Friday, February 18, 2011

"They All Just Went Away" by Joyce Carol Oates in "The Best American Essays of the Century"

I've a weakness for essays and as usual, started this mammoth book from the back. I don't know why I found this essay so depressing but I did.  The language used is excellent, the detail used to describe the Weidel family and the contrast it presents to Ms. Oates' family is exact, the events that lead to the abandonment of the Weidel house, the disintegration of the house after it was torched by Mr. Weidel described accurately; and then the dispatch of the members of the family to parts various and sometimes uncertain---all these details describe a family that was unstable, impressively beset by problems (wife/child abuse, alcoholism, animal abuse, poverty) and the hollowness of the home that these people made.

When is a house not a home?  I suppose when it is occupied by such tarantulas of human beings as the Weidels. But even in such a horror of a family, the wife planted a garden, tried to make a makeshift front porch homely with a geranium and a rug; buried the family dog that the husband sadistically puts down and tries to defend her husband against the final atrocity of arson--against law enforcement representatives. As Ms. Oates asks in the terminal part of this essay--what is  it about women such as Mrs. Weidel that enable them to settle for abuse, almost murder and still attempt to keep together a doomed relationship?

Ms. Oates asks this question in this manner:

Yet, what could possibly be the evolutionary advantage of self-hurt in the female?  Abnegation in the face of another's cruelty?  Acquiescence to another's will?  This loathsome secret that women do not care to speak of, or even acknowledge.
Indeed, why do women put up with this kind of a life? Is it because this is all they know of?  Can upbringing and conditioning be so strong as to prevent women from using their brains to get the hell out of such situations? I've often heard my mother tell me stories like this --where a woman marries a man and then the man proceeds to do what men who have no self control do--beat/have affairs/denigrate their wives and the women have often gone crazy.  I mean I could understand this in the Third World (well, no, I still I can't understand this)--where society forbids the women from leaving their spouses until he is good and ready to discard her --often in a lethal fashion --but not here in the First World. But I may just be kidding myself.  Maybe the Third World mentality and socialization exists in women in the First World as well. For as Ms. Oates tells us -she encounters Ruth Weidel -the older daughter of the family and she seems to be on the same track as her mother.   This is how Ms. Oates describes Ruth:

It was startling to see how good-looking she could be, how sullen-sexy; to know how men would stare at her who would never so much as glance at a girl like me. Ruth said slowly, as if she'd come to a final, adamant conclusion to a problem that had long vexed her, "They all just went away."
And so out of the truth of what happened in her childhood, Ruth has already constructed a fabrication that will probably lead her to the same type of life and home that her mother had. 

What was so unnerving about this essay was strangely enough the descriptions of the abandoned houses --Ms. Oates describes in excruciating detail the deterioration of these house and one can't help feel a sense of foreboding in her descriptions--as if see-this is how we all end up-as these trash filled, vandalized and abandoned farm houses.  The details used to describe the houses were almost more horrible than the details used to describe the deterioration of the Weidels --one of the families that occupied one of these abandoned houses.  Here is an example of how she describes the reality of the farmhouses in their decay:

There is a strange and profound and unknowable reality to these abandoned houses where jealously guarded, even prized possessions have become mere trash: windowpanes long ago smashed, and the spaces where they had been festooned with cobwebs, and cobwebs brushing against your face, catching in your hair like caresses.  The peculiar, dank smell of wood rot and mildew, in one of the houses I most recall that had partly burned down, the smell of smoke and scorch, in early summer pervading even the lyric smell of honeysuckle—these haunting smells, never, at the time of experiencing, given specific sources, names.

Ms. Oates contrasts the Weidels to her own traditional, house maintaining family, describes the general feeling in the community that Mrs. Weidel was at fault for not leaving her husband:  

How can that woman live with him? That pig. There was disdain, disgust, in this frequent refrain. Why doesn’t she leave him? Did you see that black eye?  Did you hear them the other night? Take the girls away, at least.  It was thought  that she could, for Mrs. Weidel was the only one in the family who seemed to work at all regularly. She was hired for seasonal canning in a tomato factory in lower Lockport and may have done housekeeping in the city.

Why didn't Mrs. Weidel leave her husband? Why did Ms. Oates write this essay?  She says in her essay that she was curious about "the wellsprings of female masochism" but surely this isn't only about why women voluntarily degrade themselves.  Didn't she start the essay with the abandoned houses that she was prone to checking out as a child?  And doesn't she end the essay with Ruth Weidel's summary statement for the reason for her family's departure from the still habitable house as "They all just went away." What really is Ms. Oates exploring in this essay? 

Is it about the definition of family, home and house and their relationships to each other and how women try to maintain the fiction of a home in their minds? And why do this dissection on this family? Is it as she says in her essay--an instructive matter--that when she enters the life of the Weidel family--she enters every family's life for as she remarks in her essay:

Do not say, "Yes, but these are isolated, peripheral examples.  They tell us nothing about ourselves." They tell us everything about ourselves, and even the telling, the exposure, is a kind of cutting, an inscription in the flesh."


In genetics, a mutant form of an organism is useful because we can learn about normal function from the change in function that the mutant organism displays. In neurology, brain alterations, --in certain areas of the brain result in losses of function that help to isolate the role of different parts of the brain and thereby increase our knowledge of how the brain works.  And studying the gene expression of mutant bacteria, we can determine how regulation of genes is modulated.  

So is Ms. Oates attempting to do the same thing here? By showing us a family in mutated, altered form that abandons their house and by contrasting that family to the normally functioning family that she comes from--living in a house that is still a home--is she comparing herself to Ruth Weidel and by this contrast--highlighting "everything about ourselves"? 

And what does it say about us? That even though we know fellow human beings are being abused-that nothing is done until as Ms. Oates notes--it was impossible to avoid the facts:

There were loud parties, frequent disputes, and tales of Mr. Weidel’s chasing his wife with a butcher knife, a claw hammer, the shotgun, threatening to “blow her head off.” Mrs. Weidel and the younger children fled outdoors in terror and hid in the hayloft.  Sheriff’s deputies drove out to the house, but no charges were ever pressed against Mr. Weidel. Until the fire, which was so public, that it couldn’t be denied.
Ms. Oates remarks gently as if to remind all of us of the transience of our own families, our own homes, our own houses:

How swiftly in a single season, a human habitation can turn wild. The bumpy cinder driveway over which the eldest Weidel son had ridden his motorcycle was soon stippled with tall weeds.

I can't quite agree with Ms. Oates comments that perhaps such female subjugation to abuse has some sort of genetic basis.  This is how she puts:

As a woman and as a writer, I have long wondered at the wellsprings of female masochism. Or what, in despair of a more subtle, less reductive phrase, we can call the congeries of predilections toward self-hurt, self-erasure, self-repudiation in women.  These predilections are presumably “learned”—“acquired” –but perhaps also imprinted in our genes, of biological necessity, neurophysiological fate, predilections that predate culture.   Indeed, may shape culture.  
I don't think such genetics exist.  But certainly being smashed around the head and given black eyes and not being protected during childhood and growing into a marriage such as the one experienced by Mrs. Weidel can do a lot to distort a functional healthy psyche from developing and can lead to aberrant response to dysfuntional situations of spousal abuse as this passage clearly demonstrates:
I thought of Mrs. Weidel, her swollen, blackened eyes, her bruised face. Shouts and sirens in the night, the sheriff’s patrol car. But no charges filed. The social worker told my mother how Mrs. Weidel had screamed at the county people, insisting her husband hadn’t done anything wrong and shouldn’t go to jail. The names she’d called them! Unreapeatable.
This had been the only way this woman had lived and yet--she seemed to have tried to do the best she could have with what she had. Would any of us have been different? And how did she manage to keep it all together in a house, in a home that is described in this fashion:

The downstairs windows were carelessly boarded over, and both the front and rear doors were unlocked, collapsing on their hinges. Broken glass underfoot and a sickish stench of burn, mildew, decay. Yet there were “touches” –on what remained of a kitchen wall, a Holstein calendar from a local feed store, a child’s crayon drawing. Upstairs, children’s clothes, socks and old shoes heaped on the floor. I recognized with a thrill of repugnance an old red sweater of Ruth’s, angora-fuzzy. There were broken Christmas tree ornaments, a naked pink plastic doll. Toppled bedsprings, filthy mattresses streaked with yellow and rust-colored stains. The mattresses looked as if they’d been gutted, their stuffing strewn about.


  1. I think the most interesting thing about the essay is the narrator and her attraction to the destroyed homes, how they pull at her despite her happy upbringing and seem more permanent than that. That's not just depressing, but depression itself. But it also comes from a desire to surpass what is transitory--a religious urge, really.

  2. This is an interesting comment. You're probably more knowledgeable than I am about this essay (I am a science nerd) so thank you for the insight.