Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Captive Women

I recently read Emma Donoghue's THE ROOM. Amazing book. The story of a women held captive in a soundproof backyard shed is narrated by the five year old son she bears while in captivity. The first part of the book details his routine, and expresses his attachment to the small space he lives in, which he calls Room, and the objects that fill it, a bed, a rug, a toy made of leftover egg shells. At first, the boy, Jack, does not know, because his mother, called Ma, chooses not to tell him, that there is a world outside the room. He thinks everything else -- except the man he calls Old Nick who visits his mom nightly -- is TV. Dogs are TV, cars are TV, stores, outdoors, all TV. The book eventually allows Ma and Jack to escape and details their adjustment to living in a bigger world. The trauma of this, of being let out of an enclosed space and from a very small and simple world to a much bigger, more complex and interactive one, is as compelling as imagining the enclosure. The book makes you aware of space, of what it means to be truly removed from the public sphere, from being able to circulate and speak. (It also reminds you how small and simple life can be, in almost a Walden way.) It intensifies the mother-child bond, as the child relies exclusively on his mother, still nurses at five years old, and has never spoken to another soul (he hides in a wardrobe when Old Nick visits).

THE ROOM led me to read Jaycee Lee Duggard's memoir, A STOLEN LIFE which details her 18 year captivity in a backyard enclosure. Duggard's story differs somewhat from the fictional THE ROOM. Where Ma, in the fiction, tries every day to contact the outside world by screaming at the soundproof skylight and flicking lights in the night, Duggard never tries to escape. Too young and scared, and eventually too dependent on her captors and afraid of angering them, she stays put, even when they begin to allow her small outings to thrift shops and other stores, and even as she begins working with the computers and the Internet. Even when her captor bizarrely brings her to the FBI, she initially does not reveal her identity.

While both these books present situations that are obviously extremely rare -- stranger abductions are only 1% of all abductions and rarely are successfully maintained this long -- they both have some resonance as tales of "marriage," or marriage as practiced in the 19th century. The women, taken quite young, are brought into sex by a man without really knowing what sex is. They leave their mothers when they are still children. They have babies with no knowledge, but somehow assume the role of mother. They are left home while the man goes into the world and they depend upon him utterly to bring food and other necessities. While this deep split between the private sphere of the wife and the public sphere of the man has broken down since the 19th century (and was always somewhat less strict than we have been taught), there are still residual assumptions about the male's role as breadwinner and still ways in which many women are relegated largely to the home. More than that, both stories remind us how difficult it is for women in any kind of abusive situation to break free. Duggard articulates this well, at one point saying that the verbal abuse was more crippling and disabling for her than the physical. They suggest how important it is to be aware -- not just of the creep lurking near schools or playgrounds, but also of the clues around us of women in crisis.

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