“Babysitter” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre: Literary Fiction/Mystery & ThrillersBabysitter
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Pub. Date: August 23, 2022

One of America’s greatest writers, Joyce Carol Oates, revisits her usual themes of class struggle, the vulnerability of girls, and racism in her latest novel. Following a white, privileged female protagonist, she leads the reader through a labyrinth of horrors: sexual re-victimization, violent marriages, ruthless lovers, pedophile priests, serial child murders, incest, and rape. As only a master can, she writes as if you can see into the souls of her characters. Her carefully constructed sentences render her protagonist simultaneously sympathetic and repellent. Some parts of the story are so cringe-worthy that I needed to take a break from the book. At 84 years of age, no one writes about violence with a deeper awareness than she does. Still, I feel that this novel is only for JCO fans. She even throws in a childhood terminal illness. It is just a bit too much to cram into one story.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of sexual re-victimization, you won’t be after reading “Babysitter.” The term refers to the increased risk of adult sexual assault faced by women with a history of childhood sexual assault. In 1977, Hannah Jarrett, “an attractive white woman in her late 30s, is living the American dream: a wealthy husband, two kids, a home in the Michigan suburbs, and a Filipina nanny. She spends her days at country clubs and community relations forums.” She believes that she hides her insecurities behind her expensive and sophisticated wardrobe. But, due to abuse experienced in her childhood, Hannah cannot recognize the warning signs exhibited by people around her. She meets a man at a party and starts what she considers an affair. The man drugs, beats, and brutally rapes her. Despite the severe abuse, she calls him her lover.

In addition to exploring the patriarchal marriage dynamics, Oates also uses “Hannah’s marriage to explore the deeply embedded racism of 1970s suburban America.” The author nails white supremacy. When Hannah is discovered in the hotel lobby, battered and bruised by her so-called lover, a young black parking attendant is immediately accused of rape. Confused, she never denies that this young man is her rapist. The police shot and killed him, stating that he was resisting arrest.

The book’s title refers not to Hannah’s nanny but to a serial killer who sexually molests and tortures children before killing them. Unsurprisingly, Hannah’s husband is convinced that he must be a black man from Detroit. Sadly, JCO takes her horror stories from real life. What makes the “Babysitter” even viler is that the plot is based on a true story. In the 1970s, a real-life serial killer called the Babysitter Killer, also known as the Oakland County Child Killer, abducted and murdered children around Detroit. Per the Boston Globe, “he left their bodies on display in public places a few weeks after they disappeared. Several suspects, including the son of a prominent man who later committed suicide [also in the book], were identified, and the investigation led to a child pornography ring, but the case was never solved.” Spoiler alert: Nor is it in the novel. If you are looking for answers, the author gives none.

Oates has never shied away from taking her readers on dark journeys. It cannot be denied that her stories will leave you with a better understanding of the psyches of both perpetrators and victims. I am a loyal JCO fan and am glad I read her latest. I hesitate to recommend the book, as it is not for the faint of heart. However, if you are already a fan, you know that her work can get grisly. It appears that she just keeps getting better at what she does.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Difficult Women” by Roxane Gay

Pub. Date:   Jan. 3, 2017difficult-women

Publisher:   Grove Atlantic Press

Sexual trauma is a theme shared by all of the short stories that make up Roxanne Gay’s Difficult Women.   Due to their trauma, they act out in ways causing them to be considered difficult.   The stories feature women from variable backgrounds and lifestyles.  They are dark, thorny, and not easy to read.  Sometimes, I had to close my eyes for a minute to escape their grief.   Sometimes, I wanted to jump into the pages to attack their male offenders.  In this collection, Gay not only takes on the difficult subject of traumatized women, but also examines the meaning of motherhood, often focusing on racial, gender, class and sexual orientation inequality.

A number of the stories are straightforward, while others are undoubtedly metaphors and fantasy.  Requiem for a Glass Heart is metaphoric.  I do not usually enjoy reading mystical fiction, yet the power in the words of the essay-winning (2015 PEN Center USA Freedom to Write Award and the recipient of 2016 Paul Engle Prize) feminist author, Roxanne Gay, wins me over.  She manages to show the fragility of marriage in a common phrase, a figure of speech.  In Glass Heart, the husband is only referred to as a “stone thrower” and his spouse is only referred to as his glass wife.  Of course, they live in a “glass house.”   When the glass wife cries glass tears at her husband’s infidelity with a human woman, I cried with her.

In many of Gay’s stories, the women are seeking, sexual violence that goes beyond consensual, atypical sex.  They travel into rough neighborhoods deliberately looking for cruel men who will batter them in and out of the bedroom.  She exemplifies that her female characters are struggling to find ways to punish themselves for sins they may or may not have committed.  In Break All the Way Down, after the loss of her toddler son, a young mother leaves her loving husband for an abusive lover.  Sadly, only physical pain can help the young wife forget the mental pain stemming from her unwarranted guilt.

In Strange Gods, a biracial woman tries to sabotage a loving relationship she is in with her white fiancé.  Her fiancé is a decent man who cannot understand why she does this to them.  This story is not linear.   It takes a while for the reader to learn that as a young teen she was gang raped (a word that is hard to even type for most of us females).  Initially, I didn’t care for this narrative, which is the last in the collection.  It felt repetitive after the other tales.  I almost grew bored with it.  How many self-destructing females did I want to read about?  But Gay skillfully brought my interest back into the story as I read about this girl’s first love.  He is a beautiful white boy, with blonde hair and green eyes.  He is the type of boy who wears a high school letterman jacket, the type of boy whose parents welcome into their home as her boyfriend.  They rode bicycles and laughed together.  He taught her the sweetness of her own body.   And then we read how he viciously betrays her.  This teenage girl is hurt so bad, she later learns (as the woman who is engaged to a decent man) that she will never be able to carry a child.  After learning this, I was no longer bored.   I was a livid mother demanding justice for her daughter.  This does not happen in the story, making it all more difficult to comprehend.

Each of the stories’ characters engages in sexual activity.  These scenes are not graphic but are so effectively written they do not need to be.  In many cases, I feel they were not even needed because the author’s writing is so sensual.  Not every story is as good as the ones I mention, but it is hard not to admire Gay who writes raw, risk-taking literature.  She is never subtle.  This book is not for those easily offended.  Her tales leave the reader feeling exposed while she forces you to understand her heroines’ demons.  She reminds the reader that by simply being born a female one is vulnerable to verbal attacks on appearance, and physical assaults to one’s body.

Though they will break your heart, again and again, these women will also inspire you.  In Best Features, an obese woman knows the only reason she snags a handsome boyfriend is because she provides him with expert fellatio.  Yet, she also knows that he should desire her because she is intelligent, kind and a better human being than he is.  I am not sure if I am brave enough to read this author again, but if you have the heart of a warrior, I recommend that you give her a try.  Roxanne Gay is a very talented writer who is not afraid to share her own life’s complex insecurities through her stories.