Le Petite Mort: Sex, Death, and Joseph Campbell
THE DEFENDANT: The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
THE VERDICT: The Lovely Bones comes in at #74 on The ALA’s Most Frequently Challenged Books list for 2000-2009 and has been challenged in some US schools and libraries.
THE CHARGES: The challenges surrounding this book are centered on the “mature” content, sexual content, the “graphic” nature of the book, or religious viewpoint (as much of the book takes place in heaven). However, one crusade to ban the book in a Massachusetts school took issue with the book’s lack of clear-cut morality and ideal behavior on behalf of the protagonists. As the mother behind the challenge put it, “I read it cover to cover. They say this book is about healing and hope, which it’s not. The guy committing the crime doesn’t get punished. The mom runs away from her family” (qtd in “Parent wants book out of library“). The school in question kept the book but required a permission slip from students before getting access to it. This was still not enough for those upset by the book’s content who continued to lobby for its removal.
THE REVIEW: The Lovely Bones is a unique family saga narrated by fourteen-year-old murder victim Susie Salmon. Set in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1973, a time before 24-hour news and missing children’s faces on milk cartons, this book explores the hidden skeletons of a seemingly more innocent time and the typical American family. After Susie is raped and murdered on her way home from school, she finds herself in a surreal yet very corporeal spirit realm. From her heaven, Susie observes the aftermath of her disappearance, the breakdown of her family, and the inevitable continuity of life in a town reeling from the unthinkable. Susie deals with feeling both left behind and responsible for keeping her family from moving on as the years pass in this unusual family drama where ghosts live large and the living haunt the earth.
A good storyteller Sebold is, a wordsmith she is not. This book tells a powerful tale with fascinating and richly developed characters, but on the sentence level it is rather painful. Sebold’s language is as purple as it gets, her descriptive imagery ranging from overwrought to downright bizarre. No, Ms. Sebold, her eyes did not look like “ferocious olives” nor did she butter toast with her tears. Whatever that means. The penguin in the snow globe is a great image and a wonderful metaphor, but it’s about the only one that does work. The narrative quickly gets bogged down by all of the overdone imagery, flowery wording, and overemphasized themes that made a gripping book much easier to put down.
So, let’s move on to the story. The Lovely Bones is less about murder than it is about the tensions, broken dreams, secret longings, hidden scars, and quiet desperation of domestic life. Susie’s relationship with her mother is far more interesting than her adventures beyond the veil. In fact, Susie’s mother seems much more like the main character, despite being absent for half of the book. Perhaps this is because I saw so much of myself in her and that was more disturbing than anything else in the book. Abigail Salmon studied mythology in college. Her plan was to go to grad school and then be some sort of humanities professor. This plan got put on hold when motherhood came calling. Abigail was content to put her career aspirations on pause, reading Susie and Lindsey Greek myths at bath time. However, when an unexpected third child shackles her to domestic life for another 18 years, she surrenders her dream, trading Joseph Campbell books for Better Homes and Gardens and retreating into a lifeless Stepford shell. Between her and the similarly isolated and unappreciated Ruana Singh, this book reads far more like Desperate Housewives than The Sixth Sense.
The book’s morality is often unclear, showing every character’s faults through the eyes of those they hurt most, but also sympathizing with them and explaining why they did what they did. Abigail is not the picture of sanity when the book begins, seemingly stuck in Act I of The Yellow Wallpaper or The Awakening. When Susie dies she just can’t take it anymore and flees the family that trapped her for so long. It seems the typical, happy family did not break because of a tragic loss. It was already broken. Abigail’s abandonment causes her children to lose not only their sister but their mother when they need her most, yet it is understandable that she simply couldn’t handle the grief and responsibility anymore, escaping into the anonymity of a stranger whose name is not synonymous with tragedy.
Similarly, Jack is first painted as a loving father. However, his inability to let go destroys his family far more than Susie’s death and he becomes increasingly possessive of her, making him a parallel to Mr. Harvey. Both are left hoarding trinkets of Susie’s, obsessing over her and her death. Jack comes to realize that he somehow broke the woman he loved long before Susie’s death. He recognizes the mask his wife had become trapped under. The Lovely Bones is all about masks and lies and only by finally getting the truth out in the open do any of the characters heal, reconcile, or move on. Those unable to do so remain haunted, such as Mr. Harvey or the neighbor boy who is blamed for Mr. Harvey’s animal killings.
This is where the sex/death correlation throughout the book is most prominent. It seems childhood ends in one or the other. Both have the ability to destroy and leave someone a damaged soul, whether as an open wound or a blank mask. Both have the power to bring people together, heal, or begin something anew. It is Mr. Harvey’s sexual desire that causes Susie’s death, but it is Ray’s sexual desire that she clings to when she needs to feel alive, the life that could have been. It is pregnancy that ruins Abigail’s life, but it is a new marriage and a renewed intimacy with her husband that restores her to her family. Throughout the book, Abigail seems to be a reluctant Demeter. She is the keeper of the hearth and home, until her daughter is taken underground. She despairs, abandoning her duties and those who relied on her. By accepting that her daughter is lost beneath the earth she is able to find the yellow flowers that once evaded her and begin to see the new life around her.
As time goes by Susie becomes increasingly afraid of being left behind and this centers on a preoccupation with sexuality and sexual development. Lindsey gets hips; Susie never will. Lindsey gets a boyfriend; Susie never did. Lindsey has sex, Susie never will (although she does have a very weird and not very consensual sex scene with Ray by possessing second-sighted Ruth’s body; Ruth seems okay with it, but it was rather uncomfortable given that Susie herself is a victim of rape). This strange sexual rivalry with Susie’s mom and sister reminded me somewhat of the equally disturbing and predatory “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates.
Ruth’s side journey and Detective Fenerman’s personal demons bring home an interesting commentary on women, violence against women, and how the women who survive are often just as scarred as those who don’t, begun by Mr. Harvey’s childhood trauma and his conclusion that being a child or a woman is the most vulnerable thing to be. The world is full of damaged people. How long or how visibly we carry our scars may vary, but we all have them, shaped by violence, desire, and loss. In the end though, it is Lindsey’s marriage and pregnancy that helps Susie find peace. Her family can both move on and actually talk about Susie instead of keeping her shut up in her untouched room, an omnipresent force that no one acknowledges or addresses. Now she is free to live on through her niece because they finally let her die.
This brings me to another interesting point in the book. When Susie dies, her family is thrust into the spotlight. Lindsey becomes the sister of “that dead girl”. Susie’s picture becomes a symbol of death. The ritual in the cornfield that once brought healing and unity to a traumatized community becomes increasingly a spectacle of those who did not know her. Their invocation of her name is invasive and painful. The Salmon family is alternately given unwanted attention and shunned by those who view tragedy and death as some sort of contagion, as though death could taint a family (which, in many world religions, it can). Thus, the book is not so much about Susie’s death but the way we deal with grief, whether personally or as a society. Sex and death are both huge fears and fixations and they’re both treated as something abnormal or unspeakable when both happen everyday and it would benefit many to talk about them openly.
These themes could provide great fodder for a class or book club discussion. The Lovely Bones is an excellent study of grief, trauma and its aftermath, and healing, as well as a damningly nostalgic look at suburban life and domesticity in a “simpler” time. It’s a poignant story with memorable and fleshed out characters. My only complaints are the writing quality and the oddly business-like nature of Susie’s heaven. I found the half surrealist painting, half old Polaroid quality of her memory-based afterlife worked much better in film than on paper.
THE DEFENSE: To start, this book features murder, sex, the gamut of human sexuality, illness, statutory rape, domestic violence, suicide, and a rape scene that is vividly described rather than merely implied or recounted later (as it is usually portrayed in books and movies). The Lovely Bones is not light fare. However, as the book drives home, those too young to know about such realities or those living in a time when they were not commonly discussed or acknowledged are not any less susceptible to them. For more on this, please see my recent post on consent and banned books that discuss issues many teens face.
The vivid nature of Susie’s rape may be triggering to many, so if that’s something you are sensitive to or disturbed by, I do not recommend reading it. However, rape (and sex in general) in most literature is left at dot-dot-dot or a subtle implication that some readers may not catch or fully comprehend. For example, I once read a story in school where the main character was (I thought) clearly raped and murdered and not one other student picked up on it; even the teacher didn’t understand the ending until I brought it up. Sometimes not having the actual rape scene is better, sometimes it’s not. I think by showing the scene, the reader is forced to fully face what happened to Susie as a real event rather than an abstract fear, news snippet, or confession that she finally reveals to someone else. It was real the moment it happened, not the moment she told someone or the day the police figured it out.
The idea that this book should be chucked out because the killer was not caught enrages me. Most murders are not solved in a 60 minute episode, complete with a convenient life lesson. Most families who suffer such a loss in real life do not find immediate closure and complete, black and white justice. Life is a lot more complicated, frustrating, and disappointing than that. Cases get pushed to the back burner, left cold for years, abandoned all together, or are solved but do not achieve the complete justice-be-done conclusion that fictional courtrooms can bring. Murders go unsolved every day. Rape has a 2% conviction rate. Perpetuating the falsehood that justice and comeuppance will solve our tragedies is not only unrealistic, but insulting to the real Susies and Hollys and Lindseys and Abigails.
Serial killers exist. Rapists exist. Murderers exist. Suicide happens. We can’t change that. We can’t right every wrong. We can’t solve every case. But we can find someway to keep going and reconcile the world as we thought it was or think it should be and the world as it is. That is what healing is in the real world. It’s a wound slowly knotting into a scar, not disappearing as its replaced by the pristine skin we once had. Anyone who thinks the open-ended nature of The Lovely Bones is shocking or offensive is either extremely sheltered or in denial.
Taking issue with the mother leaving similarly irks me. Abigail is not given the moral highground. Her actions have severe and irreparable consequences. She missed half her children’s lives, she never saw them grow up (preoccupied as she was with her grief over never seeing Susie grow up), Lindsey no longer trusts her, and her son now hates her. She and her husband reconcile, but they can never get back the time they lost or undo the hurt they’ve caused each other. She did what she felt she had to, realizes the error of her ways, and tries to find some way of reconciling the life she wants and the life she is obligated to.
If the issue here is characters doing morally grey things, that’s just reality. Grief makes people do bad or questionable things, whether it’s the drug use and depression of the mother in Tiger Eyes or the father in The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, Alaska Young lashing out in Looking For Alaska, Marvel’s Mary Jane Watson drowning her pain in any kind of attention she can get, the mother’s complete inability to cope in Speak that makes her ignore her daughter’s suicidal behavior, or the grief-driven crusade of countless villains bent on vengeance (Malcolm Merlyn, Captain Beatty, Victor Fries, Sweeney Todd, Regina Mills, etc). We’re a society that grows up not questioning that dressing up in a bat costume and looking for hoodlums to beat up at 3 a.m. is a totally valid way of dealing with the death of your parents twenty years earlier. Who are we to judge how people cope with the unsolved, violent murder of their child?
If the issue here is that Abigail Salmon has broken the sacred covenant of motherhood by not being a “good mother” and putting her children’s needs before her sanity, I think the objecting parent missed the point entirely. Half of this book is an indictment of the 1970s suburban, waspy family structure and gender roles that leave women as wounded prey who end up ghosts or nurturing domestic goddesses who hold their family together no matter how much they’re hurting, screaming, or already dead inside. A woman leaving her husband and children for her own mental health and self discovery was shocking when Henrik Ibsen did it in “A Doll’s House” in 1879. Regardless of how right or wrong Abigail’s actions were, it should not be such an unspeakable concept in 2013. Again, for better or for worse, it is a reality for many and a story well-worth telling.