Being Hazel Jones

How to avoid playing the victim.

Joyce Carol Oates 88 298 (photo credit: )
Joyce Carol Oates 88 298
(photo credit: )
Joyce Carol Oates has never had trouble making things up. In fact, the prolific National Book Award winning novelist has struggled with quite the opposite problem - keeping up with her incredible mind. In 40 years, she has written more than 1,000 short stories, some 50 novels, a dozen-plus books of essays, plays and also poetry. But several years ago, she began cribbing from the life of someone dear to her heart: her grandmother. "My grandmother had experiences very similar to Rebecca's experience with her father," says Oates, 69, referring to the heroine of The Gravedigger's Daughter, a tale of a woman who managed to escape when her father killed the rest of their family. "In actual life the man who was my great-grandfather was a gravedigger. He did not kill his wife - he did injure her though. And he did threaten his daughter, and he did commit suicide with a shotgun. That's all true." In the book, Rebecca is pelted from this rupture at almost breakneck speed, winding up in the arms of an alcoholic husband and then careening out when he becomes abusive, only to become "Hazel Jones." She goes on the road with her son, improvising along the way. Oates has written numerous tales of this typically female experience of transformation, most notably her 1999 Pulitzer Prize finalist Blonde, a fictional imagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe. "Norma Jean Baker sort of makes herself into Marilyn Monroe," says Oates, her voice high and quiet, not unlike the former starlet, "sort of like Rebecca who becomes Hazel Jones. And many women become Hazel Jones to some extent - they don't always stay Hazel Jones. But it's a kind of an American ideal." What fascinated Oates in this case was that her grandmother did a similar thing long before the era of extreme makeovers, pop culture or even electricity. She did it long before psychotherapy had entered the mainstream. She didn't talk about it. "Like I said," Oates continues, "this is based on my own grandmother, and the image of her which is in my own head. Which was unfailing - I mean, she never was the girl whose father had almost killed her and blew his head off with a shotgun. She was never that girl. She was never the woman whose husband had abused her and then left her. She never would have wanted to play those cards." In other words, Oates's grandmother didn't act the victim - a role Oates believes Americans overplay today to their detriment. Writing about her grandmother's time, she developed a new-found appreciation for the hardships and starkness her ancestors - men and women - would have felt. "If people came to this country in 1890, if they didn't settle in cities, but settled in the countryside, they were basically like pioneers," she says, voice quieting. "They were living in very primitive circumstances: Of course there was no indoor plumbing, and no electricity. So you can image what they were living in: a stone cottage in a cemetery." Like Rebecca's father and mother, Oates's great-grandparents came to the US - only in the 1890s, not 1936 as it is in the book - and changed their name (from Morgenstern to Morningstar). Sitting in the living room of her light, airy Princeton home, surrounded by books, windows and "dream box" busts of her created by friend Gloria Vanderbilt, this fact hangs in an expensive hush. Oates has an almost Quaker way of speaking - pausing at length, then starting again. She continues on to say her grandmother met a man named Oates. "He left her with a small child who was my father. We never knew anything about this, and I didn't know my grandmother and her parents had been Jewish. That was all - never talked about." There is something surreal in hear Oates discuss these matters, not so much because of the personal revelations they contain, but rather the way in which her most famous novels - such as the National Book Award-winning Them and Because It Is Bitter, Because It Is My Heart, not to mention her trenchant essays - have become a kind of cultural shorthand for feminine consciousness. In other words, by writing Oates has - wittingly or unwittingly - helped create the environment of perpetual revelation that she recognizes would have been so radically foreign to her own grandmother, let alone the heroine based upon her. "There's a good deal in the novel about playing with cards," Oates says now. "Playing with the cards that you're dealt - you have a limited number of cards which you have to deal very carefully, and people who choose to present themselves as victims I think are probably making a mistake." Instead of playing the victim, in The Gravedigger's Daughter Rebecca chooses to present herself as Hazel Jones. "If she had presented herself as Rebecca," Oates says, "she wouldn't have had the experiences she had as Hazel with Gallagher," referring to a man Rebecca meets. "Does she feel for him what she feels for [her first, abusive husband]? No, she's never going to be able to feel that again. But he's such a wonderful man, should she tell him what her background is?" By the look in her eye, it would Oates believes this is a compromise a woman has to make. The writer is president of the National Book Critics Circle.