Grief, the Cruel and Fickle Muse

March 8, 2011 | 21 13 min read

coverGrief, all of a sudden, is hot.  Books by authors who have lost a loved one are becoming so common they’re now a classifiable snowflake in the unending blizzard of memoirs.  They’re feeding “the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market,” as Janet Maslin put it recently in the New York Times.  Writers who have lately mined their grief include Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Roiphe, Kate Braestrup and Joan Didion.  New grief memoirs are coming soon from Meghan O’Rourke and Francisco Goldman.  “In a way,” says Ruth Davis Konigsberg, author of a new non-fiction book called The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, “we have become spectators and kind of consumers of other people’s grief.”

So what’s wrong with that?  Absolutely nothing – provided the writer, in laying bare this rawest of emotions, doesn’t withhold salient facts from the spectators.  But another question remains: Why are readers drawn to naked displays of suffering?  Is it mere voyeurism, or schadenfreude?  Or is something closer to empathy – a way of preparing ourselves for the unthinkable by witnessing the suffering of another?

To find answers, I decided to look at three literary couples in which one partner died unexpectedly and the other lived to tell about the experience and its aftermath.  Two of the writers withheld important facts and wound up producing inferior books; the writer who held nothing back produced a masterpiece.

Grief, it turns out, is not only a cruel muse.  She’s a fickle one as well.

coverA Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates: The editor Raymond Smith and the writer Joyce Carol Oates had been married for more than 47 years when he came down with a severe case of pneumonia and checked into a Princeton hospital, where he contracted a secondary infection and died on Feb. 18, 2008, at the age of 77.  Oates has just produced a memoir about events leading up to and following her husband’s death, a 417-page book that manages to feel both bloated and undernourished.

The bloat comes from several sources.  The book is simply too long, full of windy digressions and verbatim transcriptions of unenlightening emails.  (O, whatever happened to editors who know how to use a blue pencil?)  Worse, the writing is sloppy, and there’s no room for sloppiness in memoirs of this kind, which demand a scrupulous recreation of an extreme emotional state.  It’s little things – it’s always the little things – that reveal Oates’s sloppiness, then her lack of candor, and finally, fatally, her dishonesty.

She uses “ravished” instead of “ravaged,” for instance, and she reports that she and Ray once lived in Windsor, Ontario, where there was a “frigid wind blowing from the Detroit River, the massive lake beyond – Lake Michigan.”  As a matter of fact, the Detroit River connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie; Lake Michigan is some 200 miles to the west.  Do such trifles matter?  Yes, they do.

Then there are two seemingly small but ultimately telling moments that reveal just how unscrupulous and incurious Oates can be.  The first comes when doctors refine their original diagnosis and determine that Ray has contracted bacterial Escherichia coli – E. coli – pneumonia.  Oates, like many people, had been under the erroneous impression that E. coli bacteria come only from such sources as sewage-tainted water or fecal matter in food, and that they attack the gastro-intestinal system.  But such bacteria are found everywhere, a doctor tells her – “even in the interior of your mouth.”  Upon learning this, many people with a severely ill spouse would feel compelled to learn more about this surprising new enemy.  Not Oates.  She writes about herself in the third person: “In denial that her husband is seriously ill the Widow-to-Be will not, when she returns home that evening, research E. coli on the Internet.  Not for nearly eighteen months after her husband’s death will she look up this common bacterial strain to discover the blunt statement she’d instinctively feared at the time and could not have risked discovering: pneumonia due to Escherichia coli has a reported mortality rate of up to 70 percent.”  It’s hard for me to decide if such a lack of curiosity is touching, forgivable, or just monstrously self-absorbed.

The second telling moment comes after her husband has died and Oates, who has already exhibited a lack of interest in unpleasant truths, declines to have an autopsy performed.  She writes:

I think I remember having been asked at the medical center if I wanted Ray’s body autopsied.  In whatever haze of confusion at the time quickly I’d said no.

No!  No.

Could not bear it.  The thought of Ray’s body being mutilated.

I know! – the body is not the man.  Not “Ray.”

And yet – where else had “Ray” resided, except in that body?

It was a body I knew intimately, and loved.  And so I did not want it mutilated.

Now, I will never know if these “causes” of his death are accurate, or complete.  I will never know with certainty.

This passage reveals two more of the book’s flaws – the shallow insights and the choppy writing, strewn with random quotation marks and exclamation points.

Yet A Widow’s Story is not without virtues.  Oates can be very amusing, as when she expresses her loathing for “sympathy gift baskets” stuffed with “peach butter, Russian caviar and pates of the most lurid kinds.”  She can be poignant when describing her battles with insomnia and a growing dependence on prescription drugs, a severe case of shingles, her recurring thoughts of suicide, her nagging fear that she never knew her husband.  And finally there’s a beautiful moment when Ray’s cardiologist, who was not the attending physician in the hospital, glosses over the distinct possibility that the staff’s poor performance might be grounds for a malpractice suit.  “Maybe – Ray was just tired,” the cardiologist speculates.  “Maybe he just gave up…”  Oates, justifiably, flies into a rage at this suggestion that her husband’s death was somehow his own fault.  Anyone who has ever been confronted with the incompetence and arrogance of the medical profession will cheer the widow’s fury.

But the inclusion of such raw moments can’t make up for the book’s major – and fatal – omission.  While Oates mentions that it took her a year and a half to erase her husband’s voice from their telephone answering machine, she neglects to mention that within 11 months of his death she was engaged to a neuroscientist named Dr. Charles Gross, and they were married in 2009.  Once you know this, the distance between Lake Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, and the difference between “ravished” and “ravaged” no longer seem like trifles.  Oates, in other words, has written the most dishonest kind of book there is – one that purports to serve up raw emotions but doesn’t have the discipline to stick to the facts or the honesty to reveal the most basic of truths.

Even Oates seems to know this.  “As the memoir is the most seductive of literary genres, so the memoir is the most dangerous of genres,” she writes.  “For the memoir is a repository of truths, as each discrete truth is uttered, but the memoir can’t be the repository of Truth which is the very breadth of the sky, too vast to be perceived in a single gaze.”

Only someone capable of writing such muzzy sentences could produce such a deeply dishonest book.  Or maybe it’s simpler than that.  Maybe the word machine Oates refers to as “JCO” was shrewdly hoarding this fresh material.  Maybe she’s already at work on a new memoir called A Newlywed’s Story. And why not?  A Widow’s Story hit the New York Times best-seller as soon as it was published.

coverThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: The celebrated writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion had been married for almost 40 years when they sat down to dinner in their New York apartment on the evening of Dec. 30, 2003.  In mid-sentence Dunne slumped in his chair and tumbled to the floor, dead from a massive heart attack.  At the time the couple’s only daughter, Quintana, was unconscious in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital, suffering from flu that had exploded into pneumonia, then septic shock.  The first words Didion wrote after her husband’s death would become the opening lines of her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.

cover“If you want to write about yourself,” Didion once said, “you have to give them something.”  In The White Album, her 1979 essay collection, she gave us the story of how she went blind for six weeks from multiple sclerosis.  She gave us the story of checking herself into a psychiatric clinic.  She even gave us the doctor’s diagnosis: “Patient’s thematic productions emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her…”

After Dunne’s death, Didion insisted on an autopsy, which, as Joyce Carol Oates demonstrated, is not a universal demand of the bereaved.  My father also decided against an autopsy when my mother died, apparently from a heart attack, alone at home at the age of 57.  “What good will an autopsy do?” my father asked.  “She’ll still be dead.”  I was working as a newspaper reporter at the time, and I believed I had a high regard for the truth.  “Yes,” I argued, “but at least we’ll know for sure why she died.”  Was her death a suicide, an accidental overdose, the result of a drunken fall?  There was no autopsy.  I’m convinced I’ll go to my own grave angry that I’ll never know for sure what put my mother in hers.

Didion understands this anger and she knows how to avoid it.  “I actively wanted an autopsy,” she writes, “even though I had seen some, in the course of doing research.  I knew exactly what occurs, the chest open like a chicken in a butcher’s case, the face peeled down, the scale in which the organs are weighed.  I had seen homicide detectives avert their eyes from an autopsy in progress.  I still wanted one.  I needed to know how and why and when it had happened.”  Small wonder that an attendant in the hospital where Dunne was pronounced dead described his widow as “a pretty cool customer.”

A friend once likened Dunne and Didion to another literary couple, the famously stoic Leonard Woolf and his brilliant, troubled wife Virginia – but with a twist.  (More on the Woolfs in a moment.)  “John does not play Leonard Woolf to (Didion’s) Virginia,” the friend said.  “John may seem strident and tough, but what you see in John you get in Joan.  She is every bit as tough as he is.”  Another friend described Didion as “a fragile, little stainless-steel machine.”

One aspect of her grief that bedeviled Didion was how ordinary the events were that led up to her husband’s death, which prevented her from believing it had happened and, in turn, made it maddeningly difficult for her to get past it.  “I recognize now,” she writes, “that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.”

Some people might find all this – the falling plane, the burning car, the lunging rattlesnake – melodramatic, overly pessimistic and fatalistic, even laughable.  Based on what I’ve seen of the world, I find it wise.  What I’ve seen includes looking out my livingroom window on a clear blue September morning and seeing an orange fireball as United Airlines Flight 175 slashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.  Then I watched the two burning towers fall.  These events interrupted my reading of the newspaper.

covercoverTo deal with her grief, Didion did what she had been trained to do since childhood, what most writers do in times of duress: she went to the literature because “information is power.”  She found the literature on grief surprisingly sparse.  There was C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, some poetry, some unhelpful self-help books.  So Didion, the relentless reporter, turned more fruitfully to the medical literature – Freud, Melanie Klein, the Merck Manual, the British Medical Journal.  Then she made the belated discovery that Dunne’s 1982 novel Dutch Shea, Jr. was actually about the kind of grief she was experiencing, the “complicated” kind.  She finally found some solace, implausibly, in Emily Post’s 1922 book on etiquette, which includes pointers on how to treat the newly bereaved.

Didion then does something almost unthinkable.  She dives deeper, chronicling the harrowing ups and downs of her daughter’s illness, which culminate in emergency neurosurgery after Quintana collapses and her pupils become fixed and dilated.  Didion researches the significance of fixed and dilated pupils, or “FDPs,” and learns that they’re almost always a harbinger of death.  She even does the math and learns that her daughter has a two percent chance of making a full recovery.

This last act – getting the facts, doing the math – strikes me as the perfect way to distinguish between a writer like Joan Didion, the cool customer, the fragile little stainless-steel machine, and a writer like Joyce Carol Oates, the word machine who couldn’t abide to see her dead husband’s body “mutilated,” who couldn’t be bothered to learn the mortality rate of E. coli pneumonia, and who didn’t, for whatever reason, bother to mention that she had fallen in love with another man.

Once her daughter’s condition begins to improve, Didion is able to move beyond the paralysis of her grief over John’s death, which is to say she begins to mourn, then heal.  After seven dreamless months she begins to dream again.  She stops believing John will come back.  She stops believing she was in some way responsible for his death, or that she could have averted it.  By October she has begun to write The Year of Magical Thinking, and though she’s usually a slow writer she finishes it in just 88 days, a year and a day after her husband died.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” she concludes.  “Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

When the book was nearing publication the following summer, Didion told an interviewer, “What I want to do as soon as I get through this…all of this…is basically to be too busy.  Take too much work.  I figure that will get me through.”

A month later Didion’s daughter, her immune system worn out from fighting infections, died from pancreatitis at the age of 39.  The Year of Magical Thinking became an immediate best-seller and won the National Book Award.

coverThe Journey Not the Arrival Matters by Leonard Woolf: It would be difficult to imagine a book more unlike Didion’s than The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, the fifth and final volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography.  It covers the years from 1939, when the Second World War engulfed Europe, to 1969, when the author died at the age of 88.  The first half of the book is called “Virginia’s Death,” and it does flit around the events leading up to March 28, 1941, the day Woolf’s mad genius of a wife filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse.

But the title “Virginia’s Death,” like so much of this book, is misleading and disingenuous.  This long chapter dwells less on Virginia’s suicide than on the coming madness of the war and the ways it altered the Woolfs’ long and mostly happy marriage.  One change, surprisingly, was that when the couple was forced to retreat to their rural Sussex home, Monks House, after their London apartment was shattered by a German bomb, their lives slipped into a pleasing, productive, almost dreamy rhythm.  Away from the epicenter of the blitz, rid of servants and a social life, they were free to work and garden and simply be.  Leonard called it “pleasant monotony,” and the effect on Virginia, who suffered from periodic bouts of depression and had twice attempted suicide, was salutary.

On Oct. 12, 1940, she wrote in her diary: “How free, how peaceful we are.  No one coming.  No servants.  Dine when we like.  Living near to the bone.  I think we’ve mastered life pretty competently.”  Two days later she added, “If it were not treasonable to say so, a day like this is almost too – I won’t say happy; but amenable…  And one thing’s ‘pleasant’ after another: breakfast, writing, walking, tea, bowls, reading, sweets, bed.”  Such a regimen is, for any serious writer, a definition of heaven.  Five months later, after leaving Leonard a note that concluded with “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been,” Virginia walked into the river.

Any writer of autobiography who has lived through such a trauma should – must – explore the ensuing grief and how he dealt with it, or didn’t.  Woolf does this, fitfully, in the book’s second half, claiming that two things saw him through the aftermath of his wife’s suicide.  The first was “the inveterate, the immemorial fatalism of the Jew.”  The second was something familiar to both Oates and Didion.  “Work,” he writes, “is the most efficient anodyne – after death, sleep, or chloroform – for pain, whether the pain be in your great toe, your tooth, your head, or your heart.”

So Leonard Woolf got busy.  But instead of exploring the contours of his grief, he gives us tedious digressions about his work with the Fabian Society and the Labour Party, the Political Quarterly, the Nation and the New Statesman, the running of Hogarth Press, including lists of titles published.  He makes only passing mention of two new Sussex neighbors, a business partner named Ian Parsons and his attractive wife Trekkie, an artist and book jacket designer: “In the last three years of the war we had become intimate friends….  In the last year of the war, when Ian was in the Air Force in France, Trekkie stayed with me (at Monks House), and I had helped to negotiate the lease of a house for them in (nearby) Iford into which they moved as soon as Ian was demobilized.”

What Woolf fails to mention is that within months of Virginia’s suicide he and Trekkie had embarked on an affair that would endure through the remaining 28 years of his life.  They spent weekdays together, then Trekkie went home to her husband on weekends.  Ian and Trekkie were still in love and they danced beautifully together and threw lively parties, at which he played the banjo.  Under Trekkie’s influence, Leonard started drinking more than he had when Virginia was alive.  He gave Trekkie gifts – a Constable sketch, a Rembrandt etching, jewelry.  Leonard’s relationship with Trekkie, like his marriage to Virginia, was apparently sexless.  Yet in their letters Trekkie was Leonard’s “dearest tiger” and he was her “greedy sparrow.”  A year after Virginia’s suicide, Leonard wrote to Trekkie, “To know and love you has been the best thing in my life.”

coverYou’ll find none of the above in Woolf’s autobiography.  It comes from Victoria Glendinning’s balanced and well received Leonard Woolf: A Biography, published in 2006, and from Love Letters: Leonard Woolf and Trekkie Ritchie Parsons, 1941-1968, published in 2001.

Is this reticence, this pretense at probity, an English thing – stiff upper lip and all that rot?  Or is it something simpler and more venal – dishonesty masquerading as discretion?  Whatever it is, or is not, Woolf is guilty of the autobiographer’s cardinal sin: a killing lack of the candor that readers of such books have come to expect, and which they deserve.  Certainly Woolf was entitled to his happiness after the suffering he had endured in his marriage, just as Oates was entitled to fall in love and remarry less than a year after her husband’s death.  But to omit such central facts from a memoir of grief strikes me as the worst kind of failure, a breach of the writer’s contract with the reader.  It is, in short, a lie.

All three of these memoirs, as different as they are, share a common thread.  Voyeurs looking to revel in another’s agony will be disappointed because these three memoirists demonstrate that, yes, there is plenty of agony after the death of a loved one, but we possess remarkable tools for dealing with it.  Loss may be permanent, but grief, it turns out, is not.  The unthinkable is not invincible.

If there is indeed an “increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market” out there today – and the evidence suggests that there is – we should be grateful we have writers like Joan Didion who possess the courage and the talent to feed it.  She, unlike Joyce Carol Oates and Leonard Woolf, understands that if you want to write about yourself, you have to give them something.  Actually, Didion understands a far larger and deeper and darker truth.  She understands that if you want to write about your grief, you have to give them everything.

(Image: 106/365 The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone from myklroventine’s photostream)

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.