The Split Personality of Joyce Carol Oates

Gillian Reagan | February 24th, 2011

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates the writer dressed the part. On Feb. 21, she appeared on stage at the 92Y’s Kaufman Center Hall on Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street in a black Issey Miyake turtleneck, with long, lacy sleeves, black pants and simple black boots. She wore turquoise and earth-toned gems around her neck, red rose lipstick on her lips, and carried a black purse that she plopped on the podium and dug around in for her reading glasses, before reading from her recent book, A Widow’s Story.

“I felt at some points, an allegorical figure of the widow,” she said on stage at 92Y during her reading. “Maybe the only experience that I’ve had in my life, and writing the book is part of that, where I really felt like I was representative, that it wasn’t so much about this one person, Joyce Smith, but it really could be anybody. There were times where I was overwhelmed by some wave of universal, almost like Schopenhauerian force of the impersonal.”

In the book, her first memoir, Oates explains that this version of herself — the tiny, charming woman on stage drawing out boinging vowels in that native Northern New York accent — is “JCO.” She is the professional who at age 72 has written 115 books and countless essays, presented her charms at readings all over the world and returns home to New Jersey to teach at Princeton. But there is also Joyce Smith, the woman who was married to Raymond Smith for 48 years before he went into the hospital for a case of apparent pneumonia, and died of a hospital infection in 2008.

I’d go to the hospital and find myself feeling like a character in a 19th century novel, and my husband was very ill.

At 92Y, Oates seemed to channel these two versions of herself: Joyce Smith, mourning widow of a man she built “a complete and happy life” with for five decades, and “JCO,” the writer who has written a book about those wrenching months during and after his death. This version of herself is also wearing a new wedding ring, having married again in 2009 to a professor of neuroscience.

Her recent marriage, and her silence about it in the book, has been the most contentious point in reviews of A Widow’s Story. “How delicately must we tread around this situation?” wrote The New York Times’ Janet Maslin in a prickly review on Feb. 14. She insisted that such a “long and rambling” book “could have found time to mention a whole new spouse. “Oates can say (and has said, on the rare occasions when interviewers have had the nerve to ask her about it) that people whose long, sustaining marriages end often choose to remarry. Fair enough. And who would begrudge her this respite from the anguish that A Widow’s Story describes? But it is less fair for A Widow’s Story to dissemble while masquerading as a work of raw courage and honesty.”

Oates told NPR’s Leo Lapote before the 92Y reading that including a paragraph at the end of the book that mentioned her new husband seemed disrespectful. “It violates the integrity of the book you have written,” she said.

In reviews, there are also the obvious comparisons to Joan Didion’s 2008 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, another memoir from a female writing powerhouse about devastating years of grief after losing her husband and her daughter.

At 92Y, poet Henri Cole toed around the question, of whether Oates “had a model” for the memoir, or “felt that she was answering to” another work about grief. Oates answered this way: “No, it just began with these scenes. I found myself so surprised by these things. I’d go to the hospital and find myself feeling like a character in a 19th century novel, and my husband was very ill.”

Oates’ memoir is the most personal readers have been able to get to the writer — it was drafted in a series of entries in her diary, “a place where we go when we are melancholy, or baffled, or hurt, or lonely, or feeling brooding or defeated,” Oates said. “You sort of retreat and think about it, absolutely unfettered and uncensored. I often don’t even look back at mine, because I often feel like it’s a record that I don’t want to revise.” But she did revise, over and over again, as is her process. JCO, as always, as ever, is in control.

Reading passages at 92Y, her thin fingers flickered, as if attempting to conduct 500 imaginations while describing linoleum hospital corners and the “memory pools” that form under waiting room chairs. Her hands rolled in a wave to describe emotions of panic and loneliness and bunched into claw form to describe the piles of death certificate papers, transcripts, and other legal documents she laid out in piles on the floor. Much like her text, peppered with exclamation points and italics, metaphors and similes, Oates tells readers exactly how they should interpret her words. In the memoir, there are even italicized guidelines for The Widow — thoughtful pointers for the recently bereaved, like how to accept gifts and pick out a burial plot — meant to be a kind of how-to for when the shock of losing someone leaves her desperate and unable to function.

“Most of us inhabit a very finite and protective space, cocooned by people around us,” Oates explained. “You may have parents who know you, even you don’t love them and they don’t love you a lot, the thing is that they know who you are and they look at you and the whole history is there. Or a beloved dog or cats, you know, and certainly a spouse is the most prominent of these figures. And then suddenly that’s gone, you really don’t have an ontological sense of who you are. All your efforts seem silly and vain, seem ridiculous, like paper blowing across the road.”

“It’s like being in Plato’s cave, you’re looking at shadows and you don’t quite know what’s going on,” she went on. “The shock of losing someone close to you, I think, obliterates one’s ability to think clearly so you’re reacting in ways that are very visceral. And I’m sure there are many people in the audience who have experienced this.” A few graying audience members in the middle rows breathed heavy breaths and wiped running mascara with a crumbled tissue in their fists.

Oates’ words are certainly moving. But at times in the memoir, Oates comes off as cruel. She  hauls fruit baskets out to the trash before she has even opened them and mocks emails sent by colleagues trying to fill her empty spaces with words of comfort, but inevitably failing. She wants a shirt that reads, “YES MY HUSBAND DIED, YES I AM VERY SAD, YES YOU ARE KIND TO OFFER CONDOLENCES, NOW CAN WE CHANGE THE SUBJECT?”

But these are all just honest feelings, as Oates explained it, from a widow in a storm of grief. She felt, she said, “like a person who is in a river and there’s all these logs and dead carcasses and, everything, mud, you know, rushing along and then [I] just sort of get ahold of this rope in this horrible situation. Which is ludicrous, too, there’s nothing heroic or beautiful about it.” The rope was her writing.

The question is what to do with that survival mechanism — take it with her to knot it into something else, like art, or let it be what it was: something that helped her survive. Oates seemed to hope that she could give some slack, and help out others still in the river. “We all have different ropes and you just kind of grab on to it for dear life and you pull yourself out onto the shore,” she said. “The genesis of much art is desperation.”