Joyce Carol Oates, Janet Maslin, and the problematic second husband

Joyce Carol Oates with husband #2 at their wedding.
The more salient criticism many — not just Janet Maslin — have of the Joyce Carol Oates life/memoir is that this book, about her first year after losing her first husband, "fails to mention" that she was engaged to her second husband by month 11. Everyone rankled by this omission seems to think Oates' choice deliberate and disingenuous, inconsistent with their expectation (NOT the author's assertion) that this is an honest (and perhaps even complete?) account of her grief and loss.

One needn't be a remarried widow like myself to know that grief and great happiness — and that activity we so vaguely, distantly call "moving on" — can exist in one life at the same time. Feelings of great sorrow over loss can exist at the same time as we become attached to another mate, we can make large decisions while we are suffering (or even impaired). The surreality and vividness of living between and among two extremes is indeed one of the hallmarks of grief, as noted by commenters as revered as C.S. Lewis.

In fact, it can be hard to tell two stories that are so vastly different at once: if I were writing a memoir about grief, I might not want to challenge myself by mixing in a tale of new love.

Yes, it would be a wonderful book if you did both. Oates would not have been the first. Nonetheless she has chosen not to write that book, and that is her choice as a memoirist.

But it's relevant to her grief, they say. How can you talk about one without talking of the other?

Because it's not relevant. New love doesn't eliminate feelings of grief and loss any more than moving in with the second husband deletes the experience of 28 years with the first one. They continue to exist side by side: during dating, during courtship, during the wedding, and into the next marriage.

So: I don't think leaving out "a whole husband" is a major omission.

I will anger many widowed people when I say that experience isn't even all that rare, and that her second husband is unexceptional (this is a mature guy), certainly not a freak of nature to tolerate his wife's living with an emotional range.

For chrissake, she's a writer. You think being a widow is going to make her deeper or more dramatic?

Secondly, she may have chosen to leave out her engagement (and to be fair, which Maslin isn't, she does mention it, just not in as much details as these complaining readers would like) because she knew she'd be judged. Yes, writing a memoir does open up your life to the public, but there is a special brand of criticism that is levied toward widows who remarry (or sometimes even date) within the first year. Even widowed people send the nasty, despite all our talk that "a year means nothing" and "grief is not a disease."

Third, I can tell you, as a remarried widow, that there is a particular form of envy that exists among women in middle age when they are confronted with someone who's had not just one, but two happy marriages. This population is dominated by divorce, with a large margin of unhappy settling; we've all heard about the huge percentage of married couples who rarely or never consummate their love any more.

These women — let's assume the huge group is more than half of ever-married women between 40 and 65 — assume I had a fairy tale first marriage because, oh, he died. (A divorcee once told me my husband's imminent expiration via cancer was "beautiful and romantic.")  And they assume I had some sort of edge in finding the second one, too, that I didn't need to marry again (because we all know all widows are rich), and they sense that I entered the dating scene without the huge chip of rejection and divorce on my shoulder, the way they or their friends did.

Even the ones with relatively happy marriages seem to all wonder if life would be just a little better if they could "trade in" too. It was the Moms at the playground who wanted to hear what it was like to date.

These women (and probably some men, too) can see that my husband and I have a fresher relationship than they do. They can guess that I still have sex with my husband, as they remember what their first years together were like.

You may think I'm making this up, but I'm sure others will verify the slanted eyes, the pursed lips, and the quiet exclamations of "you found another one?" (Most of my friends were genuinely happy… but there was a certain kind of woman, ten years older, who was upset to not be able to feel sad for me any more — and more upset to be "bested" by me.)

I would never have expected to meet this envy, but I smell a bit of it in Maslin's expectation and her particular pointed snipe (as quoted yesterday). In my life, it was hard to respect people who felt this strongly about *my* life (is it my fault that my smile is a poke in your side?) but I was still affected when they lashed out.

As for whether Oates is cashing in on her loss, copying the success of her friend Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking…. I think it's in extremely poor taste to charge milking it when someone has had to live through the loss. It's not exploitation if the ambulance you're chasing has your own loved one in it.

Joyce Carol Oates, who has published more than 60 books already, deserves to write her book the way she wants to, and she deserves a wonderful marriage in Chapter Two of her life.

Mazel tov, hon. 

(And yes, now I will read the blinkin' book. Sheesh!).

Want more? 
The vast internet includes this other response to Maslin on Oates, and another, this one by a widow.)


Jenn said...

I agree with your review of the review, Supa. I've read the review as well but not the book. I found the review to be totally indicative of our ultra judgmental culture. it was shallow and sparse and comparative and uninformed and unsympathetic. but what ultimately came to mind for me was this: damned if you do, damned if you don't...

letterstoelias said...

I can't speak of the book, having not read it (if she mentioned her 2nd in the book and just didn't elaborate on it, I'm really curious as to why this is such an issue for the reviewer, who made it sound like it was a complete omission . . . ) - but your post reminded me of a conversation I had with my closest friend recently about the idea of dating.

She perked right up and eagerly wanted me to share all the details if/when there were any developments. Then she said something about living vicariously though me as she was stuck with the 'Same old, same old'.

I just smiled and said that I wish I had my 'Same old, same old', and reminded her that she likely didn't 'really' want to live my life even vicariously . . .

I know her intentions - she didn't mean it 'that way' and I wasn't hurt by it, but it struck me as funny that it seemed so exciting to her.


Susan G. Weidener said...


I may not be Joyce Carol Oates, but I,too, have written a memoir about being widowed. It's called "Again in a Heartbeat, a memoir of love, loss and dating again." Maybe I am just an ordinary person without the cache of a Joyce Carol Oates, but I believe there is so much we face as widows - especially, if we are young when our husbands died and we have small children, as was the case when my husband died. There is so much pressure to be in a couple again, and the pressure you put on yourself to provide a surrogate "parent" for you children after their father has died. In my case, it led me to a predator, a man who used my vulnerability for his own narcissitic purposes, as I frantically searched to replace my husband. Other women avoided me because they feared this (widowhood) could happen to them too, as if it were a disease that was catching. What can I say? We are a special "club" and we cannot, nor should we judge each other. I have said it all and written it all in my memoir and although I will never be written up in the New York Times, I believe in the truth of my story and the healing power of memoir. I also believe in one true love. Call me old-fashioned and romantic, but I do not view it as a character flaw that I have never been able to find another man, a husband. I have had opportunities and two marriage proposals, but simply said, I didn't love them. Then again, my life is not over. One never knows when true love will come again.

annie said...

I think what you are talking about is just "women being girls". We are schooled in from a young age to participate in each others romantic adventures in all manner vicarious. There is nothing widow specific about it. Women w/out partners who are "in the game" will watch and note the success of others - with or without envy.

To be engaged at 11 mos implies early dating and I dated early myself, so I know a bit about how dead husbands and potential dates mix. Sometimes, not all that well.

Regardless, JCO is entitled to telling only the parts of her first year that she wants to, but she is going to be called on her omissions. There is nothing prejudiced or unfair about that. It's the nature of genre for readers and reviewers to question why this was included and why not that?

From my pov, I was never interested in the sorrow part of widowhood when I picked up the rare book on it. I wanted to know how people moved on. I think that's what most people want to know and why JCO's omission is drawing so much attention. That you are sad is a given but that you can live again is something that most people fear they couldn't/won't do. They want to know how you "got out" not what it was like when you were "in".

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Annie, I agree that "getting out of it" was of more interest to me, but I don't get the impression that's Ms. Maslin's beef with the omission. I agree it's girls being girls, but I think we should hold ladies outside of Cosmo to a higher standard.

That desire of readers to hear more about the path upward certainly flies in the face of Magical Thinking's success, doesn't it?

And reviewers ARE entitled to review books according to their bizarre expectations, but they should expect to be called out on that, too.

Personally, I think it's all about voice and storytelling.

I am sure JCO's book has plenty of weaknesses but that will have to wait till I've read it.

Thanks, all, for weighing in.

hourbeforedawn said...

Great post! It never fails to amaze me how mean-spirited some people can be, especially toward someone who is dealing with a loss they can't even begin to imagine. I mean, haven't we widows suffered enough? Don't we deserve every last shred of happiness we can wring from what's left of our lives?

I appreciate the perspectives of remarried widows. It's been almost a year for me, and I've not been ready to date yet... but I've started to think about it, in a theoretical "someday" kind of way. My fear is that no man is going to want to deal with the emotional baggage of widowhood, that the only man who ever could have loved me enough to do that is the one who left me with this baggage. It gives me hope to hear about other widows finding love again. Thank you.

bob said...

I love this posting! How I dream of sitting in a room of relatively recent widows who have dated, had sex, and maybe even found (gasp!) another good relationship in the years following their husband's death. With just 1 to 4 percent of people being widowed at a young age, there just aren't enough women around to have a good old conversation about all this. At age 49, I'm surrounded by women in mid-life marriages or women who are divorced. It would be so lovely to live in a world where your dead husband comes back, but I choose to live in the real world. In that one, I get to be 49 and have a whole new love life. So there.

Jill Schacter said...

Above comment is not from "Bob", a false identity of my son, but rather from me.

The Cranky Crone, she lives alone! said...

Insightful and honest, I have often been in confusion myself as to how I can feel a particular way whilst also feeling a disimilar way!!!

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Friends, thanks for your comments.
I'm not sure JCO deserves any special consideration from a book reviewer (she is, after all, quite a pro), I just felt Maslin's particular barb revealed a lot about what we go through.

I do think JCO has to tell a story that the general public -- not just widowed people -- will relate to. Well, she doesn't have to, it will probably sell anyway... but as a critic, I think that would be my expectation: that the story "work" and that the details are relatable.

Bob/Jill, Are't we building that, friend? I think you'll have that room soon. :-)

Maria, I am so stunned to meet someone who's actually READ the book that I don't even know what to say. :-)



Susan @Whymommy said...

I, for one, am thrilled to hear that grief and great happiness can exist side by side. I've already talked with my husband about this and encouraged him to remarry and be happy again. I don't want him moping about after I'm gone. I want him happy, like we have been together.

As for those who judge? Phlbt. They'll always find something to judge others for.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

I think everyone should talk about this when they get married, and I don't think you're. going. ANYWHERE.

cb said...

Wow,what a great post, really appreciate all your thoughtful ideas on this. I cannot believe the reaction to this book, which I've not read yet, but. I am a student in a two year creative non fiction writing program. One of the biggest reasons I decided to pursue the program was to write a memoir of my husband's illness, death and the aftermath. I have learned in my class, through all the readings and discussions, is that memoir covers a certain point in a person's life. Seems to me that is what JCO is doing. She's focusing on the death of her husband, not so much the life after, nor is she required to. It is her story to tell as she wishes.

Thanks for sharing such good thoughts and conversations!


Puddock said...

Hi everyone. A really interesting post - thanks Supa! I'm in the UK and hadn't heard about this book.

I'm in a bit of a dilemma. I've been widowed now for more than five years and STILL haven't had a date (apart from a couple of "practice" ones through a dating agency) so I am in awe, and very jealous, of anyone lucky enough to find love again within a year (or even five).

I do "get" that you can mourn your first husband while still loving your new one but, as someone who hasn't been in that position yet, I do sometimes wonder, in the long dark nights, whether a new man WOULD make everything right again. There's a husband-sized hole in my life and a new husband would fill that gap - problem solved...

This grief thing is a rotten nightmare. Everyone's experience is different and NO-ONE can tell anyone else what is normal - that's the conclusion I've come to. The pre-widow me would have been shocked and disappointed that the widow-me still wasn't properly "back on track" five years on. And I think it's that kind of ignorance that brings about reviews like the one of Joyce Carol Oates' book. Simple as that. She ain't been through it so she doesn't get it.

Have a good weekend everyone :)

Anonymous said...

My only criticism of the book which I read and enjoyed thoroughly was that art prevailed over truth (complete truth, that is, not just a subtle reference to a new man). But I empathize with Oates and wish her every happiness.
As a widow of two years and three months, I have had mixed emotions. Most surprising, to me and to most people I know, is my lack of deep grief. I attribute part of this to my deep faith in a beautiful afterlife, my husband's many health problems, and the way the circumstances of my life have fallen into place for me.
There is no one way for a person to feel after a death. I am enjoying solitude, but I will be happy if I can find love again as Oates did. I am so happy for her.

Mary said...

I finished the book a couple days ago and vaguely knew that JCO had a new man in her life after I started to read it. The book gives a tiny nod to the happiness she has found with her second husband. Four years ago I lost my husband to a heart attack. It's been an interesting journey back to wholeness, but unlike JCO, I haven't begun to date. Getting closer but not quite there yet. At first I thought I would be content to live my life knowing that I'd had a great love in my life. But now I'd be delighted to have a another shot at a second wonderful marriage. Lucky JCO!

Anonymous said...

Bravo for the article that prompted all of these comments! Widows inhabit two worlds; until you have experienced this loss it is impossible to describe to someone how you can simultaneously experience ongoing grief as well as new joy. I see the openness to new love and relationship a sign of a healthy embracing of life. Five months after my husband died my life began to move in the direction of new love, and though I have struggled with accepting this gift, I have been surprised that virtually all of my friends, family, and child have embraced this new person and our relationship with warmth and joy. Now a widow for 14 months, my late husband's birthday approaching, my new man's understanding of the ties to my son's father, my world is still topsy turvy -- but I am moving forward with gratitude for everyday. I am so glad to have found the Fresh Widow blog.


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