Award-winning author Patricia Foster (1948- ) is recognized primarily for her two memoirs, All the Lost Girls: Confessions of a Southern Daughter (2000) and Just Beneath My Skin (2004). She also has published numerous essays in prestigious journals such as The Chattahoochee Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, and the Southern Humanities Review and has had a diverse teaching career.
Foster was born on May 2, 1948, in Fairhope, Baldwin County, to medical doctor John Edward Foster and science teacher Adeline LeClaire Donaldson Foster and was one of three siblings. Her parents' struggle to escape the rural poverty of their youth created expectations for their children that Foster resisted but did not fully understand until she began to write many years later. She did, however, grow up enjoying middle-class life, first in Lineville, Clay County, then in southern Alabama, mostly in Foley, Baldwin County, where her father practiced medicine. Although her older sister and brother gained approval through achievement in academics and sports, Foster's efforts fell short. She was, however, able to convince her mother to enroll her in a writing class at Spring Hill College in nearby Mobile in 1965.
After graduating from Foley High School, Foster attended Vanderbilt University, earning a B.A. in sociology in 1968. Also that year, she married her college boyfriend and made plans to attend graduate school out west, far from the South. These plans did not materialize, however, and she worked the next four years in Dyersburg, Tennessee, as a caseworker for the Tennessee Department of Public Welfare.
After divorcing her husband in 1974, Foster studied art in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee, worked in Atlanta, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama, and then in 1977 moved to Los Angeles, California, to pursue a master of fine arts (MFA) degree in art at the University of California, Los Angeles, which she completed in 1980. During a year in Seattle, Washington, she began to write, returning to Los Angeles in 1982 to take writing classes through UCLA Extension, a continuing education program. In 1990, Foster married David Wilder and discovered that she suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). In "The Deserter" (2006), Foster describes going to Canada in desperation for an alternative treatment for her CFS, suffering flu-like symptoms—dizziness, exhaustion, and disequilibrium, for long periods of time. She coped by working and teaching three days a week and sleeping and resting in seclusion when she could. Foster believes that her experience has given her greater empathy for students who have health issues.
After a few years performing temporary work during the day and writing at night, Foster left Los Angeles to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop in Iowa City, Iowa, completing an MFA in fiction in 1986. There, she began to write her first personal essay, "A Second Look," which reflects her self-discovery and embrace of feminism and turn away from stories written exclusively about the South.
Continuing her study of writing, Foster earned a Ph.D. at Florida State University in May 1993, focusing on women's literature and creative writing. Her work there was so successful that she was awarded a prestigious residency at the Yaddo artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1992, a Florida Arts Council Award, a PEN/Jerard Fund Award, and the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award in 1993. Foster then taught at Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, in the MFA program until 1994, when she joined the faculty at the University of Iowa in the MFA Program in Nonfiction. She eventually attained the rank of full professor. Over the next several years, Foster edited three books and continued to build a successful writing and teaching career. Also in the 1990s, she visited Tuskegee, Macon County, where she taught a class on writing memoirs as a means of self-discovery at a local library, which is recounted in her essay "Skin."
On a trip to visit a niece at Harvard University, her mother revealed that she had been raped as a child. This disclosure affected Foster deeply and launched her first memoir, All the Lost Girls: Confessions of a Southern Daughter (2000). It is a story of three generations of women on her mother's side and reflects Foster's struggle for autonomy from her parents. Growing up, Patricia felt she never measured up as well as her attorney brother and doctor sister. Parts of this book won the PEN/Jerard Fund Award as well as an Old Gold Fellowship from the University of Iowa.
In recent years, Foster has taught workshops in Florence, Italy; Barcelona, Spain; and Prague, Czech Republic, and was an
exchange professor at Paul Valery University, in Montpellier, France. This latter residency is the setting for the start of
her second memoir, Just Beneath My Skin: Autobiography and Self-Discovery (2004). Although the time period covered in this memoir overlaps her first, the focus is on her own emerging self, from the
divorce in 1973 to a recent return to Fairhope for a family event. She continues to teach at the University of Iowa.
Selected Works by Patricia Foster
Minding the Body: Women Writers on B od y and Soul (editor, 1994)
Sister To Sister (editor, 1996)
The Healing Circle: Narratives of Recovery (co-edited with Mary Swander, 1998)
All the Lost Girls: Confessions of a Southern Daughter (2000)
"Skin" (Winter 2001)
Just Beneath My Skin (2004)
Foster, Patricia. "The Girl Most Likely to Succeed." The Southern Review (Winter 2007): 27-37.
———. "What Needs to be Needed." Shenandoah (Winter 2004): 152-163.
———. "My Savage Mind: Steps Toward an Autobiography." Southern Humanities Review (Summer 2001): 256-265.
———. "Goody-Goody Girls." Ohio Review (Fall 2001): 36-46.
Rebecca Mears Duncan
Vestavia Hills, Alabama
Published January 19, 2010
Last updated March 30, 2011