Family Secrets

Let’s Discuss — Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay

 

Thirteen years ago, Ellen thought marriage meant love. Now she believes marriage means need, and when the need isn’t there, what comes next? On her wedding day, she had looked across the street from the church to the cemetery and imagined all the women who had come before her, who had married and borne children and died. Some day, she thought, that same peace will be mine. But perhaps what she saw was not peace, but silence. Perhaps those women entered the ground because they were tired and had nowhere else to go (21)

You know what the above passage reminds me of? — The Bell Jar. There’s something Plath-like about it. The same oppressive dome weighs on Ellen Grier in Vinegar Hill as it did Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Except in this story it manifests as dated pink plates, pink curtains, pink tablecloth, prescription sleeping pills and a neon green pre-decorated plastic christmas tree. This is what might have happened if Esther had married Buddy Willard. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves–this is not The Bell Jar and this is not Sylvia Plath. No where close (although Ansay is a good writer) This story is about a family’s struggle to survive domestic abuse, with a focus on a mother’s determination to do better for herself and children than what her husband has done for them in small town, midwestern USA.

In chapter six, while Ellen is dealing with the Christmas fiasco, she references what she used to call her future self, an “aqua lady”; a wife and mother of different circumstance who is perfection personified. The aqua lady is a stark contrast to Ellen’s reality. Ellen and her children Amy and Bert are forced to move in with her in-laws after her husband, James, loses his job. Financial hardship is only one hurdle for Ellen. She also has to deal with a complacent husband, who (1) has no desire to move out of his parents’ home, (2) has no desire to become a bigger part of his children’s life, and (3) let’s his mother and father belittle his family. This of course leads to marital strife. Ellen must compensate for everything that goes on and she is spread thin. Too thin. She can no longer be the workhorse for her mother-in-law, father-in-law and husband.

When a commercial interrupts, James watches that too. He loves TV more than anything he can think of. It is small and neat; it is easy to understand. Wives love their husbands. Children love their fathers (87)

I’m trying to sort out my feelings about James…what the hell is his problem? Why doesn’t he love his kids or wife? Why does he put up with his parent’s antics? He’s definitely a type of character that gets under my skin (absent fathers and weak-willed men).  So why is he so tragic? Well…it turns out James, like Ellen, is a victim of domestic abuse.  His father, Fritz, physically abused his wife Mary-Margaret and James. Their entire family dynamic was ruptured by a family secret that still feeds their dysfunction fifteen to twenty years later. And James has allowed his own wife and kids to be exposed to it. James takes out his frustrations on Ellen, but not in the same way his father did to his wife.  James’ violence is muted. It’s in his inactions. But this violence isn’t lost on his children. Oh no, they are very aware. The reader witnesses Amy and Bert begin to lose their innocence; those moments when you realize your parents are imperfect beings and you mutate from their biggest fan to harshest critic. Kids pick up on everything–intrinsically. They can’t help it. They know their parents are not happy. So they are not happy.

This novel does a fine job of oozing despair and desolation. I think I mentioned Ansay is a good writer. It also doesn’t stumble with integrating a role of religion into their home life. But it does struggle with tempering the blame. To me it’s a bit heavy-handed with the anti-God* vibes. The whole “men oppress women–god made men and god is a man–thus god oppresses women, and oppression is bad–thus god is bad” logic is a bit much (ultra dramatic) Compounded with the anti-God angst and domestic depression** is a lack of likeable characters. Mary-Margaret being very unlikeable–what a piece of work she is…but then you read passages like this:

He surprised Mary-Margaret one cold, bright January day as she lifted her skirts in the backhouse. She did not have time to think. He hit her once in the forehead with a brick and pulled her out into the snow. Blood ran into her eyes as she ran blindly, her only thought to move, to keep moving, until the brick found the back of her head. Then she lay still as he emptied himself inside her, and when he finished, he pissed yellow circles around her body. The warmth of his urine melted the snow and stung against her face (165)

…and it puts things into perspective. There is a reason for everyone’s dysfunction.

 

* I can’t decide if I think it’s truly anti-God or just anti-Catholic.

** This brand of melancholy is not for everyone. Look this book up on goodreads and then filter the ratings for “two stars”. There’s some hilarity in the community comments.

Let’s Discuss — Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn’t do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people inherit houses; others paintings…or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed (401)

With Middlesex Eugenides offers a historical and psychological narrative through which circular, personal, candid and humorous storytelling combine to create a mythological account of a uniquely American experience: how a teenage girl named Calliope Stephanides became a man named Cal.

I say this book tells a uniquely American experience–how is that? One conventional explanation would be Cal’s family history. His grandparents are Grecian Turks; immigrants who came to America via Ellis Island in the early 20th century. Cal’s grandparent’s are transplanted into Detroit to assimilate to and enrich American culture, to seek the traditional American Dream; freedom, job, house, car, wealth, family…children–and this is where things also get “unique”. Cal’s grandparent’s children would technically be considered sister and brother and first cousins. That’s right. First cousins. See…Cal’s grandparent’s have a secret–they are husband and wife, and brother and sister (the book goes into detail about how this came to pass) On top of that, Cal’s father/uncle, Milton, is married to his cousin, Tessie (Cal’s mother/aunt/second cousin?) Following? Drawing a diagram helps.

Against a black background they swim, a long white silken thread spinning itself out. The thread began on a day two hundred fifty years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby’s fifth chromosome […] Hitching a ride, the gene descended a mountain and left a village behind…Crossing the ocean, it faked a romance, circled a ship’s deck, and made love in a lifeboat…It took a train to Detroit […] And then the gene moved on again, into new bodies…it took an entrance exam…it dated a future priest and broke off an engagement…always moving ahead, rushing along, only a few more curves left in the track now, Annapolis and a submarine chaser…until the biology gods knew this was their time, this was what they’d been waiting for…my destiny fell into place (210)

So sometimes when in-breeding occurs genetics can get a little tricky, or as I’m calling it unique. In a way, Cal’s genes are uniquely the same, too much of the same. Her grandparent’s secret eventually leads to a daughter/niece named Calliope, who will tell readers the story of her beginning, and other life experiences from the viewpoint of her much older self, a man named Cal. At times it was as if Calliope’s growing pains mirrored America’s. Through this generational epic the reader glimpses at wars, immigration, race riots, white flight, cultural revolution, etc.

This story is intriguing to me because it delves into a subject I have very little knowledge of–hermaphroditism. I know about gene mutations, but haven’t explored that particular mutation on the fifth chromosome; the one that manifests as a gateway to intersexual ambiguity. I think it’s fairly accurate to say hermaphrodites, while having always existed, are still taboo in most hyper-sexualized, western cultures. And so by tackling a taboo subject so elegantly, I feel like Eugenides wrote something that really challenges the notion of normality…

And so strange a new possibility is rising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind (479)

Reading about Calliope’s self-discovery about her body, family, gender, sexuality, love and acceptance was refreshing and–you guessed it–unique.

Let’s Discuss — Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz

I see I haven’t said enough. I thought I might omit this part, let it settle silently into the muck where it belongs, but it seems that isn’t possible. People want to hear everything, don’t they? Spy every strap and pin and hem. It’s not enough for them to run a finger along the scar or even to see the knife slice the skin, they must hear the blade purring against the whetstone (63)

Guilt, shame, mental illness and secrecy; all are propelling forces within a story which revolves around the death of a sister. In the beginning, it’s clear Amanda (the living sister) has a hard time revealing the truth. So she leaks it, bit by bit, through flashbacks. Amanda grows up the older sister to Mathilda, but obviously isn’t the favorite. Amanda was constantly compared to her more beautiful and charming younger sister. She also dealt with her mother’s illness more explicitly than anyone else in her family. Amanda must be the responsible one, while Mathilda is allowed to be a free bird. When Mathilda marries Carl, Amanda leaves to become a nurse, to start her own life away from the Starkey farm. But damage has been done and what she encounters in the hospital only worsens her being.

We met because of Private Buckle and then I killed my parents. Had I mentioned that? No, I thought I hadn’t. Of course, I didn’t mean to kill them, but in a case of death, how much does intent really matter? (65)

Amanda is the most intriguing character. At times the reader might pity her, maybe empathize…but I personally was more disappointed with her. Perhaps to work as a nurse, to see men with missing limbs and holes blown into them would settle her uneasiness; make her realize how much better she had it, or give her a sense of belonging. But ultimately, working at the hospital does her no good because she meets Clement Owens. Their interaction only leads to heartbreak and shame. Eventually, Amanda returns to the family farm, only she doesn’t realize she’s carrying more than hurt feelings.

There’s the underlying question of how Mathilda died. Was she murdered? There may be times when the reader thinks it was Amanda who ended Mathilda’s life. Her episodes–the things she said and did, or didn’t do all point to that conclusion. Maybe she did…maybe she didn’t. What kind of person blames her niece for the death of her sister? What kind of person let’s her brother-in-law think his dead wife was seduced by another man?

This is a story about secrets, dysfunctional relationships and the imperfect and twisted love of family.