A memoir of startling honesty and subtle, profound beauty, The Skin Above My Knee is the story of a woman finding strength in her creative gifts and artistic destiny. Filled with vivid portraits of 1970’s New York City, and fascinating insights into the intensity and precision necessary for a career in professional music, this is more than a narrative of a brilliant musician struggling to make it big in the big city. It is the story of a survivor.
Advance Praise for Skin Above My Knee
Marcia Butler has written a beautiful memoir – meticulously nuanced, daringly honest, and utterly inspiring. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that captures so fully the ability music has to transport, sustain, defend, and elevate struggling human beings through difficult times.
— Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize winning music critic, The Washington Post, author of Parallel Play and Dawn Powell: A Biography
Fierce and lyrical, honest and darkly funny, Marcia Butler’s memoir is so good, I found myself canceling plans with friends so I could stay home with this ravishing book. Her gift with language is rare. Not only can she describe her descent into a spiral of self-destructive behavior so vividly that you fear for her life, she will, in the end, carry you away with poetry of her words as she describes the transcendent power of music.
— Patricia McCormick, author of the National Book Award finalist Sold
Ah, the oboe prodigy. Yet another oboe prodigy! This is the first reaction of exactly no one who picks up Marcia Butler’s amazing memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. It’s about time we heard from the oboist, that vital tuner of the orchestra who nonetheless never gets to stand and shake the composer’s hand. Though this easily could have remained a tale of damage and survivorship, from the first page Butler announces bigger intentions than her own autobiography which in and of itself is mesmerizing. She weaves her journey as if it were music itself — at first a children’s composition like Peter and the Wolf comes to mind where you can almost hear the ominous horn section begin playing when the parents enter the stage wings. But then we move to grander art and in the end the mature concerto triumphs. Always fueled by her startling musical talent and precocious intelligence, Marcia Butler is a winner and so is her must-read book.
— Nancy Zafris, author of The Home Jar
Heartbreaking, page turning, and ultimately redemptive, The Skin Above My Knee is a dazzling memoir about life as an internationally recognized classical musician and about one woman’s journey to the only sort of love that lasts—self-acceptance. An insider’s look at the world of professional performance and a moving account of one woman’s effort to transmute pain into beauty, this book will appeal to anyone who has ever wondered how you get to Carnegie Hall or how you survive family. Reader, she succeeds beautifully.
— E.J. Levy, author of Love, In Theory
How is a classical musician like a minnow and a Clydesdale? How is the oboe squishy? And how early must a young concert oboist get up in time to catch the bus to Riker’s Island, where her gun-toting, ouzo-slugging, glass-chewing lover does short time? These are only some of the questions raised, and answered, in Marcia Butler’s remarkable memoir of a New York City freelance musician’s life, The Skin above My Knee. Butler acts as a guide into the magic of the symphony orchestra’s “collective beating heart,” taking us into numerous pits and performances. She’s also a guide into her own heart, which drives the narrative tension through an increasingly ominous sequence of “oh no, don’t to that” moments, as the freshly graduated conservatory musician enters the professional world of a Mr Goodbar New York. Behind the narrator’s frightening choices lies a family history that no amount of sex, drugs, and Isolde’s “Liebestod” can expunge. In The Skin above My Knee, a classical musician takes a walk on the wild side and almost doesn’t make it up the stairs. Butler’s memoir does for classical music what Patti Smith’s Just Kids did for proto-punk, and Eileen Myles’s Inferno did for Lower East Side poetry. Its soundtrack, ranging from Wagner to Vicki Carr, will have you scrolling through your own personal jukebox. And its craft just might stimulate you enough to begin your own memoir.
— Tim Tomlinson, author of Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire
Gorgeously written, THE SKIN ABOVE MY KNEE takes the reader from the world’s most lauded concert venues into the innermost sanctums of musician’s lives in New York. Always honest and admirably adverse to self-pity, Marcia Butler’s beautiful book cuts its devastating insights with poetic love for the world. My heart broke in several places, and leapt in several others. When I finished reading, I felt as if I understood music on a level usually reserved for world class musicians. Stunning.
— Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M at The Cat’s Pajamas
“Creativity is tricky and elusive. You can’t buy it. You can’t rent it. You can’t borrow it. And you certainly can’t fake it. Marcia Butler has it. In this superbly written memoir, Butler observes her own life, sharing the ups and downs of it and this mysterious gift which saved her. Now the rest of us who weren’t fortunate enough to hear her perform can read this astounding journey into the heart of what creativity feels, tastes and looks like, as well as see what goes into being an artist.”
— Charles Salzberg, author of Swann’s Lake of Despair
In her debut memoir, THE SKIN ABOVE MY KNEE, Marcia Butler shows us how music–listening to it, playing it, losing it, and rediscovering it–can save us. With bravery and honesty, she unflinchingly tells her story. And through it all, music resonates and becomes the soundtrack for us all.
— Ann Hood, author of The Book That Matters Most
“The Skin Above My Knee is about that tension and the courage required to inhabit it. Butler’s unmistakable bravery turned a traumatized girl into a world-class musician, then into a writer of memorable grace and force. You hope, while reading Butler’s transcendent words, that some of it will rub off on you.
Butler never presents her younger self, even in her lowest moments — walking home from a failed suicide attempt, say — as someone who needs rescuing and chiding. Instead, she offers up the plain complexity of her experience without apology, writing with the wisdom of someone who has searched deep enough to extinguish the shame that compels one to hide such stories, as many do, behind a self-satisfied veneer. That feels like a radical act of sovereignty from a woman writer.
Such is the miracle of art. But Butler also makes us confront its limits, as redemption in life is rarely whole or permanent. Music saved her from an unhappy home, but it could not fill the throbbing vacuum caused by a parent’s lack of affection. Music did not rescue her from her attempts at self-destruction, though it did provide a place for her to experience a rare feeling of wholeness.” Simone Grace Seol – National Book Review
“A tale of triumph over a childhood rife with abuse, yet blessed with talent. Filled with insight and honesty, [Butler’s] memoir flows like a series of gorgeous musical phrases, taking the reader on a journey as uplifting as it is disturbing…Astonishingly, toxic parents, drugs and abusive men could never silence her greatest love: music. Her courageous memoir is a testament to the power of art to inspire and heal.” – Eugenia Zuckerman, The Washington Post
“For Marcia Butler, the oboe was a protective garment and a ticket to the world, though both applications came at a steep price…. The Skin Above My Knee ultimately succeeds because it leaves readers knowing a thing or two about an esoteric world.”―Meghan Daum, New York Times Book Review
“Marcia Butler’s original and lyrically written memoir charts her rise from oboe prodigy to freelance professional on the international classical scene. Transportive portraits of Carnegie Hall concerts share space with memories of childhood trauma and gritty slices from 1970s New York.”—New York Magazine
“Rare is the new New York story. Some cities are so saturated with reference, few are the opportunities to sight-read the place – we’ve already read it too many times before…So does Marcia Butler in The Skin Above My Knee, a memoir alternating between revelations from Butler’s life in music, including her 25 years as a professional oboist, and her rocky personal life, starting with her childhood in an abusive household… In a particularly poignant juxtaposition, Butler visits a boyfriend at Rikers Island jail one day and plays a church service in Harlem the next. This moment, and indeed the entire book, teaches us that life is not easily compartmentalized. Butler seeks requited love; she finds in music universal connection.” – Jade Colbert, The Globe and Mail
“With unflinching honesty, Butler, a professional oboist for 25 years, recalls her love of music and how it saved her…She learned painful lessons, and shares them courageously along with her hard-earned wisdom about what to hold onto and what to let go. In the end, this is a moving account of how passion and creativity can be powerful weapons against neglect, cruelty, and self-harm.”—Publisher’s Weekly
“Oboist Butler’s impressive memoir, her first book, is the story of her career in, and abiding love for, music….In the book’s acknowledgments, Butler refers to herself as a ‘not-so-sure writer,’ but her readers will happily disagree; her imaginative prose fires the senses dramatically. Music aficionados will find an extraordinarily kindred spirit here, and lovers of memoir will find this a sensationally satisfying one.”— Booklist
“[Butler] writes lovingly and beautifully…. The light and the dark fight it out in this fierce, fiery memoir.” — Kirkus
Catapult: My Workspace – Of Mind and Matter
Barnes and Noble Review: Minnows
The Intima: Review
Ford Madox Ford: The Page 99 Test
Washington Post: Article by Anne Midgette
Portland Phoenix: Article by Timothy Gillis
Allegro Newspaper: Interview with Marcia Butler
Psychology Today Magazine Essay: How I Learned To Stop Lying
PANK Interview: Mothers, Daughters and Corporeality of Music
Huffington Post: Interview with Marcia Butler