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Joyce Carol Oates On Becoming A Widow

We talk with writer Joyce Carol Oates about her telling of becoming a widow.

Author Joyce Carol Oates (Charles Gross/Courtesy Harper Collins)

Author Joyce Carol Oates (Charles Gross/Courtesy Harper Collins)

Joyce Carol Oates married Ray Smith when she was 22 years old. They had 47 years together, while she wrote fifty novels, countless essays and stories. Then, three years ago this month, Ray went into the hospital for pneumonia and days later was dead.

Joyce Carol Oates was, she now writes, a widow. In a new memoir, she describes tumbling into that experience. The unreality. The guilt. he dead husband’s clothes in the closet. The struggle to hang on to herself.

This hour On Point: Joyce Carol Oates writes a hard, personal book: “A Widow’s Story.”

- Tom Ashbrook

Joyce Carol Oates is professor of Creative Writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University where she has taught since 1978.  She is the winner of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction.  She has written more than 50 novels, including “We Were the Mulvaneys” and “Blonde.” Her new book is, “A Widow’s Story: A Memoir.”


Excerpt: A Widow’s Story: A Memoir
by Joyce Carol Oates

Chapter One

The Message

February 15, 2008. Returning to our car that has been haphazardly parked—by me—on a narrow side street near the Princeton Medical Center—I see, thrust beneath a windshield wiper, what appears to be a sheet of stiff paper. At once my heart clenches in dismay, guilty ap¬prehension—a ticket? A parking ticket? At such a time? Earlier that afternoon I’d parked here on my way—hurried, harried—a jangle of admonitions running through my head like shrieking cicadas—if you’d happened to see me you might have thought pityingly That woman is in a desperate hurry—as if that will do any good—to visit my husband in the Telemetry Unit of the medical center where he’d been admitted several days previously for pneumonia; now I need to return home for a few hours preparatory to returning to the medical center in the early evening—anxious, dry-mouthed and head-aching yet in an aroused state that might be called hopeful—for since his admission into the medical center Ray has been steadily improving, he has looked and felt better, and his oxygen intake, measured by numerals that fluctuate with literally each breath—90, 87, 91, 85, 89, 92—is steadily gaining, arrangements are being made for his discharge into a rehab clinic close by the medical center—(hopeful is our solace in the face of mortality); and now, in the late afternoon of another of these interminable and exhausting hospital-days—can it be that our car has been ticketed?—in my distraction I’d parked illegally?—the time limit for parking on this street is only two hours, I’ve been in the medical center for longer than two hours, and see with embarrassment that our 2007 Honda Accord—eerily glaring-white in February dusk like some strange phosphorescent creature in the depths of the sea—is inexpertly, still more inelegantly parked, at a slant to the curb, left rear tire over the white line in the street by several inches, front bumper nearly touching the SUV in the space ahead. But now—if this is a parking ticket—at once the thought comes to me I won’t tell Ray, I will pay the fine in secret.

Except the sheet of paper isn’t a ticket from the Princeton Police Department after all but a piece of ordinary paper—opened and smoothed out by my shaky hand it’s revealed as a private message in aggressively large block-printed letters which with stunned staring eyes I read several times like one faltering on the brink of an abyss—

LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH

In this way as in that parable of Franz Kafka in which the most profound and devastating truth of the individual’s life is revealed to him by a passer-by in the street, as if accidentally, casually, so the Widow-to-Be, like the Widow, is made to realize that her situation however unhappy, despairing or fraught with anxiety, doesn’t give her the right to overstep the boundaries of others, especially strangers who know nothing of her—“Left rear tire over the white line in the street.”

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  • otistic

    A similar experience. On the day he was to be sentenced and probably remanded into custody for exaggerated assault and battery my older brother looked to the bible for strength and discovered a note written by my mother to my father before we were born that read, “No matter what they say, and no matter how right they are to say it, I promise, my darling, as God is my witness, I’ll always forgive you and I’ll always love you.” My brother got all quiet. Our Mom had been dead for twenty years. When his taxi arrived to take him to court I stopped him at the door to ask him if there was anything I could do. He said, “Yeah. Why don’t you just go f… yourself!”
    If he wasn’t so far away I could find out if he was just, I don’t know, kidding. He didn’t look like he was, but then, that’s my brother.

    • Pancake

      Stalking and obsessive cruelty is so integral a part of the Oates method of exposition (and passive internalized resolution) that this exerpt presents nothing new, only a transposition, for much of fiction is actually biography. Her excellence lies in her disciplined continuity of whole complex characters. Violent fantasies are the engine of her cerebral nature and lofty intelligence. Thank you Joyce for the catharsis your art evokes.

  • Marc

    I take this as an indication of how easily people project the worst on others. I’m behind a car at a light that turns green and the car doesn’t move. Immediately, I think this jerk is probably texting or talking on his phone and couldn’t care less that he’s inconveniencing others and is probably a dangerous driver to boot. As he finally moves out and makes a left, I see it’s a very old guy hunched over his steering wheel. He still could be a jerk, but more likely someone’s grandpa who’s just lost a bit off his fast ball. I’ll leave aside the issue of elderly drivers for this post.

    I need to remember a phrase I heard once “never attribute to malice, that which can be explained by stupidity”, or in this case “personal tragedy”.

  • R. B. Pierce

    It is unrelated to widowhood, but could you ask Ms. Oates to put in a good word for H. P. Lovecrafr? She is one of the few American literati who appreciate his writing.

    My sympathies to Ms. Oates.

  • http://lizybee.wordpress.com/ Sweetman

    This memoir is not only an honest reflection on loss and the ill-defined status of widowhood, it’s a sobering look at our society. We do not deal well with death or those left behind. I applaud Joyce Carol Oats for this wrenchingly honest disclosure of her life after the unexpected death of her beloved husband. I reviewed her memoir for thiszine blog: http://thiszine.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/book-review-a-widows-story-by-joyce-carol-oates/
    New York Times reviewer, Janet Maslin had quite a different take on the book–it was quite snarky, concluding JCO is expected to display all of her life after Ray’s death, not just the grief and isolation of widowhood: Joyce Carol Oats “does not say that by the time he had been dead for 11 months, Ms. Oates was happily engaged to Dr. Charles Gross, the professor of neuroscience who became her second husband in 2009.”
    I believe the the book was a tribute to her dead husband and what it was like to be a widow in the aftermath.
    I don’t profess to be in anyone’s head or a guru to their decisions just because I read a personal memoir. The topic of JCO’s book was A Widow’s Story, not a confessional of all aspects of her private life.
    Gosh, at what point did it become the expectation that we reveal and explain EVERYTHING?

  • Catherine

    My father died when my mother was just 47 and had been married 22 years. I remember her saying one of the most difficult times in the first few months following my father’s passing was when a government official referred to her as single. Of course my father had died, so she was indeed single. However, in her mind, she still considered herself married.

  • Fischlipps

    Having seen my mother go through the death of my father, her husband of 54 years (and best friend since she was in 7th grade and he in 9th), I congratulate you on your ability to put the ordeal of this loss into words. My mother has never even been able to have a memorial for Dad, which I think has kept her from moving on in some ways. Do you feel that this has helped you accept your life now and move on?

  • Ellen Dibble

    For so many American women, so much of the last 47 or 48 years has been about renegotiating our relationship to the opposite sex, with more and more women living single for long stretches, more and more women redefining themselves and marriage by way of divorce.
    I have been single all my life, and at 64, I’m wondering what books Oates has written that address this cultural upheaval of feminine identity in her work, or actually what she could have, from the perspective of a settled marriage.
    I haven’t read enough of her work to know. I’m waiting for something she says to trigger a memory of something she’s written.
    But the feeling of Kafkaesque unreality in relating to others is so much a feature of most of life, where one is totally misconstrued and needs a way of making that surreal social selfhood part of one’s identity nonetheless.
    The lack of continuity and bumpiness of having to operate in ill-fitting social definitions is liberating in that one knows it is an “act,” but I’m thinking after 47 years, one keeps the definition the one spouse created. I’m waiting to hear how in three years she has re-wired her connectedness.

  • R. B. Pierce

    I am reminded of a passage near the end of Robert A. Heinlein’s *The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.* Hoag is revealed as a critic of the work of gods; he is adressing the husband (Edward) of a woman (Cynthia) who whad been in a coma:

    “And you, Edward? Is there something in this world for which you’d surrender your life and your soul if need be? You need not answer—I saw in your face and in your heart, last night, as you bent over the bed. Good art, good art—both of you. I have found several sorts of good and original art in this world, enough to justify encouraging your Artist to try again. But there was so much that was bad, poorly drawn and amateurish, that I could not find it in me to approve the work as a whole until I encountered and savored this, the tragedy of human love.”

    Cynthia looked at him wildly. “Tragedy? You say ‘tragedy’?”

    He looked at her with eyes that were not pitying, but serenely appreciative. “What else could it be, my dear?”

  • Lily

    Both my parents passed away this year. My mother died first and I thought my father, after the initial grief, would do some of the things that he was unable to do while my mother was alive. Several months after her death, I watched him loose all will to live. One night he packed his car with all his belongings, got lost, and ended up in the hospital in a delirious state. It was a long few months, but after he got out of the hospital, he said to me one day “what is there to want?” He died a couple of weeks later.

    • Dan

      Lily

      Your account of your parents’ deaths touched me. I do wish you well. I lost my father very suddently ten months ago, and the grief process has ;been complicated by a divorce only seven months ago. May Peace find and comfort you.

  • Sharon Snow

    I’m almost a year out from my Mom’s death. We lived together for years and in many ways it was like losing a partner. She was the center of my life. I’ve learned that grief is exhausting and that it comes in waves. Just when I think I’m doing pretty good it hits me again and I’m flat on the floor just like I was in the first few months.

    Now that I know what it’s like to experience a profound loss I feel guilty for all the times I’ve assumed a friend was okay because time had passed since their loss. I had no understanding of what they were going through.

  • Nancy

    Ms. Oates. I lost my husband in 1989. I dreamed of him constantly right from the beginning and found myself longing for nightfall and hopefully a dream of him. Night became more real than day.

    All these years later I still dream of him though not so often and those dreams are just as precious and comforting now as they were 22 years ago.

    Nancy

  • Njmglobal

    So much to say. First, my condolences to you. The greatest thing that my Higher Power did for me was lead me to the book, Grief Recovery, by John James and Russell Friedman. This book introduced me to their process, soon followed by one of their workshops, and plenty more work with a trained grief therapist. The premise, as you mentioned, is that I suffered from a broken heart. This I needed to heal first before anything else. I urge all who sufffer to read this book and follow the directions.

  • Marie

    Incredible show.

  • RH

    I’ve been reading Oates since I was 16 — for 20 years now — and am always amazed by her ability to give such power to her words and images when telling her stories. The Marx Brothers-Kafkaesque version of her reality is a perfect example of that. I am also intrigued by the notion of anger and hatred toward people we don’t know, particularly in driving situations. I explore this sometimes in my own writing, and am always curious about extension of empathy to those we don’t know, even if what we see doesn’t seem rational, intelligent or kind. We never know what kind of day another person has had.
    I look forward to reading this and thank Ms. Oates for having the courage to put it out there.
    My last comment was blocked for some reason, perhaps because I share a name with her late husband. I’ll put just initials here, and apologize if I showed anything but respect — I have nothing but the utmost respect for her and her art. I extend my condolences to Oates, I hope this book was cathartic for her and others who will read it.

  • John

    The sincerity of this story went out the window for me upon learning that she remarried after only 13 months. Either the marriage was not as beautiful a picture as being painted or the new husband is only serving as a crutch. Not trying to be insensitive but she has gone public with her experience so she is open to such scrutiny.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Apparently the widow’s “manual” subtext is to remarry. She says actually the book is meant to describe the first husband. It seems to me even within the last decade there are plenty of literary tributes by women to first marriages, and plenty of descriptions of the onslaught of grief, but the navigation of the shift in identity, especially in a culture that is redefining women as independent agents a lot more than was the case half a century ago, that I was looking forward to. Tom read the piece from page 300 that addressed the shattered identity, but I am not persuaded that in a year (especially a year in which another mate is found), the import of that can be addressed, let alone a useful “manual” composed.

    • adam

      Are you a widow??? Do you understand, really understand, what one goes through during grief? Or are you following an old, outdated standard of how one is “supposed to grieve”? Just because someone finds love again, in any time frame, has absolutely nothing to do with how much you may have loved someone you lost. You sound incredibly judgemental abd probably don’t know any real about the topic.

    • Rick

      I’m always amazed at how many people read reviews or listen to book discussions just so they can decide to NOT read something. What went “out the window”, John and Ellen, was your curiosity and open-mindedness. I read the entire book and found it honest and moving. You call your opinion “scrutiny” but you didn’t read the book. Oh well, I’ve listened to people for years invent reasons why they won’t read Oates. Most imagined themselves writers, of course. Curious, this resentment of genius.

    • Vincent Crofts

      How many years should she avoid continuing her life. I think a year is very acceptable. The luck to find a new wonderful friend does not diminish the quality of the first.

    • Mcleod “Nancy”

      John, How beautiful does a marriage have to be to win your approval? Have you ever suffered loneliness, or cared for a mate with cancer for 8 years? Luck has nothing at all to do with grief and the need for someone just to talk with after just such a loss? I feel that you are superficial, critical, maladjusted and selfish. Sorry to sound so critical on my part also. How many widows do you know, if any? I wish I could comfort every loving wife who has become a widow…. And those men who are also in grief. needing sympathy. But I can’t, because it would be impossible. Nancy

    • Larry3rv

      John, how can your judge this? My wife died after a 3 year bout with cancer. I began dating a woman 7 months later. We have now be seeing each other for over a year. But it is not disloyal to my deceased wife that I started dating so early or think about remarriage. One of the things I’ve realized about myself is that I was a pretty fair husband for 34 years of marriage. There is no time table on when one might want to be coupled again. Finally, I think it important to remember that Ms. Oates is an older woman. How long should she “properly grieve” before sharing her life with another? Just my thoughts.

  • Boston reader

    I am a longtime reader of your work, Ms. Oates. I’m drawn to your ability to expose human error, love, beauty in unexpected places, harshness and empathy in your characters and stories. I will read the memoir too, and extend my condolences to you.
    And just because Ms. Oates was lucky enough to find another love does not mean her 47-year marriage was untrue, or that there was no pain in losing her late husband.

  • kathy

    ms.Oates- your talk on on point spoke volumes to me as i lost my beloved husband 4 years ago after a 9 year sickness. My grieving process went on during his sickness and when he passed i knew it was a blessing for him. He always expressed to me that he wanted me to find someone in my life again which i consider the ultimate gift to give a loved one. I have found someone, a friend and widower who lost his wife after a 3 year sickness and we are extremely happy. Both of our spouses gave us their blessing to love again. they are never out of our lives as we talk about them all the time.I am going to get your book and read it and all i can say is everyone has to honor their own grieving process.

  • Bobmerg

    I think the message is, life is for the living. We mourn the dead for what we miss, they have moved on, and probably would only regret our heartache.

  • Emi (Japan)

    Dear Tom and Joyce

    It was very touching, I’ve never heared a radio program like yours in my life so far.
    I learned a lot of things from your conversation today.
    Being honest and sincere to yourself with pureness, leads an attitude of leniency and affable nature to others.

    I lost my best friend last March, and it seems the relationship is over with my boyfriend. I loved them, from my heart.
    The words I understood gave me gentle power to get along.
    This program will live in my memory from now on.

    I want to be a person like Tom and woman like Joyce.
    And hope I could have such great relationship like Joyce and Mr. Ray.
    Please take care of yourself.
    I am looking forward to listening to your fine voice on radio always.

  • BJH

    As a Hospice Bereavement Coordinator, it is important in our culture to learn about grief. All of the experiences I heard are normal responses to loss, including the fact that it gets worse before it gets better, especially at a sudden death. Thank you for this airing.

  • QRegestein

    I wish death were not the central fact of mortal life.

    • Jbrackett61

      Well put. I struggle with this often being in the boomer crowd. The only way I keep from going insane is to realign the central facts. Some days it works.

  • Daisy

    A year after discovering my husband’s affair of over 20 years ago, I was hospitalized for severe depression and suicidal thoughts. I was diagnosed as in bereavement. The shock of learning of my husband’s infidelity had totally altered my preciously held belief that we were totally faithful to one another and he would never stray that was. My mother had also lived in a marriage where my father had had continuous affairs from the time I was born. She didn’t have the option of leaving him.
    I have had excellent professional help to work through this despite working with a couple therapist who didn’t hold my husband responsible for his behavior in our sessions. I still love my husband and am staying with him. We have one son and will have been married 39 years in June. He has never been willing to process any of this so I am accepting that he cannot do so. However, I have no doubt that he loves me very deeply.
    This interview resonated with so many of the feelings of excruciating loss I have felt. Thank you Joyce Carol Oates.

  • Dspidero

    I will confess that I have not heard Tom Ashbrook’s show with JCO; however on Valentine’s day a couple of weeks ago I cleaned up my desk in an effort to show some kindness to my husband who is my business partner and an organized fellow, unlike me. He never complains about it but I know it makes his work a tiny bit harder if he needs something at the desk. His own Valentines’ day kindness to me involved an early morning shower so I could enjoy that smell when I awakened. These are the things long-married people do for each other as gestures of love.

    Once my desk was cleared I decided to reward myself, so I opened one of the many old and piled up issues of the New Yorker which are always part of the mess. Flipping through an issue from several months ago I saw a piece by Joyce Carol Oates and decided to just sit there at my clean desk and read it. JCO has never been a favorite of mine; I’ve read her essays occasionally and only last year read a novel, We Were the Mulvaneys, because my high school daughter had chosen it for a paper and we read it together (as we do so often). The novel was okay, clearly the work of an excellent writer but not my style.

    The article I read in the New Yorker at my clean desk on Valentine’s Day, on the other hand, was a different story altogether. Billed as “A Personal History”, “A Widow’s Story” affected me deeply. I did not want the article to end. I felt dazed and unsatisfied when I finished it. Twice before I had that feeling after reading New Yorker pieces so I should have known what was going on. (The first time was more than 20 years ago, after reading what turned out to be an excerpt from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; the second the painful but perfectly written memoir of his father’s ailing brain by Jonathan Franzen, shortly before The Corrections was published. Jonathan Franzen’s article I read nearly ten years ago on the night before 9/11 and I swear it compounded the daze I felt the next day.)

    I read that New Yorker article “A Widow’s Story” and I began to grieve for my own husband who is alive and well but someday will leave me alone. I grieved for JCO, for whom I feel a Six-Degrees-of-Separation kind of connectedness because she taught my younger sister at Princeton many years ago. I felt the beauty in the mundaneness of a relationship between people who are so interdependent on each other yet so unknown to each other (he never read her novels: I get that!) I wanted to know more about Ray Smith so I googled him and was floored to discover that I had just finished an excerpt, that once again The New Yorker teased me with something I know I will never forget.

    But the weirdest thing, the thing I just discovered having stumbled on this thread (I have not yet read the entire book), is that JCO remarried. That was what I hoped she would do. That is what I wanted for her when I was left unsatisfied. I wanted her to find someone to love her and to love because she is alive and when you are alive you need to be loved. Or at least she does. It was clear from the small excerpt in the New Yorker that the woman whose husband suddenly vanished from her life needed a friend, a partner, a relationship, in order not to fall into an abyss.

    Please forgive me for my wordiness and for not yet reading the book. I will.

    And I cannot recommend The Unbearable Lightness of Being more highly. Nor Jonathan Frazen’s non-fiction piece in the New Yorker the week before 9/11.

  • tometnanoo

    I want to know who is the girl who approaches Charles Benedict in Wild Saturday and other stories published in 1970 and why he doesn’t recognize her as I can only have access to this extract and have to imagine what comes next….Some clues would be most welcome.

  • Ruthpro

    A terrific read. While some will scorn about her recent remarriage so soon after the death of her beloved husband,I rejoice in it.It takes nothing away from her wonderful life with her first husband. How lucky she is to have a second chance to love.

  • Pingback: Happy Reading. And Happy Thinking.

  • Kathybutchko

    I am reading her memoir and also struggling with her remarriage at 13months, well into her 70′s! Amazing! I hate this book and yet can’t put it down. It is amazing to me the support she received yet resented. What if no one responded or reached out, would THAT have been better? Yeah, I’m judging but also being honest! However, certain parts of the book I ENJOY, such as her delving into her past with husband Ray and her telling us where some of the short story ideas came from.(In the Region of Ice).

  • Maireen Stephens

    I do not remember the exact words, but I loved the reply Mrs. Oates voiced, in response to a comment someone made, “Wow, you have been married a long time…” Her response went something like this, No- I have not been married a long time, but it have been many marriage to the one person. I explained this idea to my husband, in hope to relieve some pressure on our relationship, because we haven’t been that couple-who are best friends, at least not yet.

  • nan

    As a recent widow–I have been reading widely on grief loss and widowhood…I went from disbelief, dismay, and horror as I read this work, not because of her personal voyage, but because of the brutal and unkind treatment of “friends” and her late husband. Joyce Oates reveals herself as a painfully selfish and shallow person, who was sheltered from life by a husband whose intimate and private secrets she now chooses to reveal in this memoir. It seems that her sorrow is driven more by the fact that her shelter from the world is gone and that her household routine has changed, than the absence of her husband. Her unkindness to those reaching out to help her, her continuous name dropping of academic and literary folks illuminates her one-dimensional persona–Joyce the writer. Since she is a writer of fiction, I do wonder about some of heightened drama as well as the glaring omission of her rapid remarriage. She is now the third wife of someone she met six months after her husbands death–and married six months later. Her current husband should hope he outlives her, so as not to be “Oatesmeal” for her “book mill”.

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    i have been a widow and single parent for ten months its hard but my son keeps me going and i pray alot

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