Joyce Carol Oates does not shy from controversy. A Book of American Martyrs is sure to become one of her most controversial since it centers on that most polarizing of American rifts–abortion. The martyrs in her book are Augustus Vorhees, a dedicated and idealist doctor who dares to offer women the totally legal medical services they need, and Luther Dunphy, the man who killed him for it. Of course, as is often the case, the martyrs merely die, it is their families who are crucified.
While we come to understand what motivates Vorhees and Dunphy, the real story is what happens to their families, fractured and broken on the altars of their husband and father’s beliefs. Vorhees and Dunphy’s wives both collapse and retreat from their children, leaving them doubly bereft. The parallels continue, both have an older son and daughter who are closer to each other than the younger sibling(s) and whose bond is embittered by their father’s death.
The story focuses mostly, but not solely, on the daughters, Naomi Vorhees and Dawn Dunphy. Naomi begins to chronicle her father’s life, thinking of a possible documentary film, but really, trying to make sense of her life and her loss. Dawn seeks a career in professional boxing, a reaction to a vicious assault in high school, but also a way to find control and redemption and bind herself to her father. Naomi seeks Dawn out under the pretext of doing a documentary on female boxers, her actions profoundly predatory and compassionate at the same time, shameful and redemptive.
I was angry with Oates several times reading this book, but the truly great books do not leave us comfortable. I did not like all her choices, but that is not the reason I give a book five stars. It’s reserved for books that are fresh and different, that challenge, and yes, even anger me. I think most readers will be angered a few times reading the book. They will feel provoked, even enraged. They will grieve, even sob with compassion for the survivors. It is a rare person who will not be emotionally wracked by this book.
I must confess that I cannot be dispassionate about this issue. I witnessed the suicide of a fourteen year old girl who threw herself from a parking garage after being terrorized by one of those fake crisis centers. I felt the rush of air displaced by her body; her blood and matter stained my clothes. Those anti-choice zealots drove her to despair, to suicide. I am sure they felt no remorse, only self-righteous satisfaction.
Oates was very successful at portraying Dunphy as more than a caricature of a murderous religious fanatic, adding reasons to sympathize with him, to perhaps understand how he came to be, but I don’t think he needed to lose a child or get his hours reduced to kill someone. He was a thug when he was young, a rapist, a violent man who masqueraded as decent for a time, but was given permission by the perversion of his religion to become a thug again, a murderer for Christ. He seemed to possess that toxic masculine bullying violence all his life and lost his temporary and always unsteady facade of control and decency.
Oates tries to throw a wrench in the works by having Vorhees’ mother confess to her granddaughter that she had tried to have an abortion when she was pregnant with Augustus. When she finally found someone willing to do the illegal surgery, the circumstances were such she was afraid she might die and she fled, having this child who grew up to be an abortion provider. She challenged her son, pointing out if abortions were legal when he was born, he never would have existed. It’s a fairly common anti-choice argument. I remember my former sister-in-law telling me a story when I was about ten or so about a woman who would have been saved from cancer by the cure discovered by her son, except she aborted him. It’s such a phony argument. After all, just as abortion ends the potential of one fetus, pregnancy ends the potential implantation of other eggs at a different moment. Yes, if aborted, Augustus Vorhees would not have existed, but his birth may have prevented the possible birth of some other child, someone who might have been as great or greater. It’s unknowable and a cheap argument, unworthy of Magdalena, the brilliant theorist.
I was puzzled by Vorhees’ widow Jenna. Her reaction to the murder of her husband seemed incongruous to her character before his death. Abandoning her children might have made sense if she were an indifferent mother before, but she was not. It felt wrong, but it certainly contributed to the trauma suffered by the Vorhees children and made their trauma parallel more closely the trauma suffered by Dunphy children, being talked about, feeling as though they lost both parents, not just one, in-school persecution and estrangement. It was heartbreaking for both families.
The two daughters, Naomi and Dawn, suffer the loss of their fathers, estrangement from their mothers, conflict with their siblings, and finding surprising compassion and understanding from unexpected quarters.
As you can tell from my review, A Book of American Martyrs is thought-provoking, sometimes so very perceptive, sometimes infuriating, but always alight with humanity.