Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: On her Marriage to Raymond Smith
In my first post on JCO’s A Widow’s Story I focused on her experience of trauma and grief following the unexpected death of her husband, Raymond Smith.
Now I want to look at another aspect of the memoir that fascinated me: her writing about her marriage and husband.
I don’t think you can ever really see inside other people’s marriages, which doesn’t mean we’re not interested in trying. I also think writing about one’s own marriage is a “challenge” best avoided! Given this memoir’s “situation” –Oates’ husband’s sudden death– and the “story” (to use Vivian Gornick’s terms)–her emotional, psychological and even physical survival in the year after this event, Oates would naturally have to write about Ray and the marriage. But some of what she wrote felt as if she were revealing maybe more than she intended or was in control of. Memoir requires truth, honesty, and exposure. But I think the best memoirs are ones in which the reader feels the writer has processed the material sufficiently and understands it deeply. I’m thinking, for example, of Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, about an incestuous relationship with her father. The material in that memoir seemed so digested by the author that it didn’t seem creepy. At least for me, I didn’t feel I was seeing things that the writer was unable to see herself. I was spared the unpleasant feeling of being a voyeur. At times in Oates’ memoir, I did feel uneasy, and even troubled by what she was revealing.
To her credit, JCO was willing to explore and expose things about her marriage and Ray in her efforts to understand them, and to tell the whole truth as best she could. It does make for fascinating reading, perhaps because it isn’t so digested and under control. There is no doubt, given the pro she is, that Oates made editorial decisions about what she wanted to include and what leave out. Undoubtedly she would have had opinions from her editor and others about the material too. I wonder if she has any regrets about it now.
Early in the memoir, pg. 8 in fact, Oates introduces the theme that will continue throughout the book, of feeling that she didn’t really know her husband, despite their having been married for forty-eight years:
“…we’d felt, through our long marriage, as if we’d only just met a few years before, as if we were ‘new’ to each other, still ‘becoming acquainted’ with each other; often we were ‘shy’ with each other; there were many things we did not wish to tell each other, or to ‘share’ with each other, in the way of individuals who are only just becoming intimately acquainted and don’t want to risk offending, or surprising.”
I found this fascinating and a little bewildering. On the one hand, she writes of her intense love for Ray and profound feelings of loss at his death. On the other hand, she returns often to this idea that she didn’t really know him:
“I am beginning to think Maybe I never knew him, really. Maybe I knew him only superficially—his deeper self was hidden from me.
“In our marriage it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious—unless it was unavoidable. Because so much in a writer’s life can be distressing—negative reviews, rejections by magazines, difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers—disappointment with one’s own work, on a daily/hourly basis!—it seemed to me a very good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could. For what is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too?”
This struck me as a curious way to conduct a marriage. Apparently he didn’t know her any better than she knew him, because she kept so much to herself. As she notes, “…he did not read most of my fiction and in this sense it might be argued that Ray didn’t know me entirely—or even, to a significant degree, partially.” She muses on this:
“I regret it, I think. Maybe I do.
“For writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness.
“But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.”
She wonders “…if I’d spent too much time in that other world—the world of my /the imagination—and not enough time with my husband.”
Given her stupendous output of writing, she must have spent almost every waking and unconscious moment in her imagination. It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise. It appears that she and Ray were both people quite compatibly caught up in their literary endeavors, she as a writer and teacher, he as editor of the Ontario Review and the press they began together. They shared a domestic life that suited them well. There was apparently no conflict, and if there were crises in the marriage, they are not mentioned in the book. They had a settled, fixed, predictable marriage that was apparently very close in some ways, despite their not knowing quite a large part of each other’s inner lives.
They called each other “Honey.”
“This was our mutual—interchangeable—name for each other. The only name I call Ray, as it is the only name Ray calls me…The logic being: anyone in the world can call us by our proper names but no one except us—except the other—can call us by this intimate name.” She also explains in a parenthetical passage what she says she can’t explain: “I was shy calling my husband ‘Ray’–as if this man of near-thirty, when I’d first met him, represented for me an adulthood of masculine confidence and ease to which at twenty-two, and a very young, inexperienced twenty-two, I didn’t have access. As in dreams I would sometimes conflate my father Frederic Oates and my husband Raymond Smith—the elder man whom I could not call by his first name but only Daddy, the younger man whom I could not call by his first name but only Honey.”
Again I find that fascinating and disturbing. It seems the pattern of her thinking of Ray as a second Daddy continued throughout their marriage. From late in the book, as she thinks about Ray’s troubled background and family, which she never learned much about, she says:
“Yet even now, if Ray were to return—could I ask him about his father? His family? Would I dare? Or would the slightest frown on Ray’s part discourage me, and deflect the conversation onto another subject, as it always did?
“As a wife, I had never wanted to upset my husband. I had never wanted to quarrel, to disagree or to be disagreeable. To be not loved seemed to me the risk, if a wife confronted her husband against his wishes.”
Maybe this helps explain her extreme pain, panic, terror and suicidal feelings when Ray dies. There was so much content in the marriage and their lives together that had never been brought to consciousness, and now she was left with all these areas that she had never explored before.
I have to say that the “honey this and honey that” becomes a little grating. In a way it seems intimate, as if we’re being let in on their sweet intimacy but on the other hand, it seems sort of a substitute for real intimacy. Little did she know that certain mean-spirited, cynical readers like moi would find themselves making fun of this endearing term. When I tried “Honey” out on my husband Jeff, he made some crack about preferring “Jam.”
Here’s a sad bit: Oates wonders if Ray was “very frightened” in the hospital, and if he had a premonition that he would never return home—“if he had, he would not have told me.” She believes that he had no idea that he would die, any more than his doctors. “But if it had been the case, Ray would not have told me.” After his death, she is troubled by such realizations, and returns often to think on the page about why this was, what it meant, what it cost. These ruminations still seem raw and the answers perhaps unknowable. One thing the memoir does capture is how much is enigmatic about another, even one you live with for four plus decades. She ponders:
“…is it inevitable –no wife really knows her husband? To be a wife is an intimacy so close, one can’t see; as, close up to a mirror, one can’t see one’s reflection.
“The male is elusive, to the female. The male is the other, the one to be domesticated; the female is domestication.
“There’s a sudden trickle of liquid—blood?—on my wrist. Without knowing, I’ve been digging at my skin.”
[She’s developing shingles, perhaps from stress]
This made me feel that JCO’s had missed the women’s movement entirely. She was born in 1938, I in 1947, and it felt as if we were from different generations.
The most troubling aspect of her writing about Ray and their marriage comes late in the book, as she’s forcing herself to read his unfinished novel, Black Mass. Ray had once wanted to be a writer, and had started this novel before he met Joyce. He worked on it over the years, off and on, as late as the early 70s [they married in 1961]. My impression of Ray is that he was a private person who kept his past to himself. So it was with a good deal of discomfort that I began to read of his background, which Oates describes in detail. Now, when it’s too late, she wishes that she had asked Ray more:
“In a marriage, as in any intimate relationship, there are sinkholes.
“Or maybe minefields.
“You don’t blunder into them. You don’t make that mistake.
“You don’t make that mistake more than once.
“To Ray, there was a sinkhole: his family.
“The sinkhole was immense, covering many acres: his family, the Church, hell.
“This sinkhole nearly pulled him into it, to drown. Before I’d met him, Ray said.
“Or so I’d gathered, as a young wife.
“My impression was that Ray had pulled himself out of the sinkhole at considerable cost—emotionally, psychologically. I could not ask him, as I could not ask him about his father. One of those bullets that are lodged too close to the spinal column, or the brain, to be removed by surgery.
“In writing this, I feel that I am betraying Ray. Yet in not writing it, I am not being altogether honest.
“There is no purpose to a memoir, if it isn’t honest. As there is no purpose to a declaration of love, if it isn’t honest.”
Ray’s background and troubles are laid before us, without any permission from him, which of course he can’t give from the grave. But I can’t help but feel he’s turning over in that grave at this public exposure of what he himself kept so private.
Oates details the plot and characters of his apparently highly autobiographical novel involving a Jesuit priest who is in love with a talented poet, who kills herself when Paul rejects her because of his vows of celibacy. She even toys with the idea, early on, that she could finish Black Mass, until she sees the unfinished shape it’s in:
“An entirely new work would have to be erected on this shaky foundation. And to what purpose?
“There is no point in thinking Ray would want this. Surely Ray would not want this.
“Yet, the prospect of ‘completing’ the novel hovers before me, tantalizingly. For my own writing moves with such excruciating slowness.
“How much easier for me to be mesmerized by this material, and feel an intimacy with my lost husband of a kind I didn’t have while Ray was alive.”
I recall the dustup when the memoir first came out after reviewers and readers learned that within a year of Ray’s death JCO had remarried. Some felt she had left out an essential part of her story. Others felt that her subject was widowhood and that in memoir as opposed to autobiography you leave out what isn’t pertinent to the subject at hand. I remember being a little shocked myself to learn of her remarriage so soon after Ray’s death. Having read the memoir now, I see how she was like a drowning person who grabbed onto a lifeboat. If she found love, security and happiness in a new marriage, no one would begrudge her that. I don’t know if she should have included this information in the memoir. Even as a postscript at the end, it definitely would have cast a strange shadow over a book that takes you to the apparently bottomless depths of widow pain. She does mention, ever so obliquely towards the end of the book, so that if you blinked an eye you’d miss it, meeting the neuroscientist at the end of August who would become her second husband (Ray had died in February).
I’ll leave it to you to make of this marriage and Oates’ writing about it what you will. It certainly raises a lot of interesting issues, not the least of which is what the writer owes herself, as well as the dead.
Note to Jeff: If I die before you do, do not write about my unpublished novel. Honey.