Dead girl and heron: Joyce Carol Oates

Content warning: child abuse (reference), sexual assault (reference)

Before reading her work, I’d assumed Joyce Carol Oates was one of those writers who churned out weepy family sagas. As many fateful reading habits begin, I picked up Daddy Love (2013) by accident. It was an entirely disturbing read, tracking the fate of a young boy abducted, assaulted and imprisoned by a paedophile. Imagine my shock when I discovered the author was in her seventies, with a plethora of awards and accolades to her name: Joyce Carol Oates, famous for penning them (1969) and We Were the Mulvaneys (1996).

Since that providential read I became obsessed with Oates’ short story collections. This post was first intended as a review of Dis Mem Ber (2017), and an exploration of its feminist themes, particularly in relation to the “cult of the dead girl” (a phenomenon I heard described by writer Roxanne Gay at this year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival) and the infliction of force on “vulnerable” women. These themes are part of a larger echo, rippling in stories from The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (2011) and Night-Side (1977).

Oates’ Dis Mem Ber includes the unforgettable “Great Blue Heron”, in which a widow is pressured by her brother-in-law emotionally and physically. The widow’s seeming helplessness is juxtaposed against the fatal beauty of the heron – a bird revealed to be crueller and more predatory than expected; which follows the widow’s transformative path from beauty to terror. The image in this post includes detail from a painting I completed in 2012. It might be wishful thinking, but I’m seeing a resemblance to the threatening nature of the elegant bird in Oates’ story.

Oates reveals the terrible monotony of everyday horror. The misogynistic authority figure is a recurring character in Oates’ work. In “A Hole in the Head”, a cosmetic surgeon fields requests from clients seeking a ‘spiritual’ trepanning procedure. Dr. Brede notes: “women yearn to trust men – all women, all men.” In 1977’s “Lover” a “beautiful schizophrenic” is restrained for a physical examination after a suspected sexual assault:

She lay still and obedient… that this girl should resist the examination and force him to hurt her; for this often happened, it couldn’t be helped. He had to make four tests, it was for her own good.

One of Oates’ pliant, compliant, beautiful ‘girls’ at the mercy of others is the eponymous Corn Maiden. After hearing Gay’s theory of the “beautiful dead girl”, I fully expected the novella to centre on this characterisation. She is the figure always in vogue in literature and film, prettily-posed even as she decomposes. Often she is little more than a vessel for the character development of a young man (note: never thought of a boy, he is always coming-of-age as a result of his contact with the dead ‘girl’; Thirteen Reasons Why; Jasper Jones etc.). Oates does not supply her Corn Maiden to us in this way, and where she does present a dead young woman, it is without artful arrangement. In Dis Mem Ber’s “The Drowned Girl”, the body of a young student is found decomposing in a water tank. Her death is attributed by authorities to suicide, despite her being nude and the impossibility of her entering the tank unassisted.

Nor had she (as some [male authorities] tried stupidly to argue) killed herself. We (girls, women) know how we would kill ourselves, if / when we undertake to do so.

The dead ‘girl’ haunts the narrator, who becomes obsessed with her fate. Miri Krim becomes the “drowned girl”, her name all but forgotten. As in other stories, Oates includes reference to race. Sometimes subtly, however, more often with a self-conscious and deliberate overtness. At this thought, I re-read Oates’ story focusing on the emphasis of race and I began to reconsider my assumptions of Oates’ writing.

In “The Drowned Girl” the narrator’s landlady insists that the assumed murderers are not being shielded, despite Miri’s skin colour and the lack of justice pursued for her death. It’s an extension of the oft-heard preface “I’m not racist, but”. The landlady, a professor, justifies her racism with additional prejudice: “‘Oh, it isn’t just coloured people – ‘persons of colour’ who are hostile to us. I know this as a fact. It’s our fellow ‘whites’ too, the ones on welfare and drugs.” The professor might well be Oates herself: educated, older and white. I was so confused about the author’s position, considering her frequent in-text commentary on race that I took to Google (big mistake). The results were not exactly what I’d expected. Rather than simple literary examination there were protracted essays about the NRA and Oates leaving Detroit during the riots and analysis of Tweets about New York ghettos.

Then I came to an interview where Oates discussed a book called The Sacrifice (2013). It was the dead of night and in my sleepiness I lost the link but I remembered my confusion at the time I originally read the book. The Sacrifice is a fictionalised take on events that occurred in New York over thirty years ago when a young black girl reported that a group of white men had abducted and raped her over a period of days. The story was subsequently found to be false. At the time of originally reading The Sacrifice, I was uncomfortable. I had issues with the book and the content. I remember thinking, why tell this story? When sexual assault is so difficult to prosecute and victims so rarely believed, there is a skewed traction in publishing false reports. When I dug further, I found a review of The Sacrifice by Roxanne Gay (everything comes full circle!). Gay, contending that she had been a fan of Oates’ writing, also found the execution lacking. She questioned:

How do writers of one race or ethnicity write about people of another race or ethnicity? More important, how do writers tackle difference without reducing their characters to caricatures or stereotypes?

As a writer I’ve not yet had the confidence to write from the perspective of a person of colour. This is not because I don’t think it can’t be done, but because I don’t wish to do a disservice to another person’s lived experience. I’m contending with my own set of prejudices and the way I write these into my work: white, female, migrant. In hearing Gay speak at the Sydney Writers Festival earlier this year, one of the most meaningful takeaways of her conversation was that she did not dissuade writers from writing an experience outside of their own – to consider anyone as “other” is problematic in itself – we are all human and have desires and needs and faults. But there are differences in how we are made to navigate the world. At the time of writing, I’ve just heard the name Charlottesville, a location that will soon be associated with appalling events.

I’m not trying to position these two great women who I admire as adversaries, it just seems that the patterns of my literary scope are overlapping in serendipitous ways. I’ll continue to read Oates, for the way she challenges my perceptions as well as her haunting skill with words.

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