning whether she deserved her success. 

If Hillary Leftwich has achieved more than me it’s because she’s tougher. Her life experience has provided a certain grit and clarity of purpose on a level that mine has often not. I suppose this fact could discourage me or provide an opportunity to beat myself up, but actually I find it inspiring. Because even tho I haven’t gone through exactly what she has, I can still relate with the challenge of trying to be yourself to the greatest extent possible in a world that resists it in so many ways. I can see through her story that it is possible to break through this and live life more on your own terms. And now instead of feeling like I’m losing some imaginary competition with her, I want to follow her model. 

It makes me wish that everyone could write and share such a well crafted memoir (I know I haven’t mentioned enough here about how well written Aura is, so creative and detailed, and effortless to read) and wish I had the time to read them all, because there is no better way to truly understand someone and everything that has led them to become who they are. It makes it much harder to feel any judgment or bitterness toward them. It makes you a better person.

Finally, I recommend this book to anyone, but especially men. Although reading it was uncomfortable at times and brought up feelings of guilt and regret, it has helped me reflect further on my relationship to women, and realize, tho I’m not as bad as some of the men from Hillary’s life, I can do better. And I must face the fact that the way I’ve related to women and others who are not like me is holding me back from reaching my full potential as a writer and a human being. As men, it can be tempting to stick to reading what’s most closely relatable (and we have the whole history of literature that has been geared toward us in that way), but it’s essential to also explore different perspectives like this that will help us treat women and others with more respect and compassion and ultimately lead to a more equitable, evolved society. 

Thank you, Hillary, for never giving up and putting such an impactful piece of art out into the world! 

Go here if you’re interested in buying the book!

Jonathan Bluebird Montgomery is the creator and Editor-in-Chief of Boulder Poetry Scene. The author of Pizzas and Mermaid, The Reality Traveler, and the soon to be released Nine Books (at Once!), he’s been on the Boulder poetry scene since he got his MFA at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School in 2005. You can find more of his work at jonathanbluebirdmontgomery.com