There are parts of this story that I have tried and failed to tell for over two decades. Bless my agent, Bill Clegg, for having read perhaps a dozen variations on some of these themes over the years, and each time ever so gently suggesting that I unhook the story and let it swim away to grow for a bit longer. It’s impossible to rush a story if it just isn’t ready to be finished.
Lauren Groff, BASS 2022 Contributor Note
Soon after this story originally appeared in The New Yorker, fellow story blogger Jon Duelfer emailed me to ask if he could do a Guest Post about it on my blog. I said sure, I was happy to publish a post of his – he’s a thoughtful, insightful reader – but I didn’t want to bother with the story. In retrospect, I see I claimed to have read the story. This was, well, let’s call it an exaggeration rather than a lie; I’d glanced at the first sentences (which use a construction I particularly dislike – “the woman,” “the girl” – and at a couple of sentences of other posts about the story, and decided I didn’t want to be bothered with what seemed to be a harshly realistic story about a woman fleeing domestic violence. When I saw the story in the TOC for this year’s BASS, my heart sunk a little, but I figured it was fate catching me in a… exaggeration, forcing me to read the story after all.
You know that old saw about when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me? Well, I sure did. I should have trusted Jon. I should have trusted Lauren Groff. I can imagine some of the earlier versions of the story Groff mentions in her Contributor Note might have been closer to what I’d imagined when Jon contacted me. But she ended up doing something quite remarkable instead, turning a ripped-from-the-headlines piece into a smartly crafted narrative form that moves beyond the expected into themes that are, by now, familiar to those of us who’ve read these BASS stories in order: the generational transmission of trauma, and the use of story to form history.
The bare-bones plot is what you might expect: when an abusive man progresses from beating his wife to beating his child, the mother/wife grabs the kids and runs. One complication is that the husband is a police officer; how do you report a man for abuse when he and his buddies are the officials you would report it to?
Beyond that, Groff employs a narrative twist that lifts this story: originally it seems to be omniscient third person, but halfway down the page, we find out, as the three children leave for school, that isn’t the case:
When they stopped by the mailbox, the younger brother said in a very small voice, Is she dead?
The older boy hissed, Shut up, you’ll wake him, and all three looked at the house hunched up on the hill in the chilly dark, the green siding half installed last summer, the broken front window covered with cardboard.
The sister touched the little one’s head and said, whispering, No, no, don’t worry, she’s alive. I heard her go out to feed the sheep, and then she left for work. The boy leaned like a cat into her hand.
He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.
This allows several storytelling devices. It creates a narrative where the narrator’s mother is referred both as mother and a child, where the boys are both kids and uncles, and where the children’s mother is a grandmother, compressing time until there is no past, present, and future, but all three exist at once. One of the primary features of PTSD is time compression: the sufferer repeatedly experiences the past as if it is the present.
It’s also the first in a series of carefully timed reveals, some subtle (such as we now know the twelve-year-old girl will survive and have a child of her own, relieving a huge dread and allowing the reader to focus on other things) and some explicit (Ruby is the mother/grandmother’s name, Michelle is the twelve-year-old daughter/mother, Joseph and Ralph the nine- and six-year-old boys/uncles). And by the way, though unrelated to narration, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Ruby takes care of three children, an unspecified number of sheep, and works a job outside the home.
Immediately after the narrator is introduced, she, safely in the future, will reveal the themes that are powerful enough to override even this harrowing plot:
Much later, she would tell me the story of this day at those times when it seemed as if her limbs were too heavy to move and she stood staring into the refrigerator for long spells, unable to decide what to make for dinner. Or when the sun would cycle into one window and out the other and she would sit on her bed unable to do anything other than breathe. Then I would sit quietly beside her, and she would tell the story the same way every time, as if ripping out something that had worked its roots deep inside her.
And again, for the fourth time in this volume, we deal with family history passed on by story, how that story becomes history, and the sense that the past is always with us, it is indeed not dead or even past. In his Introduction, Greer highlights this choice:
Groff has not chosen to tell it in third person, or from the point of view of the woman, or even the point of view of her child. The narrator is the daughter of the child. The granddaughter. Someone who was not there. It makes the story somehow grander and more terrifying, because it is a story passed down through generations, a story told to make sense of who these women are. A myth, in the sense of story crucial to these women. That simple choice – and an unusual one – puts enough emotional distance between the narrator and the characters to remove any cliche or sentimentality. Instead: there is dignity, sorrow, and rage.
Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022
The escape is as tension-filled as one would expect. The story manages to focus on the effects of the fear of detection, of decisions that must be made quickly, and on how compromised by terror Ruby is at this moment when she’s acted. At one point she’s paralyzed, and this becomes a moment of truth for Michelle. As Michelle’s daughter relates in the future:
Fine, my grandmother said. Yes. I can’t think of nothing else. I guess this will be our change of plans. But, for the first time since the night before, tears welled up in her eyes and began dripping down her bruised cheeks and she had to slow the car to see through them.
And then she started breathing crazily, and leaned forward until her forehead rested on the wheel, and the car stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. The wind howled around it.
…. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, my grandmother whispered. It’s just that my body is not really listening to me. I can’t move anything right now. I can’t move my feet. Oh, God.
It’s fine, my mother said softly. Don’t worry. You are fine. You can take the time you need to calm down.
And at this moment my mother saw with terrible clarity that everything depended on her. The knowledge was heavy on the nape of her neck, like a hand pressing down hard.
Notice how similar this bodily reaction to fear – a shutting down of physical will, of control over one’s own muscles – is to what the daughter – “my mother” – feels in the present as noticed by her daughter.
Yes, it’s confusing, since who is mother and who is daughter depends on context, on whether we are in the story or in the narration. That’s reflective of the chaos of this family, where Michelle, at nine, is helping Ruby, her mother, cope in a moment when Ruby isn’t able to cope on her own. Michelle has her own black eye at this moment, but she must become the adult. This is one more perversion of abuse: adults become children, so children must become adults.
Groff finishes off with two paragraphs that hammer home the overriding themes of the story. First, how we tell stories, how we turn stories into history – or at least, try to:
This was the way my mother later told the story, down to the smallest detail, as though dreaming it into life: the forsythia gold on the tips of the bushes, the last snow rotten in ditches, the faces of the houses still depressed by winter, the gray clouds that hung down heavily as her mother drove into the valley of the town, the wind picking up so that the flag’s rivets on the pole snapped crisply outside the bus station, where they watched on a metal bench that seared their bottoms and they shuddered from more than the cold period the bus morning to life, wreathed in smoke, carrying them away. She told it almost as though she believed this happier version, but behind her words I see the true story, the sudden wail and my grandmother’s blanched cheeks shining in the red and blue and the acrid smell of piss. How just before the door opened and she was grabbed by the hair and dragged backward, my grandmother turned to her children and tried to smile, to give them this last glimpse of her.
This is the fourth of four stories so far in this volume to make use, to greater or lesser effect, of this theme: by Lucy’s need to tell the story of her vision in “A Ravishing Sun,” by the way the Dominican girls tell the story of The Little Widow From the Capital to change both their participation and the ending in that story, and in Jeb’s efforts to put together his family story in “Man of the House,”
Then there’s the generational transmission of trauma, also reflected in both “A Ravishing Sun” as Lucy considers the torture and fear her family went through in Cuba, and in “Man of the House,” as Jeb remembers his father and his uncle and how their fear, predating his birth, is visited on him. It wasn’t until the third time I read this story, when I was pulling quotes, that I was driven to tears by Ruby’s strength in smiling as her husband dragged her away, trying to offer her children a view of her that did not reflect her fear and pain. Maybe it helped. Then again:
The three children survived. Eventually they would save themselves, struggling into lives and loves far from this place and to this moment, each finding a kind of safe harbor, jobs and people and houses empty of violence. But always inside my mother there would blow a silent wind, a wind that died and gusted again, raging throughout her life, touching every moment she lived after this one. She tried her best, but she couldn’t help filling me with this same wind.
We don’t know exactly what happened to this family. The impression is their mother was murdered by their father, and the kids were put into some kind of foster care, but Groff leaves those details out as they aren’t important. It’s the relationship between the mother and her children, in this context of violence, that matters, and that’s where Groff focuses our attention.
By a strange coincidence (I keep saying, I love a good coincidence), I just started watching This is Us a few days ago (yes, I’m always late to the party). I’m just a few episodes in, but I’m also blown away by the time compression used there, until there is no past, present, future. It’s used in a pleasant way there, rather than the grim way it’s used here. But the technique is the same: on some level, past, present, and future form a whole, where they aren’t separate. This also fits in with the mooc I recently took on metaphysics, which looked at ways time can be viewed. Do things in the past or future exist? Some schools of thought say yes. Do we look at time as moving, or do we look at our perception as moving along a timeline? How does now become then? Is there a present at all? And moving to ethics: if we realized how our actions in the present will affect those we will love in the future, would we perhaps act differently?
Maybe I just used these things to force the story into something I found more interesting than your standard tale of abuse. And what does it mean that I want to do that? Am I cold-hearted, don’t I care about abuse? I don’t think that’s it; I think it’s more that, at this point, when we’ve already seen the news specials and TV shows, it begins to feel a little emotionally exploitative to use such high-impact drama for fiction unless there’s something more than a display of horror. And here, I believe, there is, both aesthetically, and emotionally.
* * *
- Lauren Groff reads this story on WNYC.
- Jonathan Duelfer discussed this story in a guest post on this very site back when it first appeared in TNY. At the time I made some assumptions about it and declined to read it. I now recognize that was a mistake. Fortunately, BASS has corrected that mistake.
- Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic looks at his wife’s experience at a shelter for battered women.