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  • The Vise of Mortality
  • Nancy Revelle Johnson (bio)
A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2011. 415 pages. $27.99)

In 2008 Raymond Smith, the husband of Joyce Carol Oates and, with her, the cofounder of the Ontario Review, died of a staph infection acquired in the hospital as he was undergoing treatment for pneumonia. Death came unexpectedly after a nightmarish week of hospitalization in which hope gave way to death and despair. Exhausted and distraught with grief, Oates was forced to come to terms with what it meant to be a widow. Her memoir, which is based on her journal entries covering the six-month period after Smith's death, describes her effort to understand the phenomenon of grief.

Theirs had been an unusually close relationship, both personally and professionally. They had rarely been apart, and, in the forty-seven years of their marriage, he, eight years her senior, had been the "wise protector." There had been little time to prepare for the loss, for her confrontation with death. The chronicle of that dark period would not be unfamiliar to those who have suffered such a loss, and Oates gives voice to those who have endured comparable experiences.

Oates describes in graphic detail her precarious emotional state in the aftermath of her husband's death. Exhausted from maintaining vigils at Smith's bedside while juggling professional responsibilities, she suffered from insomnia. She was faced with the necessary "death [End Page xlviii] duties"—overwhelming legal and financial obligations—and realized she had to cease the publication of the Ontario Review. These duties could not be postponed, allowing her insufficient time to grieve. Temporarily deranged, she was afflicted by the tangled emotions that are familiar to many: survivor's guilt—guilt that she had not been there to comfort her husband when he died, guilt that she had outlived him—resentment of him for having died, and denial of his death.

Additionally she was besieged by feelings of self-doubt and self-pity. Had she spent "too much time in that other world of myth/imagination and not enough time with my husband?" Oates even questioned the value of her writing, which had been central to her existence. She is brutally honest in dealing with the issue of self-pity, asking a deeply penetrating question: "Is there a perspective from which the widow's grief is sheer vanity; narcissism; the pretense that one's loss is so special; so very special; that there has never been a loss quite like it. Is there a perspective from which the widow's grief is but a kind of pathological pastime and hobby?"

With the help of supportive friends, Oates worked her way through her grief and transcended self-pity. She decided to devote herself to her students and to teaching and to resume her writing, her readings, and her lectures. That round became a significant part of the healing process. An important part of Oates's memoir is her focus on the role her friends played in helping her heal. Without family support she became dependent on her friends in her bereavement, and her close friends rallied to her side, guiding her through the settlement of the estate and inviting her to dinner. She writes, "I would very likely not be alive except for my friends."

In order to understand Joyce Carol Oates, the grief-stricken widow, it is necessary to examine her marriage to Ray Smith. The portrait of their marriage, which is a focal point of her memoir, is illuminating. She readily admits to her dependence on him: "I have not made any 'major decision' in my life, I think, by myself without my parents to consult or Ray." They had no children and no family nearby; they had each other and their work. From the beginning they shared every detail of their teaching jobs, and they collaborated on the Ontario Review, yet there was a distance in their relationship. He almost never read her novels and short stories—only her nonfiction essays and reviews—and she knew little of his family background. She recognized that he didn't know her entirely and that there was...


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