Memoir: Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

by Matilda Butler on April 6, 2011

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #83 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler


by Joyce Carol Oates

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“Nothing is ever perfect, however, for alongside those who laugh,
there will always be others who weep….”
—José Saramago, Death with Interruptions

Grief by any other name — sorrow, anguish, woe, misery, pain — would still be just as intense, deep, and profound. There’s simply no escaping the experience in bereavement. One of our most distinguished authors recently encapsulated it in a poignant memoir, A Widow’s Story.

Joyce Carol Oates was thrust swiftly into grief in 2008 when her husband, Raymond J. Smith, died after less than a week in the hospital. She had driven him to the emergency room at Princeton Medical Center with pneumonia. A few days later, as she was preparing to bring him home, he suddenly acquired a powerful secondary infection. Summoned in the middle of the night, she got to his bedside moments after he died.

Oates constructed a memoir detailing that bleak time mourning the loss of a forty-seven-year marriage. A Widow’s Story is generally in the form of journal entries over a six-month period, with flashbacks to their life together. The chronicle of a noted literary couple, their manuscripts and friends, and several family secrets is interesting on its own. Smith was editor and publisher of Ontario Review and Ontario Review Press. Oates is a prolific author: has 1,134 listings under her name.

On March 2, 2011, President Obama awarded her a National Humanities Medal. She is also a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. Therefore, turning off “Joyce Carol Oates” the writer to attend to the duties of “Joyce Carol Smith” the widow is not an easy job.

No matter who you are, though, a widow must still go to probate court, obtain copies of the death certificate, stand in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles to transfer a car title, and perform all the other tasks of an executrix that stretch out over days, weeks, and months until you think they will never end. Thus, because JCO (as she refers to her writerly self) is such an accomplished wordsmith, this book becomes not the story of a well-known editor and a well-known author — fascinating though that tale is. Instead, the memoir evolves as the saga of a woman mourning the loss of her husband — the dissolution of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Throughout, she highlights the commonalities of bereavement.

There are definite insights to a writer’s life, such as “writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness.” Oates also addresses the genre of memoir, calling it both “seductive” and “dangerous.” In addition, she proffers experiences involving gender and race that illustrate the growth of social movements.

Oates confides: “Though I am writing this memoir to see what can be made of the phenomenon of ‘grief’ in the most exactingly minute of ways, I am no longer convinced that there is any inherent value in grief; or, if there is, if wisdom springs from the experience of terrible loss, it’s a wisdom one might do without.”

Oates uses her tears to explore the raw emotions of rage, denial, physical and emotional weakness, regret, and guilt. These surging feelings are familiar to those who mourn, but the swiftness with which they arise can frighten. JCO depicts them as the “lake effect” of the Great Lakes: “One moment, a clear sky and sunshine; minutes later, enormous dark thunderheads moving like battalions across the sky….” That vivid portrayal certainly rang true to a Cleveland girl like me, who grew up on Lake Erie and lost her husband three years before Oates.

She rebukes herself mercilessly for being asleep when her husband died. I can relate to that as well. Women who have a way with words offer their sisters in mourning a gift by penning through their pain and then sharing that writing. To realize that one is not alone in these sensations can provide sustenance through many a dark night. And as Oates herself wrote to a friend, “Each night I get through is a small triumph.”

How does a widow of a mere five minutes determine the proper response to hospital personnel? Emily Post never covered that social situation. Oates describes in a memoir vignette the desolate experience of packing up her just-deceased husband’s belongings to take to her car in the hospital parking lot. Dropping items along the way, she is determined to make it in one trip so she doesn’t have to return. Steadfastly she declines offers of assistance, believing that if she appears as a beacon of strength she will retain a hold on her sanity. Her account of that arduous hike will ring true to anyone who has trekked the same path on shaky legs. It’s harder than the Inca Trail.

“I did not want to betray myself as weak, ‘feminine.’ This seemed important.” Pushing heavy trashcans to the curb and back becomes “an expression of Sisyphean futility. I thought If I can do such things, I am not crazy. I am not in pieces. I am not this new, different, shattered person, I am the person I have always been.” The voice of JCS talking to JCO in this memoir is striking. The reader hears the inner thoughts of Oates while she cheers herself on as her own best friend. She sees that “the most you can hope for is to stay afloat.” JCS tells herself: “Keep in motion!—here is salvation.”

It’s as if JCO took her own advice on the voice of JCS in this memoir. Listen to Oates in this video from 2007: “People can express themselves. If you are a writer and you allow your people to talk, they will express themselves in a way that the writer herself might not have thought of.” With supreme skill, Joyce Carol Oates allows the character of Joyce Carol Smith in A Widow’s Story: A Memoir to cry out in dialogue with herself. It’s a tour de force.

Oates renders a portrait of sympathy in American life that only someone with a trained eye for the detailed specificity of individual elements could produce. She writes a whole chapter on the difficulty of replying to the heartfelt question “How are you?”

JCO distills grief into descriptions of the minute that even the unwidowed can envision. Oates has dream visitations from her husband — waking stunned, “as if Ray had been in this room with me, a moment ago….” She plumbs the depth of what is missing, such as the inability to share “random, pointless and yet intriguing information.” She avoids entering certain areas of their house for months. “There is too much heartbreak in even a glimpse” of certain things, such as Smith’s jackets. “Often I stare into the closet, I stroke the sleeves. My mind is utterly blank, baffled.”

She and her husband both worked in the house “often for hours at a time without speaking to each other, or needing to speak. For this is the most exquisite of intimacies—not needing to speak.” In the silence, she thinks: “All this, you have lost.”

When she travels to give talks, she can no longer call her husband. At first, Oates phones home to listen to his message still on the answering machine. Later, she simply converses with Camus in her head. She ponders whether it is easier to lose a husband slowly or quickly, reminding me of Death’s distressing lament in Markus Zusak’s wonderful novel The Book Thief: “Sometimes I arrive too early.”

In her novel Missing Mom, published two years after her mother died and three years before her husband died, Oates wrote: “Last time you see someone and you don’t know it will be the last time. And all that you know now, if only you’d known then. But you didn’t know, and now it’s too late. And you tell yourself How could I have known, I could not have known. You tell yourself.”

JCO sets a standard for JCS, recognizing that much is expected of “the widow of a good man.” Resolving to write thank you notes, she says, “I hope to be a conscientious widow. I hope to be a good widow.”

Yet legal terms such as decedent, fiduciaries, codicil, and letters testamentary drive her close to the brink of suicide, which recurs as a character in the form of a basilisk. “Parts of my brain feel as if they’re carbonated,” she writes. She tries to sleep, but can’t. “Physical exercise!—exertion! This will be my solace. If I can exhaust myself, maybe I can sleep.” Fueled by the stress of grief, shingles erupt all over her body.

And finally: “I must stop dwelling on the past, which can’t be altered,” wondering “if for the rest of my life I will be searching for someone who isn’t there.…” Writers of memoir might take note of the way Oates employs concrete examples to ground this global statement for the reader. She, as did I, discovers a Valentine her husband had bought for his wife but not yet signed. She, too, will always remember a black VW sans heat driven in the early years of a marriage.

Six years before her mother died, Oates published a touching letter to her in which she said, “Our lives are time travel, moving in one direction only. We accompany one another as long as we can; as long as time grants us.” Now, she recognizes that after she lost her mother, “I never thought that I would laugh or even smile again but of course . . . Of course I have.”

Ultimately she grasps this concept: “I must think of grief as an illness. An illness to be overcome.” Gradually she begins to draw happiness from others — her students, her friends.

As many widows do, she eventually turned to gardening to reach peace. She and I each planted rosemary for remembrance, in our yards and by our husband’s graves. Kathleen Dean Moore, in her book Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, talks about looking to the earth to find “meaning in the natural rhythms of dying and living.” In her quest to transition from sorrow to gladness, Moore learns “how light emerges from darkness, how comfort wells up from sorrow.”

Oates feels close to Smith while working in his garden. She mentions sightings of his spirit. As she shifts from bereavement to amazement at life’s joyous unpredictability when she encounters love with someone else, she embodies Moore’s point: “The Earth holds every possibility inside it, and the mystery of transformation, one thing into another.” In 2009, she married psychology Professor Charles Gross of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.

JCG deserves much happiness.

Jill Ker Conway, in her book When Memory Speaks, posits: “We want to know how the world looks through another’s experience….And that magical opportunity of entering another life is what really sets us thinking about our own.”

A Widow’s Story will do that for you, widowed or not. That’s the power of memoir.

If you prefer the Kindle version of books, to the left is the link to Amazon’s Kindle version of A Widow’s Story.


Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews. Lanie has addressed grief and loss in reviews of several other memoirs on this website: Nothing Was the Same by Kay Redfield Jamison and The Pager Chronicles, Volume 2 by Patrice Rancour.

Lanie Tankard: Conquering widowhood on the Inca Trail in Peru

Lanie Tankard: Conquering widowhood on the Inca Trail in Peru. Photo by Margaret Tankard

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