by Jessica Handler
When I was young, I drew figures that combined girls with birds. I couldn’t manage humans; wings and beaks were simpler than bodies and faces. In her memoir Lift, Rebecca O’Connor proves that both are complicated, as she deftly defines one woman—herself—through her bond with a peregrine falcon.
In this memoir of literal and figurative flight, O’Connor, an animal trainer and parrot behaviorist, weaves her growing faith in her falcon, Anakin, with her history of wounded trust. Her mother temporarily vacated O’Connor’s childhood, there were sexual overtures by her stepfather, and an episode with a stalker. At twenty-one, she was a strip-club dancer. Eventually she became a licensed master falconer, but O’Connor had never trained a “perfect” bird like a peregrine. “I’m just afraid, afraid to fail,” she writes, “but this year I’m flying a peregrine anyway.”
Falconry, it seems, is a male preserve, as is the liberty of flight, and O’Connor’s life with and without birds is defined by difficult relationships with men. Fascinated by flight since childhood, O’Connor reminisces, in one of the italicized flashbacks that bind past and present in Lift, about attempting to catch a sparrow by salting its tail, a promise made by her grandfather. Failing, five-year-old Rebecca wails in disappointment. Nearly falling from her stepfather’s Cessna mid-flight thrills teenage Rebecca. “My view is suddenly unobstructed, endless and I want to learn out farther to see more.”
Bal-chatri traps, feaking, gram weights and falconry licenses define O’Connor’s life, and in Lift, she uses falconry lingo unapologetically. It’s a grueling life of pre-dawn training, frantic transmitter-guided tracking of fugitive birds, and long drives to wilderness training grounds. O’Connor also draws clever parallels between humans and birds, recalling her mother “perched” on her bed and comparing men’s aggressive table manners to mantling, a bird’s crouch over prey. But it’s Anakin who’s the only “predictable” relationship in her life.
O’Connor wants to be a predator, and it’s here that Lift briefly loses altitude, as the author deduces that, “predator worship is . . . perhaps not so odd for a woman.” Conversing with her mother, she realizes, “we like men that are braver and stronger than us.” Learned behavior clearly applies to birds and humans. Just as captive falcons are tethered by leather jesses, O’Connor and her mother are tethered by the telephone cord. In late-night calls, they drink wine, chat, and like flightless birds, make tentative steps toward discussing O’Connor’s childhood.
But it’s writing about velocity where O’Connor soars. Her love of flight conjures pure joy, as we witness her falcon in the sky. “Anakin is a tiny flashing speck no less than fifteen hundred feet and still climbing. The sight makes my heart constrict.” Seeing through O’Connor’s eyes, we are elated. In Lift, a true picture takes shape as she trains her falcon “to trust me and then to set him free again.” Like Anakin, both reader and author begin to recognize the strength in her heart.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010