Thursday 31 January 2013

Thank you for calling

'A Widow's Story : A memoir' by Joyce Carol Oates
It takes someone like Joyce Carol Oates to write a memoir about the death of her husband without it coming across as mawkish or self-pitying. She muses intermittently through the book that maybe she didn't know her husband very well, that there were things that they both hid from each other, and yet they were such a tightly bound unit, the ultimate married couple. I didn't feel as if I got to know Ray well, it is only towards the end that she gives some background about him, but she certainly lets you inside her own head, unstintingly and unashamedly honest.

"In writing this, I feel I am betraying Ray. Yet in not writing it, I am not being altogether honest.
There is no purpose to a memoir, if it isn't honest. As there is no purpose to a declaration of love, if it isn't honest." (p.361)

The book is very long, and in places repetitive, but all the more powerful, because you get such a strong sense of the emotional turmoil she is in. Her husband Ray dies very unexpectedly and suddenly of pneumonia; you get the impression she suspects he contracted a further infection while in hospital but having refused an autopsy there is no way in retrospect to find out. As a result she blames herself, for insisting that, having fallen ill, she take him to the germ infested place and leaves him there. She berates herself for her naive trust in the medical system. She recounts her descent into madness and the intense nature of the loss she suffers. It is as if she has been divided in half; the half that experiences the loss and the other half, the half that is watching, curiously, how she reacts to this loss. She keeps this sense of distance by constantly referring to 'the widow' in little paragraphs in italics, as if trying to comfort herself with the notion of how many other widows have gone through the same experience, acknowledging that her emotions are not unique, that it is of course an everyday experience for a woman to become a widow. But also that being a widow is a 'role' that must be played, people expect certain things and certain kinds of behaviour, and how unnatural and unreal it all seems. 

"The widow's terror is that, her mind being broken, as her spine is broken, and her heart is broken, she will break down utterly. She will be carried off by wild careening banshee thoughts like these." (p.88)

"The Widow has entered the stage of primitive thinking in which she imagines that some small trivial gesture of hers might have meaning in relationship to her husband's death. As if being 'good' - 'responsible' - she might undo her personal catastrophe. She will come slowly to realise that there is nothing to be done now." (p.92)

She quotes a message from a friend that says "Suffer, Joyce. Ray was worth it", and she does, going through the gamut of emotions, and forever the lurking fear of being swamped by them. Falling gladly into taking medication, from sleeping pills to a variety of antidepressants, but fearing the possibility of addiction and wondering if they are actually helping at all. She struggles on with the other parts of her life, continuing to teach and keeping her commitments to do readings and appearances. It is almost as if doing these things does keep her sane, she can maintain the idea that life has not disintegrated entirely.

"Nietzsche said 'The thought of suicide can get one through many a long night.' "
"Each night I get through is a small triumph." (emails to friends P.117)

The thought of suicide takes on the imagined embodied form of a glassy-eyed basilisk that stalks her when she is alone and tempts her with the idea that she could end her suffering. It is a sinister and threatening presence throughout the book and was obviously very real to her, but something that she struggled to resist.

"The basilisk, for instance, rarely follows me from this house. Amid a babble of people chattering of politics the basilisk seems to have no power, no presence. If we are asked How are you? we must not say Suicidal. And you?" (p299)

Earlier she makes this interesting observation on how sympathy operates and how one is supposed to react, from a chapter entitled 'How are you?':

"From time to time, in a social situation, an individual will acknowledge that things aren't so good, maybe he/she isn't so fine, which will derail the conversation in a more personal pointed direction. But this is rare, and must be handled with extreme delicacy. For it's in violation of social decorum and people will be sympathetic initially - but finally, maybe not." (p.127)

A picture of their life together emerges in pieces, little snippets between her musing about death and trying to avoid letting on how bad she feels to anyone around her:

"We occupied the house often for hours at a time without speaking to each other, or needing to speak.
For this is the most exquisite of intimacies - not needing to speak."

... and how different it has become:

"Now, I dare not look across the courtyard at the plate-glass window that runs the length of the room. I think that I am terrified to see no one there. Yet more terrified, to risk seeing a reflection in the glass - for in our house there are myriad reflections of reflections in glass - a kind of vertigo springs from such reflections, like the sharp flash of light that precedes migraine.
Mirrors have become off-limits, taboo. As if toxic fumes inhabit these ghost mirrors, you dare not draw too close." (p.146)

Here she finds solace in talking to other women, some widowed, and some divorced, putting her own experience in sharp contrast (love the metaphor in this, it is very graphic):

"Much of the dinner conversation turns upon E's situation - the imminence of her expulsion from her beautiful house - her financial crisis - the ways in which her companion seems to have betrayed her trust.
Where there is betrayal, there can be anger, rage. I am thinking with envy how much healthier, how much more exhilarating, such emotions would be, than the heavyheartedness of grief like a sodden overcoat the widow must wear." (p.269)

I was taken aback by how she resisted asking people for help, or accepting the help that was offered, almost as if she was determined to go through it alone, as if it were some kind of badge of honour. She is lonely and afraid but resists offers of companionship; goes to see doctors but does not really tell them how she is feeling; neglects herself physically, almost as if she is punishing herself for not being a good enough wife. It is only towards the last part of the book that you begin to learn a little of her early life with Ray and how they became this self contained couple, and you begin to understand:

"Yet, somehow: our eight or nine months exiled in Beaumont were often idyllic, tenderly intimate, and certainly productive. In these months we became so extremely close, so utterly dependent upon each other, as we had not while living in Madison Wisconsin, and attending classes, that we were 'wedded' in this way for life, as each other's closest friend and companion.
We established at this time the routine of our domestic lives: work through the day, a late afternoon walk, dinner, reading/work in the evening until bedtime." (p.314)

They met and married within three months in 1961 and were married for 47 years, and she tells us barely spent time apart. She describes in the early chapters how she calls home, to hear Ray's voice on the answering machine, a message that stays there for over a year, despite disapproving comments from friends. This is a tale of love and loss, poignant and heartbreaking, but also a tale of a search for meaning, about what does make life worth living. I found her conclusion quite hopeful. In clearing up some rubbish scattered on the driveway she discovers a lost pair of favourite earrings:

"This is my life now. Absurd, but unpredictable. Not absurd because unpredictable but unpredictable because absurd. If I have lost the meaning of my life, and the love of my life, I might still find small treasured things amid the spilled and pilfered trash." (p.415)


  1. I felt this book was very obviously modelled on Joan Didion's 'The Year Of Magical Thinking' and was, in my humble opinion, far inferior to Didion's modern classic.

  2. I felt this book was very obviously modelled on Joan Didion's 'The Year Of Magical Thinking' and was, in my humble opinion, far inferior to Didion's modern classic.


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