A Widow's Story[Update: Feb 19, 2011. The piece below was written before I had finished reading A Widow’s Story, as I felt a need to immediately respond to the obvious distortions in Janet Maslin’s review. I wrote that Maslin’s questioning why JCO had not mentioned her engagement in a memoir that covered the time period of the engagement was a reasonable one. Having finished reading the book, I see now that Maslin’s primary criticism was a misrepresentation. Oh, let’s be honest: Janet Maslin lied once again.

As one of the commenters below noted also, the book does not cover a time period of a year and a half, as Maslin states, but covers approximately six months after the death of Raymond Smith. In fact, JCO ends her book on the day that she first meets her future second husband, and compares that meeting with the day she first met Raymond Smith.

I can’t appropriately express my disgust over Janet Maslin’s sleazy behavior. The New York Times is diminished by association with such unprofessionalism.]

In her review of Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir, A Widow’s Story, about the death of her husband Raymond J. Smith, New York Times critic Janet Maslin makes haste to point out that missing from the memoir is JCO’s engagement to Charles Gross, which took place during the time period covered by the book. Maslin asks, “how delicately must we tread around this situation?”

On Valentine’s Day, 2011, a well-known critic at a prominent newspaper performed a hatchet-job on Joyce Carol Oates, questioning the reality of her grief, mocking her friendship with Joan Didion, and trivializing the decades-long editorial work of her deceased husband, Raymond J. Smith.

How delicately must we tread around this situation?

It is reasonable to ask the question why does this memoir fail to mention an event as important as an engagement to be married. I can only speculate that since this memoir is self-described as one of “loss and grief,” that JCO is limiting its scope to those themes. A Widow’s Story is not a diary nor a journal; if Maslin was expecting otherwise, that is her oversight, not JCO’s.

And that is Maslin’s overarching failure in this piece—one not uncommon with certain kinds of reviewers—that she is reviewing a book that JCO didn’t write.

What is inexplicable to me is why Maslin felt compelled to turn a negative book review into a vicious personal attack on Oates.

Maslin seems to be unable to comprehend the idea that the heart is capable of holding both happiness and sorrow at the same time; that JCO could fall in love with Charles Gross while still grieving for her lost husband. That JCO chose to write about the latter, and not the former, is her prerogative, and is not an occasion for characterizing her book as therefore lacking “honesty” and “courage.”

After supposedly demonstrating that A Widow’s Story is a fake memoir of grief, Maslin then claims to know that the book was actually written not out of grief, but out of JCO’s apparent jealousy of the cash generated by Joan Didion’s bestselling memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. Maslin then mentions JCO’s two cats, because good writers always use elegant transitional devices:

“Ms. Oates, who had two pet cats with Mr. Smith, shows her own sharp claws when alluding to Ms. Didion’s book as an exercise in narcissism and vanity. Some widows, Ms. Oates suggests — ahem — might benefit from a good swift slap to break the spell of grief-mongering pathology.”

Maslin does not actually quote JCO here, I assume because doing  so would make the process of lying more difficult. Maslin is referring to a section in the memoir where JCO quotes a snippet of a letter that her friend Joan Didion has sent, noting that Didion’s stunned reaction to her own husband’s death over time became a realization that his death was “predictable.” JCO, who at that time was still in the “stunned” phase, wonders if being “stunned” is what compelled Didion to write her memoir. JCO then muses more generally,

“is there a perspective from which the widow’s grief is sheer vanity; narcissism; the pretense that one’s loss is so special, so very special, that there has never been a loss quite like it?  Is there a perspective from which the widow’s grief is but a kind of pathological pastime, or hobby—a predilection of the kind diagnosed as OCD—”obsessive compulsive disorder….”

JCO then lists examples of obsessive behavior in which we have already seen her engaging. So clearly JCO is speaking of herself here, not of her friend Didion. JCO finishes the thought,

“If only someone would publicly ridicule the widow, give the widow a good solid kick, slap the widow’s face or laugh in her face—the spell might be broken.”

Why would Maslin deliberately make this appear as if it were an attack by JCO on Joan Didion when it clearly isn’t; when the two writers are obviously friends? Didion was offering JCO sympathy. And JCO has written of Didion in her published Journal: “her generosity, her total lack of ‘professional rivalry’ are astounding….”

Perhaps even more disturbing  is Maslin’s casual dismissal of the career of Raymond Smith, for more than 30 years editor of the literary journal Ontario Review and for more than 20 years editor of the publishing house Ontario Review Press. After “treading” on JCO for leaving important information out of her memoir, Maslin carefully explains that the sole work of the Ontario Review Press was to reprint JCO’s books, and that both spouses were simply in the “Joyce Carol Oates business.”  What Maslin chose to leave out of this description is that Ontario Review Press published more than 70 books of poetry, short stories, novels, essays and interviews by new and established writers. Of those 70 or more books approximately 10 were reprints of JCO’s books, or collections of her poetry and plays. Again, I have to ask, why does Maslin slight the life-work of this dedicated man? Just to make JCO hurt for real?

Even beyond these main attacks, Maslin sprinkles her piece with meanness, like broken glass on the roadway. She puts forth the helpful notion that JCO’s grief is not as big as Didion’s grief, for we all know personal grief is easily weighed and measured like fish in a market; she suggests that JCO’s husband laughs at the idea of her winning the Nobel prize, when in fact he was scoffing at the annual rumor-mongering surrounding the prize; and Maslin weirdly complains that the addresses of JCO’s homes over the years have street names that are too “treacly.” One wonders how long Maslin has resided on Bitter Blvd.

Maslin ends her piece with one final shot, that a lecture JCO had presented earlier with the title “The Writer’s (Secret) Life: Woundedness, Rejection and Inspiration,” gave her a great head-start on a memoir about pain. Maslin, unprofessional to her fingertips, of course doesn’t point out that the lecture was about other writers—Emily Dickinson, Samuel Becket, Norman Mailer, etc.—people with whom Maslin has nothing in common other than their penchant for writing fiction.

Joyce Carol Oates notes in her memoir, “This is the era of ‘full disclosure.’ The memoirist excoriates him-/herself, as in a parody of public penitence, assuming then that the excoriation, exposure, humiliation of others is justified …

I think that this is unethical, immoral. Crude and cruel and unconscionable.

And Janet Maslin’s Valentine’s Day massacre of Joyce Carol Oates is also unethical, immoral. Crude and cruel and unconscionable.



  1. What a great rebuttal of a piece that is clearly unfair and prejudiced. I came over from Of Books and Bikes thanks to the comment you left there and am very glad to see this kind of ill-informed, finger-pointing journalism being taken apart.


  2. Histrionic. I’m sure JCO didn’t take the review this personally. Get over it. Just because you like JCO doesn’t mean her writing is perfect. Book reviewers and critics are paid to dissect and deconstruct writing. Otherwise, we’d live in a world where everyone’s writing was amazing all the time, even when it’s not.

    Also, the Joan Didion book is called “The Year of Magical Thinking,” not “A Year of Magical Thinking.” Perhaps you should verify these things before citing them.

    Just my two cents.


    • I make no claims to JCO’s work being “perfect.” And I don’t generally respond to negative reviews of JCO’s work, of which there are many. I responded to distortions and lies, which is what the Maslin piece provided. Negative opinions don’t bother me so much, but I feel It is important to call-out the liars.

      And thank you for correcting the title of the Didion memoir. I copied it from the Maslin review. I should have known she would get that wrong, too.


  3. Randy, this is a well-reasoned response to Maslin’s hatchet-job. It’s usually another Poison Pen in the Times that I don’t much admire. This, however, has got to be one of the most ill-conceived and mean “reviews” I’ve seen in quite a long time. I have no understanding of Maslin’s motivation.

    You are correct in noting that Maslin has reviewed a book that JCO did not write. Maslin positions her review as an expose, as if she–the reviewer–has revealed the “real” story of JCO’s tragic loss and nearly 50 years of marriage. Specifically that JCO, shudder!, dared to get engaged and remarried, and then not reveal it in her memoir. Please, Ms. Maslin, this is worthy of a tabloid, not the Times. JCO never kept this a secret, thus Maslin’s positing of it as a deliberate omission is all the more disingenuous.

    Maslin employs a laundry list of supposed exposes, augmented by gossipy aspersions, in lieu of critical insight or legitimate review. I too wouldn’t mind reading a negative review, however I completely object to this ill-conceived and deliberately cruel portrayal of JCO and Raymond Smith, and their works.


  4. I read Maslin’s review a couple days ago, and have just finished reading A Widow’s Story. In addition to the distortions you point out, it’s worth underlining two things.

    (1) Maslin’s mention of the book’s “timeline” is terribly misleading. Although there are passing mentions of later events, the bulk of A Widow’s Story takes place between February and June 2008, before Oates met, became engaged to, or married Charles Gross. None of the agonizing grief described in the memoir belongs to the period of her engagement.

    (2) Unless I’m misreading the passage, there is a mention of Gross, albeit an oblique one, near the end of A Widow’s Story. It may not be enough to satisfy Maslin’s odd notions of honesty, but it’s more than enough to make the accusation of “dissembling” seem like, well, a pot calling a refrigerator black.


  5. Just wonder why we can’t just respect JCO’s rights not to write about Charles Gross in the book (as mentioned by Randy here), which may also be some kind of respect to Mr. Smith? Maslin just sounds like a jealous ingrate to me.


  6. I’m a remarried widow, and I can tell you that we are frequently the object of envy by those who imagine there is some fairy-tale behind not just one, but two successful love relationships in one lifetime.
    Sheesh. I’ll be posting my own response to Maslin (and eventually, a review of JCO’s book itself) on my own blog soon.
    Best to you.


  7. The review was fair. Leaving out her engagement was a tactical error that came back and bit her. Perhaps other widowed people would understand the “duality” but they are not the only ones reading. Memoir is subjective but when the writer selectively tells the story the door for being called out on omissions is opened.

    Memoir is tricky. It’s the writer’s story through their experience but it will be filtered also through the experiences of the reader.

    As I read it, the reviewer was more concerned with the cliches, length and poor pacing than the widowed aspect.

    And writing about personal tragedy is not a magically way to ward off bad reviews. It would be poor reviewer who praises a poor written book our of pity for the author’s circumstances.

    Bottom line was that the book is too long, needs editing and given the author’s fame – leaves out too many necessary facts. And you write memoir at your own risk and not to look for personal affirmation.


  8. Remember the good old days when all a reviewer could do was rip apart your book? Janet Maslin’s pseudo-psychological poking around into JCO’s psyche was not only harsh and unnecessary, it was pointless to anyone reading her NYT review to solicit a “book worthy” opinion of “A Widow’s Tale”. Maslin’s piece says little about the book (she hated it), too much about JCO’s personal thoughts, feelings, opinions (none of which Maslin can claim to really know), and everything about Janet Maslin’s ability to use her position as a “respected” journalist as a weapon of mass destruction.


  9. I’m not a fan of JCO’s fiction, not my taste. But I do read, on occasion, her reviews, essays, journal entries. When I saw that she had written a memoir, revealing her personal life experiences, I decided to read it, almost in one sitting. I found it gripping. I accepted the structuring of the story, right to the last entry of August 30, 2008. In fact, the dated entries helped me to keep track of her healing stages. I also knew she would eventually read the Black Mass ms. It did not bother me that she interchanged regular with italic type, and that she used clearly marked chapter headings as major shifts. I stayed with the book to the very end. How/where will she end this memoir, I wondered? All the signs of healing were there: the support of friends, the solace of work, the garden. I read and re-read the last entry. She and a friend host a dinner party at her home. I studied the sentence structure “and one of these guests was a stranger to me …” “and I could not have guessed how… my life would be altered.” I closed the book, quietly. Only then did I decide to read reviews of this memoir. And that’s when I found out that JCO remarried on March 13, 2009. Yes, it was a jolt. So soon? After such grief? But that’s another story. And so I did not feel betrayed.


  10. Randy, my only complaint about your denunciation of Janet Maslin is that it’s far too restrained!

    While you, quite properly, focused on the large-scale outrages, let me zoom in on a few instances where Maslin peppers ‘details’ of Joyce’s work with her AK-47—no less disgusting for their being ‘minor’ compared to the ones you cite.

    1)Maslin sneeringly says: “Ms. Oates confides, for instance, that she and her husband called each other “Honey” as if this were an exotic intimacy.” No, Ms. Maslin, Joyce only indicated, correctly and fascinatingly, that she had an unusual reason for strictly referring to Ray as “Honey”. To quote Joyce, “Also—I can’t explain—a kind of shyness set in. I was shy calling my husband “Ray”—as if this man of near-thirty, when I’d first met him, represented for me an adulthood of masculine confidence and ease to which at twenty-two, and a very young, inexperienced twenty-two, I didn’t have access.” Clearly, the intimate, informal “Honey” would allow Joyce to feel a greater sense of equality, even as the simultaneous avoidance of “Ray” made that forbidding persona of her husband’s temporarily recede. The book is filled, several times per page, with just such analysis, which extracts from the most seemingly pedestrian acts wonderful, character-revealing insights. But Maslin still stupidly saw, or pretended to see, only the pedestrian act, and complained about its being mentioned.

    2)And then there’s Maslin deriding Joyce for inundating the reader with “much minutiae (Ms. Oates likes to vacuum)”. Oh really, Ms. Maslin? Was that Joyce’s intent, in discussing vacuuming? Here’s the passage:”I am always happy vacuuming—the thrumming noise drowns out the noises inside my head and, underfoot, a sudden smoothness in the texture of a carpet has the visceral feel of a spiritual calm, almost a blessing.”
    Maslin’s claim–the reality. Could there be a vaster gulf?

    3)Maslin, trying to make Joyce’s penetrating, psychologically astute account seem trivial and tedious, asserts: “She offers her idea of practical advice for the new widow. (Get many copies of the death certificate. Wear socks to bed.)” Maslin’s reference, in that way, to Joyce’s wearing socks to bed is particularly galling. Anyone not blinded by Maslin’s unreasoning malice understood the meaning of that particularly poignant passage where Joyce, lacerating herself (unreasonably of course) for not getting to the hospital quickly enough to see her husband alive one last time, is showing the reader the extent of her deranged overreaction:

    “I don’t undress, entirely. Partly because I am so very cold—sometimes my teeth chatter convulsively—unless I am feeling feverish, and my skin is sweaty-clammy—but mostly because I want to be prepared for leaving the bed quickly—running from the house if summoned. Never will I forget—I hear the voice often—as I see the lizard-creature with the beady dead gem-like eyes—”Mrs. Smith? You’d better come to the hospital as soon as you can—your husband is still alive.” Especially, I wear warm socks.
    If you are likely to be summoned unexpectedly from bed, it is a very good idea not to go to bed barefoot.
    Precious minutes are wasted pulling on socks! In a time of desperation, nothing is more awkward.
    And so I have become, even in the nest-sanctuary, incapable of removing my clothes at night, and wearing what is called night-wear as I’d used to wear, in my former life.
    In fact it has come to seem to me utterly brazen, reckless, and plain ignorant, that one would even consider ‘undressing’, and making oneself needlessly vulnerable, like a turtle slipping out of its shell.”

    Just compare the meaning Joyce gave to “wear socks to bed” with Maslin’s claim of ‘practical advice for the new widow’ and then try to justify Maslin’s retaining her position with the New York Times.

    Are you all as mystified as I at Maslin’s assault, combining intense maleficence with egregious dishonesty in a way that defiles journalism? Randy, I’m a newcomer to Joyce–I’ve never read anything by her before this book–and I’m largely unfamiliar with Joyce’s place in the literary community and her status among critics. Is there some “history” between Joyce and Maslin or Joyce and critics in general that would at least explain, though by no means justify, this act of savagery?


    • Thank you for the further clarifications. Maslin’s distortions are so many and so egregious that my mind just sort of blanked out, but that you and Souther took the time and had the patience to set things straight makes me glad. Joyce is above Maslin’s crap, but who wouldn’t be aghast at and angry about that vicious attack? Again, thanks.


      • Thanks for your generous words William, but here’s the unfortunate truth. While Randy and I tried to achieve a reasonable facsimile of justice by defending Joyce’s work, and by carefully and systematically exposing at least some of the malicious, deliberate distortions of Maslin, it is clear that by the most important measure, we failed.

        I make that sad, reluctant judgment because of the letter Joyce recently wrote to the New York Review of Books. (Randy announces it and provides a link in his May 6, 2011 comment, see below). If you wish you can read my assessment of her letter in several of my comments following Randy’s announcement, but here I’ll just say that her letter makes it evident that the trauma suffered by Joyce at the hands of Maslin and others was so profound that it “unhinged” her rational and perceptive faculties even more than the death of Ray. Having Randy, myself, and many others rise to her defense apparently didn’t allay her rage against the unfairness of her critics in the slightest. To me, one of the main reasons to speak out against a terrible injustice is to help make the victim of it feel dramatically less aggrieved, if not restored to wholeness. And in that, we evidently failed.


  11. Maslin’s review was despicable and after I read it, I looked online for expressions of outrage. I’m relieved to find them here. Thank you to everyone for reasoning through these arguments against Maslin – for my part, I was made so ill by her cruelty that I couldn’t think straight.


  12. My wife of 40 years died 14 months ago. JCO’s chronicle of her six months of agony mirror my own, including the startling comfort of suicidal thoughts. Unlike her I had a ready method in the drawer by my bed, a .38 calibre revolver which I never touched turning the entire time. I did however look up where the best place to place the barrel of the gun was since a bullet to the head doesn’t always kill you. I kept myself alive by my solemn promise to my wife to stay alive to care for the Westies we both loved, Mac and Duff.

    They have always slept in our bed and their cuddling next to me gave and gives me great comfort. For an entire year they wouldn’t sleep on my wife’s side of the bed. Two months ago they finally did. I wished for JCO that her cats were more affectionate.

    I read all the non-spiritual “how to survive” manuals on grief which were somewhat helpful. The autobiographical accounts helped the most. Before reading JCO just now, I found C.S. Lewis and Didion most helpful. But JCO has help the most. The word “raw” keeps coming up; I used the word “meltdown” to describe many of my experiences.

    I did know of JCO’s remarriage, but have mixed feelings about it not being included in an afterword to the book. This is because while I still miss my wife intensely and perhaps once a week have a brief “meltdown”, I am trying to meet new women and would like to get married again.

    Nobody provokes the feelings I had for my wife and I lament that I will never meet someone and we’d fall in love. I wish I knew the barest of details of JCO’s courtship and new marriage so I’d see how it felt to grieve as hard as we both did, and still make a new life with someone new.

    Still, not knowing anything but the fact JCO did and seeing some of the photos of the wedding gives me hope that there’s someone out there for me.

    Hal Brown, Middleboro, MA
    (You can read an article in our local paper written after my wife died if you google Betty Brown Middleboro)


  13. I just finished JCO’s memoir. I found it much too long and depressing. I put it down frequently only to try to finish it another day. I just didn’t understand all the refrences to all the drugs and the thoughts of dying.
    I too am a widow. Perhaps because I had 2 small children at the time I did not allow myself to fall into such a state. The word co-dependant comes to mind.


  14. I lost my husband, the true and astonishing love of my life last July. Since then I have been reading widely on loss, grief and widowhood and traveling my own journey. Hence my reading of “The Widow’s Story”. NY Times Review aside, “A Widow’s Story” was to me an appalling work, revealing Oates as an uncommonly selfish and self-absorbed person–leaving aside her rapid re-marriage.

    To me, Oates’ expression of wild loss seemed driven more by the sudden removal of her buffer from the details of living, and the disruption of her routine rather than the absence of the man himself. What struck me most, however, was the absolute hollowness of her life beyond her work, which clearly and understandably deepened her grief.

    I experienced mounting disbelief, dismay and ultimately horror, not at her personal journey, but at her willingness to savage others including her late husband on what I can only conclude is the altar of literature. The brutal and catty unkindness to some of those reaching out to her was truly disgusting.

    But most disturbing was her public disrobing of her late husband, revealing his most personal history and work which he clearly meant to be private. Her compulsion to feed her hungry muse with even the most intimate details of a partner’s life was stunningly disrespectful at best.

    The “shiny new thing” in her life was foreshadowed by her recovery of earrings at the end of her memoir. I can only hope that her new life can help her come to an understanding of what it means to be a human being, rather than merely a writer.


  15. Nan, I wrote about my own loss above (March 29th) – I read your harsh critique several times first wondering if we read the same book, then trying as hard as I could to understand your very negative reaction: “an appalling work”. I don’t know if JCO is an uncommonly selfish or self-absorbed person, for all I know she may be. However, in grief as intense as hers, and mine and I assume yours, we all react differently. My reaction was almost identical to JCO’s.

    I suppose one could say I was selfish but in fact, all I was trying to do was focus on myself to survive, to stave off those suicidal thoughts, to let the sobbing until I was gagging and almost vomiting just exhaust me and stop.

    I was certainly self-absorbed because after 40 years of being half of a couple all I had left was me and my memories and the knowledge I would never be with my wife again.

    I am not sure whether JCO was so work oriented she had little life beyond writing. It didn’t seem that way. It seemed that she and her husband were partners both in many aspects of their work as well as having a deep shared intimacy.

    I didn’t find her being catty to those reaching out. Sometime people who mean well say things that hurt, and sometimes in your hurt you may react abruptly and say what you feel without regard to good manners.

    As to her revelations about her husband and his work, how does anyone know he meant them to be private after his death. How do you know he wouldn’t have told JCO to do what she wanted with his work and his own “story” after he died.

    As to finding something unexpected that belonged to your spouse after he or she died, that can be a bitter sweet experience. It happened to me at least a dozen times.

    The only part I am troubled by I wrote about in my first post. I want to understand how she handled her grief as she began a new relationship. It seems like a very short time to me (and most experts agree). Any literary magazine would publish an essay by JCO as an epilogue to her widow’s story.


  16. Hal, we all have different responses to books–that’s what makes the world go around. However, I made a similar comment on JCO’ Facebook page–and it was deleted. There is something odd about censorship on an author’s site–don’t you think? I’m fully expecting my comments to disappear from here.

    (Also I think raising the question of her rapid re-marriage is fair. I hadn’t realized that her new husband had so many marriages behind him.)


    • Nan,

      I am disappointed in whoever deleting what you wrote from the JCO website. The issues you bring up come not from a professional critic like Janet Maslin, but rather as a woman who also went though the death of her beloved husband. Our interchange here goes beyond the typical debate about a book because we are expressing feelings and opinions about grief.

      For example it is helpful to others in out situations to explore matters like how JCO writes about how her husband being absent in various routine life situations impacted her. You interpret that as his being a buffer from the routines of life. You may very well be correct. But couples have roles in a marriage and perhaps this was part of his, and was one he readily accepted. I don’t think it means she didn’t desperately miss her husband as as the love of her life.

      As to her unusually rapid courtship and remarriage, I totally agree with you. I go further as a psychotherapist who now has become a reluctant expert on grief not only having experienced it, but having read every book written on the death of a spouse, having been in three bereavement groups and individual grief therapy.

      I think there is a good chance that JCO met someone who allowed her to cut short her grieving before it could run its course, before she could grow personally from it in an existential way, and before the loss could be integrated both into her unconscious “mind” and into the very neural circuitry where a spouse comes to “reside” in a literal way.

      Grief, while certainly not a disease, has symptoms as painful as many actual diseases. In a way I see rushing into a new relationship as analogous to this: if you had a non-terminal disease that caused agonizing pain and you decided to use heroin to stop the pain. You erase the pain with what is arguably the most effective analgesic, but never resolve the cause.

      The research on grief tells us that 50% of remarriages which occur within the first two years of the death of a spouse fail. It doesn’t tell us how many of the other 50% are truly successful.

      I think enough time has gone by in her life for JCO to enlighten the many widows and widowers who have read her book as to what has transpired in her own “story”. As an accomplished writer who told about her grief in an unflinching manner knowing it would be read by thousands of others like her, I think she owes us the other half of her widow’s story.


  17. Though not having had the loss-of-spouse experience, I was nonetheless riveted by Joyce’s insightful account and dismayed by Maslin’s morally if not legally libelous review—which I systematically dissected in a comment above (roger stein, March 10, 2011). But I must say that nan’s believable claim that her critical comments were deleted from Joyce’s Facebook page is very disturbing, and possibly instructive in a number of ways.

    First, I want to hail you, Randy, for permitting free discussion in your own bailiwick, especially since this site apparently has some official connection with JCO—which, given the Facebook events, suggests that there might be implicit, or even quite explicit, pressure on you to make deletions of your own whenever Joyce’s image is “sullied” by criticism. Kudos for resisting that pressure! I understand you are a reference librarian—perhaps that explains your commendable behavior. If there were a Hippocratic Oath for librarians, it would undoubtedly begin, “First, do no censorship.”

    Second, I immediately went to the web to verify my suspicion that Joyce, like essentially all writers, is a passionate foe of censorship “in general”. Just moments of searching found her participating in a panel discussion on the subject, voicing the expected denunciations of the parochial souls who want to silence those others whose words make them uncomfortable. I wish I could say it was ironic, then, for her to quickly wield the hatchet when she herself was made uncomfortable. But if irony occurs when reality behaves contrary to all rational expectations, then it is not actually ironic, to me, for Joyce to act this way. All my personal experience has shown that it is the rarest person who DOESN’T take action whenever possible to stifle criticism of themselves, or to conceal egregious errors that they’ve made, even when their lives are devoted to denouncing others for stifling criticism and concealing egregious errors . (Glenn Greenwald, the influential blogger, was an especially disheartening illustration of this phenomomen for me.) So sadly, my “rational expectations” were that Joyce, passionate crusader for free speech, would delete, without a second thought, the slightest unpalatable reference to herself—hence no irony in her act, just another painful reminder that we are all incredible hypocrites.

    Third, nan, I salute you for having the sheer guts to post your comments on this site after your experience on Joyce’s Facebook page. And your comments were thoughtful and beautifully expressed. But I do have a request of you, if I may presume to make one. If you read my rebuttal of Maslin posted here on March 10th, you’ll see that I felt an obligation to make it as objective as possible, to support my evisceration of Maslin’s critique with precise quotations of the text of her Times’ review, juxtaposed with the relevant portions of JCO’s work, portions substantial enough to put Joyce’s words fully in context, and thus render their true meaning with great clarity. By this method, point by telling point, the slanderous falsity of Janet Maslin’s claims was laid bare. May I ask you to do something similar regarding your charges about Joyce and this book? Can you, for example, quote the passages that you believe support your claim that Joyce showed a “willingness to savage others including her late husband on what I can only conclude is the altar of literature. The brutal and catty unkindness to some of those reaching out to her was truly disgusting.”

    “Brutal and catty unkindness to some of those reaching out to her”???–nan, you really encountered passages displaying that? Please, as someone ready to revise my view of Joyce in light of new evidence, I’d love you to cite a few of those passages and make me see the truth I missed the first time around.

    Finally, hal. After reading your eloquent posts, as full of compelling psychological insight as they were free of off-putting psychological “jargon”, I was galvanized to do as you suggested and google “betty brown middleboro”, to read about your late wife. Just knowing there are, or at least were, cranberry growers with Ph.D.’s in American literature makes me smile! And did you get that convertible? I hope so!!


    • Roger–thanks for your support. I no longer have my copy of the book–but can describe the specific interactions that I thought were unkind and catty from memory–they hit me that strongly. One was her description of the woman referred to as C who was trying to organize a dinner party for her. The fact that Joyce made this woman seem insensitive and unkind, when she, Joyce, simply wasn’t straightforward about saying “No, I really can’t do that right now”. (And having been there in very deep grief, I see it thru that lens.) The other comments that were quite awful to me was her denigration of gifts that were people expressing their sympathy in the best way they could. Yes, loss is tough, but one still is part of the human race–and remember, Joyce is writing about people who are part of her community. To me these were examples of her self-absorption and lack of any spiritual center–so very self revealing–but still unkind. A memoir is not fiction–if one reveals oneself, one can expect reactions.


    • Hi Roger,

      Let me clarify a few things for everyone.

      I run the web site “Celestial Timepiece: The Joyce Carol Oates Home Page” which is my own personal web site. JCO over the years has liked it so much that she treats it as her de-facto official home page, and sends me information about some of her publications and activities. At no time has she ever tried to influence the direction of the web site or asked me to remove anything. On that web site my general goal has been to provide information and to not insert my own opinions (to the extent that that is possible–of course the site’s very existence suggests my opinion). In that sense, the web site reflects the “librarian” in me.

      I created this blog, “Crossing the Border” as an easy way for me to post news items about JCO, but also as a separate forum from the web site to include opinionated material. My critique of the Maslin review is a prime example. I would never post something like that on Celestial Timepiece, however.

      The JCO Facebook page which is linked off of Celestial Timepiece is also run by me. Originally this was somebody else’s Facebook Fan page on JCO, but they no longer wished to administer it, and kindly offered it to me. My view of Facebook is that it is a place for friends to gather. If you have a personal Facebook page, then your actual friends make a friend-request on the site, and you allow them into your page. If it is a “fan” page which is not actually run by the person it is about, then Facebook members can join the page by clicking the “Like” button. So the implicit agreement to join is that you are a friend of, or that you “like” this person.

      So each of these venues is run with different criteria in mind. If someone writes a critical, even harsh opinion in this blog, that’s okay, so long as it doesn’t devolve into personal attacks. If someone were to write exactly the same thing on the Facebook page, that would be okay, too (even friends can be critical of each other).

      On the other hand, if someone were to post something on Facebook that was simply mean and dripping with sarcasm, I would have absolutely no problem deleting the post and banning the person from that site.

      Further, if a person were to write a harsh opinion on this blog, which I decided is worth keeping on the blog; and this same person posts a reply to his or her own post, but under a different name, to make it appear, falsely, that someone else shares the same opinion, I will delete the fake reply. And if in the future that same person were to continue in their inappropriate behavior, rather than in a civil discussion, I will consider deleting everything they’ve written.

      As a librarian I am sensitive to issues of censorship. But in a library there are standards of behavior. Even online there are standards of social discourse. “Freedom of Speech” does not give anyone the freedom to say or do anything they want on my blog or Facebook page. The issue here is not censorship, it is personal behavior.

      And just to be clear: any administrative activity, whether good or ill, that takes place on any of my online venues is solely my responsibility.



      • Randy– Atlthough I am truly surprised that you felt that you had to delete my comment on Facebook– I appreciate your candor. As part of my work, I consult on social media and other forms of marketing communication–and typically social arenas particularly for public figures (or companies) are self moderating. In other words, if a comment is posted that others disagree with–the participants respond in an open forum. I have to say, since I do this work internationally for organization, one of the few places you see the sort of activity you describe yourself as doing is in China, and other highly controlled regimes. So you may want to reconsider your approach.


    • Roger thank you for the very kind word. Indeed, two weeks after Betty died I did get the convertible, a hard-top Lexus convertible no less. If I believed there was an afterlife, I know Betty was there making fun of me and saying “as IF that can replace ME!”

      Nan, you are very thoughtful and candid in your response to Roger. Since neither of us were there and can only go by what JCO wrote, all we can to is speculate. I’d like to believe her insensitivity to her friends feelings came out of her being overwhelmed by her own grief.

      My grief overwhelmed me, as your did yours, but like you I was understanding of my friends awkward attempts to give me support. I don’t think everyone has this empathy in them when they are grief stricken. I forgive them this. The first six months of grieving the loss of a beloved spouse are as close as most of us will ever come to severe mental illness. We quite literally aren’t in our right mind, we aren’t ourselves.

      Again, not to belabor this, but I really wish JCO would write an epilogue to her book if only as a contribution to bereavement studies.


  18. Nan, precisely because your posts so piercingly indicate that you possess a fine, discerning intellect I feel that you won’t resent my subjecting one of your comments to serious scrutiny. You make a very specific assessment of one brief episode in the book, an assessment that readily lends itself to definite confirmation or refutation.

    You say, “I no longer have my copy of the book–but can describe the specific interactions that I thought were unkind and catty from memory–they hit me that strongly. One was her description of the woman referred to as C who was trying to organize a dinner party for her. The fact that Joyce made this woman seem insensitive and unkind, when she, Joyce, simply wasn’t straightforward about saying “No, I really can’t do that right now”. (And having been there in very deep grief, I see it thru that lens.)”

    Here is the incident to which you refer—and I genuinely believe that, as you re-read it now, even before I utter a word of commentary, you will yourself see the stark contrast between your memory (and characterization) of the passage and the actual passage:

    “She’s a lovely woman, a colleague at the University, not a close friend but of that nimbus of friendly acquaintances who in the aftermath of Ray’s death have sent cards, flowers; she has sent me an e-mail saying that she and her husband, who teaches at another university, want to invite me to dinner at their house soon, and what are some evenings that are possible for me; and so I have responded, for there are many empty evenings indicated in my calendar, in March; in such empty evenings lurks the horror vacui that so terrified the ancient Egyptians, this horror vacui that seeps from the outer, darkened rooms of the house into the bright-lighted bedroom; and so what better remedy, if a temporary remedy, than a dinner with friends, to dispel this horror….[Joyce then says that though she sees her small circle of friends often, there are still empty evenings, and quotes a passage from Pascal beginning: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” She then returns to the matter of the proposed dinner party.]…And so what better remedy than a dinner with friends except the lovely C_ replies to my e-mail saying that, of the dates I’ve named, not one is quite right.

    “For it seems, C_ is hoping to compose a dinner party of heroic proportions. Where I’d thought the dinner would be just C_ and her husband and another couple perhaps, it is revealed that C_ wants to invite X, Y, Z—All friends of yours, Joyce—who want to see you, too—but these others, one of them a university president with a very busy schedule, can’t make the dates we’ve marked in pencil, maybe other dates, maybe later in the month, or early April—finally, I send C_ an e-mail suggesting that we have just a small dinner, just her and her husband and one or two other couples—but C_ insists So many people want to see you, Joyce!—she has ten guests “committed” for a Saturday in early April—except, R_, a mutual friend, can’t make this date—also S_, who will be in Rome at a conference on international law—and so, could I look at my calendar again; more e-mails are exchanged; at last C_ has invited eighteen people—several of them “friends” whom I have not seen in a very long time—but of these, one or two are “tentative”—and so C_ must change the date another time; the new date suggested isn’t a date that I can make; another time, C_ must change the date; I am beginning to realize that though C_ has said that she and her husband are “eager” to see me they are in fact dreading to see me; to that end, C_ is erecting obstacles to our dinner as in an equestrian trial in which each jump must be higher than its predecessor, and more dangerous; I envision a thirty-foot dining room table and at the farther end the widow placed like a leper, as far from the lovely C_ as possible. I would so much prefer a small dinner, just you and your husband and another couple perhaps, I think that’s what I would like best which pleading e-mail C_ seems never to receive or, receiving, chooses to ignore; abruptly then, our e-mails on the subject cease; the heroic dinner party imagined by the lovely C_ never materializes.

    “I will not hear from C_ again for a very long time though mutual acquaintances will assure me, C_ misses you, she says, and wants to see you soon!”

    And so ends the episode, Nan. First, it should be clear that your statement, “ The fact that Joyce made this woman seem insensitive and unkind, when she, Joyce, simply wasn’t straightforward about saying “No, I really can’t do that right now” ” is factually wrong on several different grounds. First, Joyce did in fact email her, explicitly expressing her desires: “Finally, I send C_ an e-mail suggesting that we have just a small dinner, just her and her husband and one or two other couples—but C_ insists So many people want to see you, Joyce!” And later Joyce emails, “ I would so much prefer a small dinner, just you and your husband and another couple perhaps, I think that’s what I would like best which pleading e-mail C_ seems never to receive or, receiving, chooses to ignore; abruptly then, our e-mails on the subject cease; the heroic dinner party imagined by the lovely C_ never materializes”. So, contrary to your claim Nan, Joyce was indeed, indisputably, “straightforward” in just the way you said she should have been but wasn’t. She clearly expressed what she desired but was ignored by C_ –a desire, I must point out, that would have presented absolutely no logistical problems in satisfying, if C_ had actually wished to do so.

    But even so, even preferring a small party, Joyce would still have attended the “heroic” dinner party C_ supposedly wanted had C_ actually wanted it. But I think Joyce presents ‘clear and convincing’ evidence (closely verging on ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ evidence, I dare say!) that C_ was eager to avoid ANY party. Obviously, once it became clear that no single date could accommodate every single person C_ wished to invite, if C_ had sincerely desired to have the party she would have settled on any of numerous days when MOST prospective invitees could attend. Her failure to do that, and her already-discussed ignoring of Joyce’s explicitly expressed desire to have a small party with just a few couples (which could have so easily been accommodated!) confirms for me the correctness of Joyce’s own conclusion: “ I am beginning to realize that though C_ has said that she and her husband are “eager” to see me they are in fact dreading to see me; to that end, C_ is erecting obstacles to our dinner as in an equestrian trial in which each jump must be higher than its predecessor, and more dangerous.”

    Does this portrayal of the interaction by Joyce make C_ appear “insensitive and unkind”, as you describe it Nan? And in fact, if it does, WAS C_ insensitive and unkind? I think the answer to both questions is no. That’s because Joyce immediately suggests a psychological defense mechanism is being employed by C_ , making her behave as she does. She’s depicted not as unkind but simply self-protective. Joyce makes a reference to her own status, in the mind of C_, as a leper: “ I envision a thirty-foot dining room table and at the farther end the widow placed like a leper, as far from the lovely C_ as possible.” I wish Joyce had fleshed out this concept. May I try?

    Many years ago, Nan, I read a very striking passage in, of all things, a baseball memoir by Jim Bouton. He described how, occasionally during the season, a player would get sent back down to the minors, after having played for a while on the major league team. The unfortunate player would be called into the manager’s office to be given the news. When he emerged, face ashen, struggling to keep from revealing the anguish he was feeling, did the other players, especially his good buddies on the team, rush to console him? NO! On the contrary! Bouton described how from the moment the player was called into the manager’s office until he departed on a bus to join the Triple-A team in some hick town, NOT A SINGLE PLAYER SPOKE A SINGLE WORD TO HIM! Or came within 20 feet of him!! Including his best friends!! And the reason was, I believe, exactly the same as C_’s reason for avoiding the dinner party at all costs. The other players, and C_, knew two things: 1)They knew that the experience the demoted player (and the widow) was undergoing was dreadful, but their concept of ‘dreadful’ was notional and vague—not visceral and vivid. The former kind of knowledge is bearable, the latter often not. And as long as the other players (and C_) stayed at a far remove from the victim, they could keep the unbearable kind of knowledge at bay. And there was a special reason for the vivid and visceral knowledge of the demoted player’s (and widow’s) pain to be more unbearable than such knowledge usually is. That special reason is contained in the second thing they knew: 2)They knew that the demoted player’s (and widow’s) experience was one that there was an excellent chance they themselves would someday undergo. Yes, many players are “sent down”, many spouses are widowed. The other players (and C_ ) were all too aware of that awful reality. So it wasn’t simply a too painful empathy for the victim that they were shielding themselves from by keeping their distance, it was a too clear glimpse of their own very possible future self’s anguish!!!

    I hope you haven’t minded, Nan, my placing your words into the ‘crucible’ and turning up the flame. I don’t know if my analysis is likely to cause you to reconsider your evaluation of Joyce, at least regarding this one particular incident—the only one you mentioned with enough specificity for me to respond in a meaningful way.

    One last comment, Nan. I think the first line of your first post is pure poetry: “I lost my husband, the true and astonishing love of my life, last July.” The use of the word ‘astonishing’ is so unexpected but so perfect in that context that it makes the whole sentence spectacularly evocative—the reader (or at least THIS reader) is simultaneously dumbstruck, electrified, and moved almost to tears! I think Sylvia Plath would have reacted to such a line with envy—envy of your having written it… and of your having lived it!


  19. That is exactly the passage I was referring to–and my reaction was exactly as I described it. The reality is, even when one is stricken with grief–one can be very clear and transparent about what one can do–and what one can’t. Saying “No” and continuing to encourage further dialogue about dates means to me that JCO’s “No” was neither clear nor transparent. And in her memoir, she clearly disparages C’s efforts to be supportive, without taking any responsibility for her own behavior. Having been in this same situation several times–I can assure you that being direct and transparent allows everyone more ease and grace.


    • JCO writes that C wasn’t a close friend, rather a member of her ” nimbus of friendly acquaintances “. This sounds like a far larger group than most of us have. MY own experience was that a few such acquaintances of mine wanted to invite me over for dinner or meet me for lunch or or dinner during those first six months. I told them that I couldn’t handle such social engagements yet and they readily accepted that.

      I was direct and transparent, but you seem to miss the fact that C wasn’t either. She didn’t explain that the true nature of the planned event. I understand why JCO didn’t ask for more specifics of C. JCO made the assumption this was to be a small gathering, and ideally she should have confirmed this.

      I was spending time with just a few of my cherished friends, those who I trusted not to say the “wrong thing” and to listen with true empathy. It seems to me JCO felt some impulse to satisfy the needs of others (acquaintances) rather than accept this was her time, and she had every right to set the rules.

      Of course I am not famous and can only guess what a feather in C’s cap it might have been to have a dinner party with a group of movers and shakers in the literary and academic world with the grief stricken JCO as the main attraction. Am I leaning towards the cynical in this? You bet.

      However, after JCO refused to provide alternate dates because the university president couldn’t attend on the dates everyone else could, C seemed to loose interest in JCO and her grief.

      It almost seemed that C was more interested in showing off to said university president by organizing a party for JCO than helping her with her grief.

      I question the notion that anybody suffering through such grief will benefit from having a group a concerned acquaintances get together to express concern in an informal group setting,

      So far I find this is a good discussion of grief and nan’s contributions have opened discussion of an area often missed in the grief literature.


  20. First, to Randy:

    I must compliment you on your highly dramatic manner of appearing among us commenters: with your eye-catching white type on black background, you swoop in and rivet our attention like a costumed superhero suddenly descending upon the “ordinary folks” on the street. Quite an effect!!

    As to the substance of your comments, I was immediately reminded of the great “In the Cathedral” chapter of Kafka’s “The Trial”, where the priest tells Joseph K. the “Before the Law” parable and then the two analyze and interpret it. I feel that you are playing the role of the priest, and the rest of us are Joseph K. What’s so notable about their dialogue in the book is that as logical and intelligent as Joseph K.’s comments are, at every turn the priest’s analysis is more penetrating, more observant of detail, and above all, far more nuanced. He constantly is pointing out subtleties that Joseph K. has overlooked, subtleties that entirely alter one’s understanding of the significance of the behavior of the characters in the parable.

    That is precisely the case with your rejoinder to all of the remarks from us commenters about the Facebook deletions and “censorship”. You point out many differences among the various JCO venues that none of us had previously considered. I think the distinction you make between the appropriate atmosphere on the Facebook page (one of comity rather than stridency and discord) and the one on this blog (where anything short of personal attack is permitted) is an entirely valid and acceptable one. Now, if this blog did not exist, then it would be a completely different matter: if the only JCO forum available was one with “enforced pleasantness” among its participants, then that would be deeply offensive and unacceptable, and in that circumstance you could be accused of reminding people of forums in China, as you were by Nan, and it would not be unjust. But since this blog does exist, and since I don’t observe the presence of any inappropriate constraints on discussions held here, I think you are administering the various JCO-related websites not just acceptably but admirably.

    One other crucial point, Randy. In light of these new facts that you’ve presented, I happily withdraw my premature placement of Joyce among those who decry censorship of themselves while engaging in censorship of others. With your explanation of the events on Facebook versus what occurs in this forum, clearly Joyce has NOT turned over responsibility for her online presence to a Censor. So, Joyce: if you’ve been aware of this discussion, my apologies for my overhasty condemnation of you. And I feel uplifted at your exoneration—a bit like Nick Carraway when he learns some key facts that restore his temporarily lost faith in Gatsby’s integrity.

    Now to the matter of Nan and the issue of Joyce’s behavior with C_ and the dinner party. Way back in the 1930’s my grandfather collected all the early books in the Ellery Queen mystery series, and they became almost family heirlooms—preserved in a little nook of the family library. Many decades later, as a young teenager, I devoured them, mainly because of a unique feature: about 2/3 of the way through each book, you’d turn the page and suddenly be confronted with the boldly-typed words, “CHALLENGE TO THE READER”. The author would then inform you that you were in possession of all the facts necessary to solve the mystery, and he urged you not to immediately proceed with the narrative but to take some time and attempt to reach a solution on your own. (I imagine the author was confident of the inevitable failure of the reader to deduce the correct solution, and believed that the reader’s unsuccessful struggles would heighten his appreciation of the cleverness of the puzzle when the solution was eventually revealed. If so, he was exactly correct!!) I bring this up because I want to offer a CHALLENGE TO THE READER of this blog: take some time and review the passage from the book on C_’s dinner party. If you don’t have the book handy, I quote all the relevant material in my previous entry, so read it, and like the Ellery Queen reader, you will be in possession of all the facts necessary to reach a judgment on who is correct: Nan or I.

    Nan, I must say I was disappointed to see you maintaining, completely unaltered, the opinion you originally expressed. To me, it’s a dramatic illustration of the famous rhyming aphorism “He convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.” May I immodestly claim that in my previous post I meticulously demolished the entire logical and factual infrastructure of your position? And yet here you are, reasserting that same position, though without refuting a single point I made. To me, it’s an indication of the intensity of your instinctive, unexplained aversion to Joyce’s behavior no matter what she does, an aversion you are not willing to abandon even in the face of overwhelming proof of its illegitimacy—now compounded, I suspect, by a constitutional reluctance on your part to admit you were wrong, no matter how gargantuan your errors may be. Indeed, your prose style strongly suggests that you have a “street-fighter’s” temperament, not a bad quality at all in many respects but such people are the embodiment of the ‘never retreat, never surrender’ ethic which makes conceding an argument impossible, however wrong they are.

    I don’t know Nan if you’ve ever watched any of the original Star Trek episodes, with Spock, but my favorite moments would be when some human crew member, usually Dr. McCoy, would behave in a totally irrational way, as his powerful emotions utterly overrode his reason, and Spock would calmly observe the outburst and then quietly utter a single word: “Fascinating!” As I’ve read the overheated, Vesuvial outpourings of your Joyce-baiting, fact-deprived posts, I felt exactly like Spock watching McCoy and all I could murmur was, “Fascinating!”

    Though it’s pointless from the perspective of persuading you, let me, for the record, quickly respond to your latest comments; they are so easily disposed of!

    You say, “The reality is, even when one is stricken with grief–one can be very clear and transparent about what one can do–and what one can’t. Saying “No” and continuing to encourage further dialogue about dates means to me that JCO’s “No” was neither clear nor transparent. And in her memoir, she clearly disparages C’s efforts to be supportive, without taking any responsibility for her own behavior. ”

    The text is there for all to see. Joyce says “No” to ONLY ONE DATE. Just one! It is C_, (who has created this impossible-to-satisfy requirement that all of the many people she has invited must be able to come on a particular date or that date is eliminated) who is saying “No” time after time. To reiterate for clarity and emphasis–an examination of the text will show that Joyce has said yes to all the proposed dates for the dinner party of “heroic proportions” except one, and has given a categorical yes to a small dinner party of just herself, C_ and her husband, and one or two other couples. C_ is the one who has rejected date after date; C_ is the one who has repeatedly thrown up obstacles to the dinner party in the form of an ever-growing, and thus ever-more-conflicting, list of invitees; C_ is the one who has ignored Joyce’s attempt to have a small dinner party; C_ is the one who abruptly terminated the email exchange when Joyce reiterated her desire for a small party; in short, C_ is the one totally responsible for no dinner party materializing at all. You had the full text right in front of you Nan that contains every fact I just cited, and yet you dared to make the statement that Joyce has said ‘No’ while “continuing to encourage further dialogue about dates”, with her ‘No’ thus being ‘neither clear nor transparent’. That statement is so ludicrously at odds with the truth that it raises questions in my mind that I won’t put on the page. Go ahead and prove me wrong Nan—but with quotes, not with baseless assertions of facts that don’t exist!

    As for your claim that Joyce “disparages C’s efforts to be supportive, without taking any responsibility for her own behavior”, in my previous post I carefully cited all the facts demonstrating that, for interesting psychological reasons, C_ was clearly NOT trying to be supportive, if by supportive you mean trying to GENUINELY arrange a dinner party, big or small, for Joyce. Where are your facts, Nan, demonstrating otherwise? Of course you have none, because there are none.

    Naturally, at this point I recognize that this latest salvo from me won’t change your mind in the slightest Nan. You are Dr. McCoy in one of his wildest frenzies, and I might as well have simply murmured, “Fascinating!” and left it at that. But the other readers of this blog, present and future, should have available a complete refutation of your ‘argument’, if one can call what you’ve offered an ‘argument’.

    Hal, you’re a psychotherapist—have you ever seen a better illustration than this of a person desperately clinging, for purely psychological reasons, to a thoroughly debunked idea? My only question—and I solicit your expertise on this point—is this: do the people who behave this way genuinely believe what they’re saying no matter how palpably absurd it is, no matter how devoid of facts or logic? Or do they know (not initially but as the argument progresses and more and more evidence is offered by their opponent) that they are spouting arrant nonsense, but they simply don’t want to publicly concede that they have been ridiculously wrong?

    On a more pleasant note, Hal, I’m delighted to hear that you did get that convertible, and oooooooo!!, a Lexus. I’d be visibly salivating if it weren’t so uncouth! By the way, a few years ago I read a novel that is about a man in approximately your position (a psychotherapist who’s lost his beloved wife, though not as recently as you) called “The Schopenhauer Cure”. Apart from any similarities to your life situation, it’s a very interesting book, and one that you might enjoy. I didn’t know until after I finished it and looked up the author online that he has written the definitive textbook on group therapy interactions and techniques. Amusingly, while I was reading, I kept saying to myself, “Goodness gracious! Even though I’ve never been in group therapy, all these many group therapy scenes have such an incredible ring of truth, and the leader has such astute insights into the participants’ behavioral quirks! How on earth is this author achieving such remarkable verisimilitude, so far beyond what the typical novelist accomplishes, and how the heck is he able to achieve such subtlety in his behavioral analysis???” Now I know! And one other thing, Hal. The book has unusual dual narratives, one set in the current time, and the other going back to the 19th century and chronicling Schopenhauer’s life in a rigorously accurate non-fiction way. While the entire Schopenhauer biography that the book presents is fascinating, in particular there is a letter quoted from Schopenhauer’s mother to Arthur that is the single most remarkable (in the sense of being unprecedentedly shocking) letter from a mother to a son that has ever been written, I would venture to say. You’ll recognize which letter I mean when you get to it, should you choose to read the book. And, in fact, for that letter alone the book is worth reading. But I warn you, you may well be haunted by that letter for weeks after you finish the book, as I was—its specter may pursue you, and make you obsessively ponder the extremes of cruelty that people are capable of, even to their loved ones. Of course, I imagine you would say that loved ones are precisely those to whom the greatest cruelty is usually directed.


  21. On the book, the author Irving Yallom is one of the greats in group therapy and in graduate school his book on the subject was the text for the course.

    I also read and still have his classic “Love’s Executioner: & Other Tales of Psychotherapy”.

    I’m ordering Schopenhaurer’s Cure online. I really miss having my own personal librarian bring me books she thought I’d like home from work. Thanks.

    You ask a tough question about nan and people in general who cling to closely held beliefs (you’ll see that phrase in the psych. lit.) despite all evidence to the contrary. Therapist confront this everyday with clients whose belief that they are intrinsically bad, inferior, not deserving of the good things in life, etc. go bad to childhood.

    With phobias and obsessions you see this all the time. In pop culture, if you’ve seen the show Monk (the obsessive compulsive detective) in the scenes with his psychiatrist, you have a good example. More recently there’s a character on Glee with severe OCD.

    Nan is a different story and I’d have to know her better to risk speculating. The above examples are clinical, but some people are just plain stubborn. They dig in their heels and close their minds to compelling evidence that they are wrong. Some may be pathological narcissists like Donald Trump, and others just are lacking in critical thinking skills or blind followers (group dynamics in the Tea Party).

    I wouldn’t give up on Nan. She is grieving as I am. However she would do well to accept that JCO was also grieving every bit as intensely and such grief can lead you to do and say things that aren’t in character.

    Now to Amazon to order the book.


  22. Hal, I was telling a friend of mine about the JCO/Nan events yesterday, and, naturally, I stepped back from the details to provide a more comprehensive overview of the subject for my friend, unfamiliar as she was with the topic. And three seconds into my overview, I had a powerful epiphany!

    Unlike Joycean (James Joyce, not Joyce Carol Oates!) epiphanies, this is the result of a few logical steps (that my brain did subconsciously, presenting me with the final product) that I need to lay out for you, Hal.

    STEP ONE IN MY EPIPHANY: Although Nan has excoriated Joyce with quite a melange of adjectives, her most specific charge was “The brutal and catty unkindness to some of those reaching out to her was truly disgusting.” And when I asked her to cite a specific passage to support that allegation, she responded with C_ and the dinner party incident. Now, over the last few posts, I think I’ve established that the text shows conclusively that Joyce was a completely innocent victim of C_’s own difficulties in dealing with an anguished widow. Joyce displayed not the slightest “brutal and catty unkindness” either in her interactions with C_ or in recounting her interactions with C_ in the book. In fact, I think she went to great lengths to be as generous as possible in evaluating C_’s motives. For example, Joyce did NOT even remotely intimate the motive that you yourself, Hal, were suggesting that C_ might have had for wanting to host the dinner party in the first place (you said in one post, “It almost seemed that C was more interested in showing off to said university president by organizing a party for JCO than helping her with her grief”). But Joyce refrained from the imputation of ANY negative motives to C_, instead charitably (and probably accurately) suggesting that C_’s behavior was caused by her terror at being in close proximity to the leper that widows were to the unwidowed (Incidentally, C_’s terror might only have developed after the invitation process was underway and the prospect of dining with Joyce moved from an abstract concept to a vital, pulsating-with-life reality, so that the original proposal to Joyce by C_ might have been motivated by an entirely sincere desire to help her during the grieving process—this is my own notion, Joyce didn’t comment on this issue.)

    So, the first step of my epiphany: Joyce, in the C_ dinner party incident, and in the recounting of the incident in the book, exhibited absolutely no “brutal and catty unkindness to some of those reaching out to her” despite Nan’s having cited this incident as the single most memorable instance of that behavior when I requested her to provide specifics in my April 29, 7:31 AM post.

    STEP TWO IN MY EPIPHANY: Joyce’s writing of this book probably had many motives, but certainly among them was to “reach out” to other widows and help them by sharing her experience in the unique way that a brilliantly insightful writer examining the experience of being widowed could. And the many comments on this blog (and elsewhere online) indicate that that is exactly what she achieved in many cases.

    STEP THREE IN MY EPIPHANY: Let me offer a compilation of descriptors that Nan has used in her posts to characterize Joyce, her life, and her work (and the following is just a sampling, not an exhaustive inventory):

    a) “an uncommonly selfish and self-absorbed person”

    b)“To me, Oates’ expression of wild loss seemed driven more by the sudden removal of her buffer from the details of living, and the disruption of her routine rather than the absence of the man himself”

    c)“the absolute hollowness of her life beyond her work”

    d)“I experienced mounting disbelief, dismay and ultimately horror, not at her personal journey, but at her willingness to savage others including her late husband on what I can only conclude is the altar of literature. The brutal and catty unkindness to some of those reaching out to her was truly disgusting”

    e)”But most disturbing was her public disrobing of her late husband, revealing his most personal history and work which he clearly meant to be private. Her compulsion to feed her hungry muse with even the most intimate details of a partner’s life was stunningly disrespectful at best”

    f)”I can only hope that her new life can help her come to an understanding of what it means to be a human being, rather than merely a writer”

    g)”Also I think raising the question of her rapid re-marriage is fair. I hadn’t realized that her new husband had so many marriages behind him.”

    h)”other comments that were quite awful to me was her denigration of gifts that were people expressing their sympathy in the best way they could.”

    i)“Yes, loss is tough, but one still is part of the human race–and remember, Joyce is writing about people who are part of her community. To me these were examples of her self-absorption and lack of any spiritual center–so very self revealing–but still unkind”

    Examine the foregoing comments by Nan, and what words come most readily to mind to characterize them? How about “brutal and catty unkindness”? Yes, I think that just about perfectly describes them. Brutal and catty unkindness towards Joyce, a person reaching out to other widows, of whom Nan is one, in order to help them. And remember, Nan originally posted these sentiments not on a JCO-related blog but on Joyce’s very Facebook page (the notorious “deletions”), thus making as certain as possible that the woman herself would see them. Can there be malice more naked?

    MY EPIPHANY: In perhaps the most striking example of “projection” in the history of psychology since Freud, we have Joyce being FALSELY accused by Nan of being guilty of a “brutal and catty unkindness to some of those reaching out to her” while Nan herself is ACTUALLY guilty of a “brutal and catty unkindness to some of those reaching out to her.”

    What do you think, Hal (and anyone else who cares to comment)? Using a Joycean metric (since James Joyce originated this new use of the term ‘epiphany’ as meaning “the sudden revelation of the ‘whatness’ of a thing”–from the New Testament’s ‘epiphany’ referring to the revelation of the divinity of the Baby Jesus to the magi), is mine an epiphany of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” quality or merely of lesser, “Dubliners”, caliber? Or have I misfired, and it’s not a legitimate epiphany at all?

    On an entirely different subject, Hal, I was curious. Given your wife Betty’s Ph.D. in American Lit, who were some of her favorite authors? What was the subject of her doctoral dissertation? Did she maintain her scholarly interest in literature as she matured, or did she become a more typical reader as her life progressed? In her ‘real’ life, as opposed to her academic life, was she greatly attracted to the literature of other countries, other languages (translated, of course)–or even in her ‘real’ life was she primarily interested in literature that examined her own culture, America? Was she contemptuous of people who read Nora Roberts or Tom Clancy, or did she feel, “At least they’re reading and not just watching American Idol!!”? Of course, if discussing Betty is uncomfortable for you, please feel free to disregard my questions without apology or explanation.

    Incidentally Hal, I meant to respond in this post to your very interesting catalog of people “who cling to closely held beliefs…despite all evidence to the contrary” (as you put it) but I see that I have to leave in about two minutes so I won’t have time now. But in my next post Hal I promise to give you an example of the phenomenon that I coincidentally encountered in an article I was reading a few days ago—an example that boggled my mind as a layman and will do God knows what to your mind as a professional psychotherapist—because it involves FREUD HIMSELF! You’ll eat it up, I think—reveling in your opportunity to analyze the Master! And I strongly suspect that the Master’s iconic stature will not emerge unscathed!!!


    • Roger,

      First of all I think there is a point where dissecting nan’s unconscious defense mechanisms ( projection ) doesn’t add much to the discussion since her are criticisms of JCO are as a person, not a writer. The same goes for psychoanalyzing Janet Maslin.

      Nan has to deal with her own grief which I have no reason to believe has been any less intense than JCO’s and mine.

      JCO’s contribution to the body of work on how the death of a beloved spouse effects the survivor will stand the test of time.

      As for my Betty, her favorite author was Updyke. Betty was no slouch in the writing department but only wrote a few short stories for her own amusement. I asked her why she didn’t submit them to a literary magazine and she said they weren’t good enough. I said “do they have to be as good as Updyke” and she more or less said yes.

      Her dissertation was “James Fenimore Cooper’s Lionel Linlcoln: A Source and Literary Study”. You can find references to it if you search using Betty’s last name at the time which was Nichols.

      Betty wasn’t contemptuous of any person’s reading habits. She also liked wildly popular novelists like Jodi Piquot and Robert Parker. Speaking of Parker, when his friend and fellow mystery writer William Tapley spoke at our library Betty asked him a question he said he never got before.

      It was why characters, and many men in general, find to find fly fishing such a great pass time.

      In addition to American writers she also liked many British writers.

      As for Freud, many of his ideas were rooted in the attitudes of his time, especially those about women. However, his discovery of the power of the unconscious mind ranks as one of the greatest scientific discovers of all time.


    • If it was possible Betty would be throwing lightening bolts at me from the space time continuum:

      it’s UPDIKE, not as I wrote Updyke.

      I really am a literary Neanderthal.


  23. Hal, you say, “First of all I think there is a point where dissecting nan’s unconscious defense mechanisms ( projection ) doesn’t add much to the discussion since her criticisms of JCO are as a person, not a writer.”

    It pains me to say this Hal, I genuinely mean that, but intellectual honesty compels it: your comment makes absolutely no sense. For goodness’ sake, we’re all discussing Joyce’s book, and Joyce’s book is ABOUT HERSELF AS A PERSON—it’s not a novel, it’s not an essay on boxing or creative writing, it’s a series of revelations as personal, indeed as intimate, as any since St. Augustine’s Confessions!!

    Joyce dared, as few people have (and as even fewer FAMOUS people have), to expose those thoughts and feelings and experiences we all are most desperate to conceal—thereby simultaneously exposing HERSELF to the possibility of the cruelest abuse, since she was placing “information” that could be maliciously twisted and spun against her in the hands of everyone and thus ANYONE. And guess what, a woman named Nan has done exactly what Joyce must have feared: twisted and spun, and twisted and spun some more, and then launched the result—in the form of the most odious accusations imaginable, with not a single fact cited to support them since of course there are no such facts—launched these cruel fantasies as directly toward Joyce as possible, straight to her online persona—to deliberately maximize the probability of their striking their target, i.e. being seen and cried over by Joyce.

    How should we, the members of the civilized world aware of this behavior, react? In two ways, I think.

    1)First, do our best to defend an innocent person against slander and libel, whether by Nan or by Janet Maslin, by rebutting the charges in a systematic, comprehensive, fact-based way. Randy did that magnificently with Maslin, I tried to do that Maslin and Nan.
    2)Second, try to somehow enlighten the slanderer—assume, initially at least, that she is a decent human being, not a sadist, but has two problems: a)she is consumed with anger and the need to lash out—a problem we can point out but not deal with meaningfully, and b)she is so blinded by that anger that she cannot see the innocence of her chosen victim. Even in her current state of mind, I believe Nan is NOT a person who would wound someone she believed to be innocent, if only because the first sentence of her first post was, “I lost my husband, the true and astonishing love of my life, last July”. I believe a woman capable of the kind of love those words imply has a sound heart, even a beautiful heart, and is not someone who would deliberately wound someone she knows to be innocent. But in her current state, the same anger that makes her want to wound certain people, also blinds her to their innocence. And though we can’t cure her anger, or her lashing out because of it, we can do something to stop her from lashing out at INNOCENT people. What?

    Let’s first consider your approach, Hal.

    I carefully read your responses to Nan. You are the very model of how a reasonable person should behave if having a civil discussion with another reasonable person. You present alternative interpretations of Joyce’s behavior, sympathetic to Joyce, to counter each of Nan’s relentlessly condemnatory ones, and you do so in an exceedingly compassionate way that deliberately avoids strongly challenging Nan. You go to great lengths to try to fully see her viewpoint: your first sentence in your very first response to her is, “Nan, I wrote about my own loss above (March 29th) – I read your harsh critique several times first wondering if we read the same book, then trying as hard as I could to understand your very negative reaction: “an appalling work”. I don’t know if JCO is an uncommonly selfish or self-absorbed person, for all I know she may be.”

    Think about that last sentence of yours Hal, “I don’t know if JCO is an uncommonly selfish or self-absorbed person, for all I know she may be.” You’ve just read hundreds of pages by Joyce where she bared her soul on every one of those pages, revealing every thought and feeling she had, none of which remotely suggested she was any more selfish or self-absorbed than the average person in her situation, let alone uncommonly so, and you say, “I don’t know if JCO is an uncommonly selfish or self-absorbed person, for all I know she may be”?? I’m sure you don’t really believe that, but it’s a perfect example of your bending over backwards to not disagree too sharply with Nan.

    But is your approach the right approach? It’s based on your premise that you are a reasonable person having a civil discussion with another reasonable person. But are you? Go back to my last post and review my compilation of Nan’s remarks about Joyce, her life, and her work, “a” through “i”. Then examine the facts and logic she offers in her posts in support of those remarks. What you’ll find is that Nan, on the subject of Joyce at least, is not a reasonable person. In truth she is in the grip of flagrant psychopathology. The extreme nature of her charges against Joyce and the fact that she NEVER offers a single fact or a single logical argument that supports any of those charges reveals that. She needs to be forcefully shown that she is in fact so irrational that she’s allowing herself to brutally attack a wholly innocent woman. But by treating her as you do, you accomplish the exact opposite–you encourage her to consider all this as just a case of two reasonable people disagreeing.

    Hal, for years there’s been a show called “Stepping Out Radio”, where a person who’s recovered from some addiction (yes of course alcohol, but drugs, gambling, sex, etc. too), is interviewed in a friendly but probing way for an hour about their decline, their fall, and their eventual rise, however uncertain that rise’s longevity may be. It’s a riveting show. And the one thing I’ve learned from years of listening, on the radio or online (check it out, google ‘stepping out radio’) is that people committed to a destructive/self-destructive course (and these addictions are always damaging to others as well as to the addict) NEVER just change their attitude out of the blue and go straight. It’s always because reality in some form confronts them, painfully, bluntly, unavoidably—sometimes it’s a physical illness from their addiction or a loss of a job, but often it’s a person. And maybe that confrontation won’t “take” the first time, maybe it’ll be ignored. But if it’s repeated, or if it’s done in a different way, it may well trigger the first impulses towards recovery. (Obviously, in recent years we’ve seen confrontational “interventions” that loved ones of addicts organize—clearly they are based on this idea, but with the confrontation level raised exponentially.)

    My approach has been to challenge Nan very forcefully, dismantling her silly excuses for ‘arguments’, exposing her ‘facts’ as being contrary to the actual facts, making clear the deeply irrational emotional underlay provoking her terribly cruel behavior. Your approach of, essentially, “I think I’m right, but then again, you may be right” didn’t make a dent in her crusade against Joyce. Will mine?

    You and I have briefly discussed the topic of clinging to beliefs that are proven utterly false; we didn’t really discuss what makes some of such clingers eventually let go. I think a very interesting case in point was in the news this past week—the Birthers, following Barack Obama’s release of the Long Form Certificate of Live Birth, which of course the Birthers have been clamoring for since 2008. What was the response in the Birther community to this powerful new piece of evidence? I eagerly sought out and scrutinized accounts of that. Some Birthers declared it a clever forgery and were as adamant and fervid in their Birtherism as ever. BUT SOME SAID, “BIRTHERISM IS DEAD, IT’S OVER”.

    In other words, evidence, if it’s powerful enough, will SOMETIMES change the mind even of someone zealously committed to an idea. An important caveat: Just as an addict may change his mind about USING drugs and enter recovery but will still have a lingering craving for the drug’s high, so too the Birther who renounces his claims about Obama’s birth will still have a lingering hatred of Obama. And, if Nan is finally convinced by some powerful array of facts and logic of someone’s innocence, she will stop lashing out at that person (unless it turns out she has deeper problems than I suspect)–BUT she will still have the craving to lash out.

    But about that powerful array of facts and logic proving someone’s innocence I just mentioned: Guess what, Hal–that last salvo from me, where I zoomed in on and painstakingly dissected Nan’s final ridiculous claim, may have been exactly the potent proof I’m talking about. Nan, who has, until that post of mine, full-throatedly flung her charges out, has not posted since. As I said the other day, all her posts show she has a street-fighter’s temperament, and it’s not in her nature to simply stop battling for no reason. That she’s stopped may well be because though Nan may have problems, she’s certainly fully sane, and so she finally was persuaded by logical argument that she was indeed viciously lashing out at an INNOCENT woman. She undoubtedly still has the urge to lash out, but she can’t and won’t do it against someone she NOW knows is innocent, in the same way that the changed Birther may still have the urge to oppose Obama, but he can’t and won’t do it on grounds that he NOW knows are false, namely Birtherism.

    Of course, I may be overly optimistic: Nan may just have taken her lashing out against Joyce elsewhere, or may reappear here in a few days to resume her attacks upon her. And even if I did persuade Nan of Joyce’s innocence and cause her to permanently stop her attacks upon her, Nan still has her anger, still has the urge to lash out and wound, and undoubtedly still will do so. The fact that she may now choose more blemished, and thus more ‘deserving’, targets than Joyce, is not remedying her fundamental problem.

    That said, if she has indeed permanently ceased attacking Joyce because I have finally made her grasp the baselessness of her charges, I consider my time well spent.


    • Okay, Roger Stein, maybe I should have given you my gut reaction as Hal Brown, I do not feel it is worth my time to delve into the motivations of this anonymous person called “nan”. Until she tells us who she really is in a verifiable way (you can search me easily by adding Middleboro, MA where I live) I won’t take the time to say more than I agree with you that she is engaging in some kind of psychological defense mechanism, and to add that it may very well be anger associated with her own grieving. This anger, if it is more than a stage and involves lashing out at others who grieve, can become pathologic in two ways. One it can be hurtful to others, and two that it can keep you “stuck” unproductively in the process of grief resolution.

      I think you may have well pushed her to the wall with logic and she has given up. While it is nice to think that all the effort you put into your rational arguments had an effect, and perhaps helped her move through the bereavement stage involving lashing out with anger at JCO. Just, if not more likely, is that she got bored and frustrated with losing a battle of wits (i.e. intellect).

      Most birthers and religious fanatics who hold such beliefs eventually get frustrated when confronted with someone who functions in an evidenced based world. Some have a high degree of tolerance for frustration, others, have a psychological need to do battle like that unhinged glory hound and self-proclaimed anti-abortion pastor Fred Phelps. Of course you know this, but when you end up trying to enlighten them it can be frustrating.

      My email friend and the editor of the political website Capitol Hill Blue for which I used to write a regular column eventually gave up with the 9-11 conspiracy loonies and banned them from commenting on the blog part of his website.

      There are few rules in bereavement groups. One is that members all accept that other members probably will grieve differently than you. Another is that you never lash out in anger at another member for the way they are grieving. A third is that whenever possible you focus on your own feelings of grief while trying to reach out to other members with empathy.

      I may have missed it, but I don’t recall nan’s sharing much with us about her own grief beyond the sentence you commented on for the power in her wording. Grief therapists are reluctant to accept the concept of pathologic grieving as a psychiatric diagnosis because it puts a stigma on a process that is highly varied.

      I think it is likely people with personality disorders bring characteristics of these disorders into the grief process and I can suggest that the anonymous “nan” may be doing this to her own detriment. I’d really hesitate to make this suggestion if “nan” was posting under her own identity.

      At least “nan” brought you and I together, and maybe some day JCO herself will contact us since your email is easy to find as is mine through my therapy website.

      Unrelated to this I saw a woman in the supermarket yesterday who was the spitting image of a 50ish. Now that I am just starting to try to meet a new love of MY life through a senior dating website after almost a year and a half of grief I wondered both if she was available and if she was too young for this 67 year old.

      In our many discussions before she died I often expressed how I could possible live without her. She insisted I swear not to kill myself because I had to keep living to take care of our beloved dogs. I made that promise. She also told me to go ahead an buy that expensive convertible I’d always wanted and to enjoy it even though she said she knew she’d never live to make it to “top-down weather”.

      I told her I couldn’t stand the thought of living without her, not just the loneliness but knowing there was nobody who could ever come close to being so wonderful. Aside from my cynical wife saying “how come you hardly ever told me that before I was dying” she also trying to “buck me up” by telling my I was a great catch and the women would be all over me. She’d tell me I had money, brains, looks and personality.

      I’d tell her back “not in that order I hope”. When I still persisted in this she once tried to encourage me by saying she had two words for me: “e” and “harmony”.

      “Yeah, right” I said dismissively.

      I am glad for JCO that she met a new love the old fashioned way. Online dating, even with a less well known website just for those over 55, is not for the faint hearted.


  24. Hal, out with my old epiphany, in with my new!!

    Ironically, now that you’ve embraced my “projection” epiphany, at least tentatively, I’m rejecting it for a superior epiphany I just had, on the principle of Occam’s Razor. My new epiphany offers such a simple explanation, one that accounts for everything, without straining credulity. For reasons I won’t discuss in detail, upon further reflection, I find the whole concept of projection to be suspect in this case: why should Nan’s subconscious invoke an unnecessarily elaborate and unlikely-to-be-effective defense mechanism that requires dexterous cognitive prestidigitation as she must twist and deform Joyce’s whole biography in ways a mathematical master of Topology would have difficulty figuring out in order to make projection of her own cattiness, unkindness, and selfishness onto Joyce possible? Why wouldn’t Nan use the much simpler and definitely effective mechanisms of denial, rationalization, or repression like the rest of us would if she had some unpalatable personal failings to deal with?

    So I now propose my new epiphany. Nan mentioned in her posts the new husband in several different ways: the swiftness of the engagement and marriage, the previous wives of the new husband, etc. I propose that Joyce’s new husband is the key to Nan’s behavior, with all the things you and I and everyone else has been focused on being mere corollaries that flow from that. But let me begin explaining my idea by invoking your own words, Hal. You mentioned in your last post (actually, you did more than mention it, it was a major theme) the difficulties you were having in your search for a new love. You say, “I saw a woman in the supermarket yesterday who was the spitting image of a 50ish JCO. Now that I am just starting to try to meet a new love of MY life through a senior dating website after almost a year and a half of grief I wondered both if she was available and if she was too young for this 67 year old………I told [my wife] I couldn’t stand the thought of living without her, not just the loneliness but knowing there was nobody who could ever come close to being so wonderful…………[my wife was] also trying to “buck me up” by telling me I was a great catch and the women would be all over me. She’d tell me I had money, brains, looks and personality. I’d tell her back “not in that order I hope”. When I still persisted in this she once tried to encourage me by saying she had two words for me: “e” and “harmony”. “Yeah, right” I said dismissively. I am glad for JCO that she met a new love the old fashioned way. Online dating, even with a less well known website just for those over 55, is not for the faint hearted.”

    So here you are, by the unimpeachable testimony of your own wife possessing money, brains, looks, and personality, (or some permutation of same!) and yet you have grave doubts about finding anyone close to being as wonderful as Betty, let alone having her fall in love with you and you with her.

    Now imagine a WOMAN in your position (you know the demographics Hal—you’re LIVING THEM: number of widows vs. widowers, in general the number of single women vs. single men of that approximate age)–it’s definitely NOT a buyer’s market for a widow, plus suppose, as is likely, she lacked one or two of your own Four Horsemen of the Quick Remarriage, perhaps looks, perhaps money. She’s staring at a very bleak future, especially when contrasted with her glorious past of “true and astonishing love”. Yes, of course, I’m imagining Nan, and I’m imagining Nan imagining Joyce and Charles. Hal, people routinely kill because of envy of someone’s sneakers! Conjure up Nan’s feeling of envy as she sees Joyce effortlessly replacing Raymond with Charles–callous souls would even say Joyce “traded up” to Charles!!! A Professor of Neuroscience, winner of multiple awards, a brilliant and charming fellow by all accounts—and let’s not forget a very full head of hair!! That last alone is valued at 30 IQ points and 50 K a year by the widow seeking a new mate!! Meanwhile Nan smiles coquettishly at the vacuum cleaner salesman and gets a cold stare in return.

    The agony of it! And the injustice: Nan thinks, “I’m capable of ‘true and astonishing love’, while Joyce Carol Oates— She dares to call what she felt for Raymond love?? Ha!! She never really loved him. Never! Her remarrying so soon proves that! For God’s sake, she’s almost as bad as Gertrude, marrying Claudius—what did Hamlet say? Oh yeah–‘But two months dead: nay not so much, not two.’ Gertrude and Joyce, two of a kind! And after he died she’s only suffered from ‘ the removal of her buffer from the details of living, and the disruption of her routine rather than the absence of the man himself’.’” (Quoting from one of Nan’s posts at the end of my imagined sentence.) So this envy of Nan’s is an especially deadly variant, Hal, where it’s not just that someone else possesses what you profoundly desire and almost certainly will never attain, BUT ALSO the someone who possesses it doesn’t deserve it at all, while you, who will never possess it, deserve it absolutely!!! Now that’s lethal envy! That’s envy that will provoke visits to Facebook pages, and blogs, and elsewhere, to leave calling cards of pure malice!! Malice that expresses itself in the denigration of both parties to the new love, Charles (so many previous wives, he’s ‘used’ goods and has fleeting affections!!!) and Joyce (Nan’s envy-based hatred led to the twisting of everything in Joyce’s narrative to justify and feed that hatred). Malice that leads to Nan thrusting the most opprobrious of false accusations as close to the face of Joyce as she can get (her Facebook page), in the hopes of at least briefly lessening Joyce’s unbearable-to-Nan happiness.

    There it is, m’boy. I submit my new epiphany to you for your official psychotherapist’s imprimatur. Or sneering dismissal, as the case may be.

    P.S. When I read your first UNCORRECTED Monday post and saw the sentence, “ Unrelated to this, I saw a woman in the supermarket yesterday who was the spitting image of a 50ish.” I thought, “Is Hal deliberately tantalizing me? And what name did he omit, intentionally or not? Betty? Joyce? Madeleine Albright? Charlize Theron? (this is where my own lethal envy set in!)

    Actually, I really have a thing for Mary Black, though nobody in the US has the faintest idea who she is. Check out this video of hers if you’re so inclined, it’s a lovely song, beautifully performed, and one that has some REAL PERTINENCE TO YOUR SITUATION—different cause, but same effect. (I hope your ear can deal with a song that opens with an Eb major ninth chord! This definitely isn’t the Buddy Holly music you grew up with!) If you elect to watch it, pay special attention to the second verse, and especially to the line that ends in “we squirm around the edges trying to cover up the rest”. Carefully observe Mary’s facial expression and vocal inflections as she delivers that line. And then think: Mary is scarcely known, and the world goes ga-ga over Lady Gaga. Is this or the Dreyfus Affair the greater injustice???

    Oh, and here’s a little amusing ‘lagniappe’: note the simple elegance of the venue, the audience’s dress (seen at the very end), and of course Mary’s attire, and then look at the pianist and guitar player (these two guys are her perpetual accompanists) and their incongruously casual get-up. (Click to watch it full-screen so you don’t miss the guitarist’s shoes!) The fact that Mary permits them this freedom says so much about her as a person—all of it good.
    Just copy and paste this link to YouTube, or go to YouTube and search “mary black thorn upon the rose” and make sure you choose the video of Mary’s live performance, one of the first few hits. You’ll see her face in the little thumb image and a time of 4:53.


  25. A wonderful voice, but this is what got to me:

    So when you pick the handsome flower
    Don’t forget the thorn upon the rose
    It’s cut is deep and the scar lasts forever
    It follows love whereever love goes

    Yes, as you expected, I interpreted this in my own way as meaning that it is inevitable that with a couple’s deep enduring love comes the thorn upon the rose, that one of you will be left to grieve the death of the other. Like many Sinatra songs about a lover breaking up with you, I listen to them and change a few words in my mind and they easily could be about the death of your lover. I often have the all-Sinatra station on satellite radio in my car.

    As to your new epiphany regarding “nan” and one of the seven deadly sins, envy, I’d add wrath. Your suggestion that we invoke Occam’s Razor is a good one. The deadly sins are fall less complex than the psychological defense mechanisms ( decent overview here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_mechanism ).

    The defense mechanisms may explain the deeper reasons “nan” had the reactions of envy and the related wrath to JCO’s remarriage, but we need not delve into unconscious motivations. We can more simply explain her irrational beliefs and attitudes about JCO with her feeling envy and wrath.


  26. What you’re calling ‘wrath’, I called ‘envy-based hatred’–hatred is more enduring, and boy is Nan’s enduring!!

    Did you catch the guitarist’s “footwear”, in that setting? Is Woody Allen the one who escorted First Lady Betty Ford somewhere in a tuxedo and tennis shoes?


  27. Roger, you aren’t Woody Allen. If you were you could get away with amending the Seven Deadly Sins to add a 3.1

    1 Lust
    2 Gluttony
    3 Greed
    4 Sloth
    4.1 Acedia
    4.2 Despair
    5 Wrath
    6 Envy
    6.1 Envy-based hatred
    7 Pride

    This is from Time Magazine:

    “The sneaker is not so much an object as an idea, a symbol of values that America has always taken pride in: social and physical mobility, practicality, informality, even rebellion (such as when Woody Allen wore a pair of Converse high-tops to escort First Lady Betty Ford to the ballet in 1975).”
    7.1 Vainglory


    • I mean a 6.1 – but what the heck, go ahead, amend all you want as long as you meet or exceed Woody’s wit and insight into the human condition, and don’t mess around with your adopted daughter.

      Woody is, of course, the poster boy for decades of failed psychoanalysis. Freud would be appalled that he “resolved” his Oedipus Complex by marrying Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, 34 years his junior, after he and Mia Farrow broke up, and still maintaining a close friendship with Mia.


  28. This may please you, as well as amuse you, as a psychotherapist.

    Back when Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors was released, I read a review of it by Stanley Kauffmann in “The New Republic”. Kauffmann despised Woody Allen’s movies, at least his recent ones (recent at that time, 1989), and he made no secret of his feelings. So he felt compelled to rather ceremoniously announce in the Crimes and Misdemeanors’ review that there had been a momentous change in his assessment of Allen, at least in part. This was because a portion of the movie–the one containing some lengthy philosophical musings on the subject matter the movie was dealing with, by a character who was a psychiatrist—was the most profound and insightful consideration of those issues that Kauffmann had ever heard, read, or thought of himself. He said that however lacking Allen’s films might be in general, a man capable of writing that scene could not simply be contemptuously dismissed as Kauffmann had been doing to Allen for years. I thought to myself, “Hmmm. How very interesting.”

    Then, in the following week’s issue of the New Republic, before he began that week’s review, he announced, with considerable pleasure it seemed to me although he tried to conceal it, that he had been informed that the man who played the philosophically-inclined psychiatrist in the film was in fact a philosophically-inclined psychiatrist in real life, and that HE HAD WRITTEN THE ENTIRE SCENE HIMSELF!!!!

    Hal, Betty or no Betty, how could you ever have contemplated suicide when the world is constantly providing us with such amusing surprises????


  29. Not all intensely grieving husbands and wives contemplate suicide, though I expect more do so than admit it. JCO and I, both deep thinkers, considered the option of suicide. Perhaps it is because we are so introspective, because we can choose to stand at the edge of the abyss. Neither of us really though we would do it. But I think considering it as being the ultimate escape, not necessarily from pain, but from a world without our lover.

    Yes, the world provides surprises, whether a revelation you read about the script of a Woody Allen meeting or the killing of Osama bi Laden hiding in plain sight. These, and other far more mundane things are what JCO and I would share with our spouses.

    When they die so many things keep happening that you yearn to share with your spouse, whether it’s a line in a book, seeing bluebirds nesting in the house you put up for them in the yard, or the latest lunacy from Donald Trump.

    Sometimes that horrible emptiness leads to you thinking that you just don’t want to live on not having your partner even though for all you know that next year Steven Hawking will offer proof positive that there is no God and that all miracles in the Bible can be explained by quantum mechanics.

    At least Betty and I had the chance to stay up late in bed with a bottle of expensive scotch to toast the announcement that Barak Obama was elected president.


  30. Hi Hal.

    I only have a little time, so I hope I can express this adequately. Yes, of course, I understand how ineffably valuable it is to share experiences with another, including the littlest, or especially the littlest ones—the line in the book, the bluebirds coming to the nest you’ve built. (Of course, sharing with someone who responds to your enthusiasm with a shrug is worse than not sharing, but that’s another subject!). I’ll come back to this loss of having someone to share things with at the very end, but first this:

    I want to voice an idea about loss and bereavement that I’ve never heard or read, I think it’s original, but I’m not the scholar of bereavement that you’ve reluctantly become, so I could well be wrong. It may be that it’s well known in grief studies, maybe even a cliché. If so, I apologize. But here it is.

    Everyone recognizes that people “take things for granted” until they lose them. For millenia, philosophers have lamented that we underappreciate the things we have. Joni Mitchell had a huge hit song on this theme you probably remember Hal—Big Yellow Taxi was it called?, whose refrain was something like (I don’t have time to check it online):

    Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
    They pave paradise
    And put up a parking lot.

    And I would say to Joni, “Girl, you’ve got it wrong. Yes, we don’t know what we’ve got before we lose it, BUT we don’t know what we HAD, AFTER we lose it. We undervalued it before we lost it, true—but we overvalue it AFTER we lose it. And furthermore, we overvalue it afterward much more than we undervalued it before!”

    Yes, I believe if before losing it we accorded the thing half the value we should have, after losing it we grant it ten times the value it actually had in our lives.

    And nowhere is this human tendency more powerfully seen than in loss of someone we deeply care about (spouse, lover, friend, mother, etc.), whether through their death or mental incapacitation, their leaving the relationship for some reason, or simply their moving away (my own first painful loss was of my best friend when I was eleven—his family moved to another country and since in those days an international phone call was prohibitively expensive, I never spoke to him again). The mob will be calling for my head for saying this, but I really believe these losses are made much more painful than they need to be because AFTER THEY’RE GONE we wildly exaggerate the value the person actually brought to our life. Let me reiterate, of course they brought great value!!! I’m not denying or disparaging that!! And while we had them, we didn’t even appreciate that value. But afterward, we greatly overstate it, and that’s what makes the loss so excruciating. The loss is inevitably painful; but it only becomes unbearable when this “hyperbolic” tendency of us humans kicks in.

    While I’ve never heard anyone make the point I just made, I do feel there’s evidence from a related area that powerfully supports my idea. Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics a few years ago for his work in human irrationality. I’ve read some articles on that work, and his experiments are fascinating. Now I’m not sure if he was responsible for the particular study I’m going to cite, or it was a colleague of his doing the same kind of work–I don’t have time to check. But basically, in the first experiment, they offered subjects flip-of-the-coin bets, where the subject would risk say $100. Obviously, in such a bet, if the subject was offered >$100 if he won, he rationally should take the bet, and <$100 he should rationally reject the bet. But in the first experiment they found that they had to offer much more than $100 to entice the subject into risking $100 of his own money. And in the second experiment, where they early on somehow contrived to take away money from the subject that was his, or that he had come to regard as his, they found that the subject was willing to accept insanely unfavorable odds to win back what he had lost. So if he had lost $25 he was willing to risk $100 of his own money in a flip-of-a-coin bet to get that $25 back. (Of course, don't hold me to these numbers, I'm just illustrating the idea.) The experimenters concluded that, unlike earlier notions that human beings were RISK-averse, the correct understanding of us humans is that we are LOSS-averse, and are willing, sometimes, to undertake extremely risky behavior to prevent or remedy loss.

    Hal, you can see how this applies to my idea. These experiments show how the pain of loss is magnified exponentially beyond what it ought to be. While they did their experiments strictly with economic loss (money) I think it applies equally to the realm of human relations, and losses we suffer through death or abandonment.

    To bring it back to the loss of someone we've shared things with, yes, of course that sharing added immeasurable value to our lives, value we didn't even fully appreciate at the time (I believe in a recent post you mentioned a joking exchange between you and Betty where you told her how wonderful she was, how would you ever replace her, and the like–and she said, in effect, how come you didn't say these things before I was dying. The truthful answer might have been, “Because like all of us dumb humans, Betty, I took you for granted and didn't appreciate your worth.”

    But now the other side of it may be manifesting itself, where you think that almost ALL the value of life resides in sharing the little things with the person we love. All I intended by the last sentence of my last post was to remind you that our universe is intrinsically an incredibly interesting, entertaining, and enjoyable place (I wouldn't trade it for any other in the proposed Multiverse of string theory!!!), and while sharing its wonderfulness with the love of our lives makes it better, it's still wonderful even if we're without such a person (VERY TEMPORARILY I FERVENTLY HOPE IN YOUR CASE)!!!

    There's more to be said but I lack the time to say it. (Pardon any egregious grammar or spelling errors—couldn't proofread!)



  31. I think what you said about undervaluation and overvaluation is true in many cases, and was sadly true to a significant extent with me earlier in my marriage. As the years morphed into decades something happened. In long term good marriages there is more than a psychological internalization of the spouse into your identity, into your unconscious. Neuropsychologists who are studying grief are becoming convinced that there is actually a change in your brain circuitry.

    To use a computer model, it’s as if the accumulated additions and changes to your spouse software added up to a point where you ended up with a brand new, significantly changed (and hopefully improved) operating system.

    When your spouse dies it just doesn’t compute.

    The real other is gone forever, but the other that has become part of your operating system is still there, only not on your hard drive but in your brain.

    I went through a painful time when I was in denial, I was unable to fathom that she was really gone forever. Then I gradually accepted this. Now I feel that she isn’t gone at all because she resides inside of me, in memories of course, and in my unconscious, and in my yearning, but also in what may seem like a radical notion, as literally part of my brain.

    Back to your original premise as I think it applies to me. I don’t believe that I overvalue Betty now that she is dead. All marriages aren’t equal, all people aren’t residents of Lake Wobegon. Betty and I had an exceptional marriage and she was an incredible woman. I have to live knowing I should have told her this more and that there was no way I could make it up to her in the four months between her terminal diagnosis and her death.


  32. Hi Hal,

    I have something unusual to say today. It will require a “Caveat Lector”.

    Hal, you say, “Back to your original premise as I think it applies to me. I don’t believe that I overvalue Betty now that she is dead. All marriages aren’t equal, all people aren’t residents of Lake Wobegon. Betty and I had an exceptional marriage and she was an incredible woman.”

    Hal, the statement, “Betty and I had an exceptional marriage and she was an incredible woman” can be absolutely true (I believe it IS absolutely true) and it can still be the case that you are overvaluing her in her death–‘overvaluing’ in the sense of believing that without her you have to struggle to find meaning and value in life, because life’s events, the universe’s events, have little intrinsic value—as far as you’re concerned, it was only the sharing of your experiences in the universe with your soul-mate Betty that gave them true value. And now, without her, the universe returns to its true cold and meaningless existence. And is likely to remain that way for the rest of your own existence, since replacing the incredible Betty seems impossible.

    My contention is that the universe, our planet, our lives, are actually a well-cooked filet mignon. Marvelous per se. And, yes, a fine life-partner charcoal broils that steak for us and makes it even more luscious. And your Betty added Bordelaise sauce to that charcoal-broiled filet mignon and made it unforgettably magnificent (it so happens that charcoal-broiled filet mignon with Bordelaise sauce was the most delicious meal I’VE ever eaten, but Hal, just the way you change the lyrics of Sinatra songs to better fit your situation, so change the above to their counterparts in the culinary pantheon of Hal Brown). Now, during the lives of our partners we only dimly recognize the contributions of the charcoal broiling and Bordelaise, undervaluing them as we focus on that beautifully marbleized filet mignon of life itself. But after their deaths, we do the opposite, we magnify the contribution of our Adored One–to the detriment of life itself. We remember the meat of life not as filet mignon but, falsely, as dog food—and not even Alpo, but the cheap supermarket house brand!! And we think it was only the contributions of our true love, only the charcoal-broiling and Bordelaise sauce that made that cheap meat worth eating, only the sharing of our experiences with our soul-mate that made the intrinsically insipid world worth living in.

    Now I’m about to say something, Hal, that I believe there’s a 95% chance you’ll find repellent, disgusting, offensive. Something you’ll think is the single most wrong, and hurtful, thing a person could say to you. Something you’ll hate my guts for saying. Something that may well make the very thought of further communication with me sickening. Then why am I saying it? a)Because I believe with all my heart it is true (of course that doesn’t mean it actually IS true, and I fully acknowledge that—but all any of us can ever know is what we believe to be true; we can never know, only hope, that what we believe to be true is the ACTUAL TRUTH) and b)because I think it is vitally important that I say it since if EVENTUALLY you accept it as the truth, it will greatly ease (and shorten) your bereavement. And if a person doesn’t say what he believes to be true and crucially significant, then what’s this online conversation for? If he goes on the internet and just spews platitudes and euphemisms, if he disguises and conceals and avoids telling painful truths at all cost, heck—that’s what REAL LIFE is for, not the internet!!

    But seriously, I know my saying this is likely to be deeply upsetting to you. I just re-read the last paragraph, and I feel I should be more specific about why I’m proceeding despite its being upsetting to you. First, I recall your saying in an earlier post something about your concern that Joyce’s rapid remarriage might prematurely abort the grieving process, which has to fully play out, otherwise there is long-term harm despite short-term ‘seeming’ gain. I think your situation is a variant of this idea, where the grieving process is not aborted but arrested, as you are transfixed by the seemingly idyllic, unreplicable-with-another relationship you had with Betty. You devalue future relationships, and the worth of life itself without Betty. Second, it’s clear that some part of you wants to discuss all this. In your very first post you mentioned that anyone interested could google ‘betty brown middleboro’ to learn about your wife. Obviously, that had no direct relevance to Joyce; it was an invitation to discuss you and Betty. Given my nature, I accepted that invitation. Third, in one of your posts you gave the protocol of the bereavement groups, a list of all the many Do’s and Don’t’s. I wasn’t surprised but I said to myself, with all these rules to safeguard the feelings of the grieving, will vital but painful truths necessary for them to move forward as quickly as possible be suppressed? My feeling is that your bereavement groups refrained, because of all those rules, from saying what needed to be said to you.

    So that, very specifically, is why I’m proceeding Hal. But at the same time I must, just as specifically, issue a kind of a SPOILER ALERT, in the sense that what lies ahead may very well spoil your day, your week, your month. Feel free to stop right here, if you have any queasiness. This will be painful. Ugly. RIGHT HERE IS YOUR LAST CHANCE TO TURN BACK. I’M SERIOUS HAL—STOP AND TAKE A FEW MINUTES TO CONSIDER WHETHER YOU REALLY WANT TO CONTINUE. YOU KNOW YOUR STATE OF FRAGILITY BETTER THAN ANYONE. ONLY YOU KNOW IF YOU OUGHT TO TAKE THIS RISK. IT’S PERFECTLY OKAY IF YOU DON’T WANT TO PROCEED AT THIS TIME. I’M NOT IMPOSING THIS ON YOU. YOU ARE FREE TO CHOOSE!!

    If you’re still reading, then here goes:

    You contend that because Betty was so special and your marriage so extraordinary, the sharing of things by the two of you played a vastly more important role in each of your lives than it plays in the lives of others with very good, but more ordinary marriages. And that is why you now feel so bereft and inconsolable. I contend that you’ve magnified after death the value of sharing things with Betty–that actually, during your lives together, sharing was, while important, just an enhancement of life, not something that gave life its very meaning. I believe, even though I don’t know very much about you, I KNOW ENOUGH TO PROVE I’M RIGHT.

    My proof can be summarized in a single word: “Updyke”. Yes “Updyke”. A few posts ago, at my request, you were telling me of your wife’s favorite author, the favorite author of a woman who had a Ph.D. in American Literature and was a librarian–the favorite author of such a woman would likely have a far, far greater significance in her life than the typical person’s favorite author–and yet you initially called him “Updyke”. Twice. It was not a typo. You corrected it a little while later, calling yourself a literary Neanderthal, I believe.

    But a fair inference is that you were not a reader of his oeuvre, to use a literary term your wife would probably have employed. So in your ACTUAL LIFE with Betty, as opposed to your present recollection of your life with Betty, you two were perfectly happy not to share what might well have been her principal pleasure in life aside from you. Certainly, given the vast number of novels, short stories, essays, book reviews, etc. Updike wrote, his work occupied a great deal of her free time and was the subject of many of her thoughts.

    If, as you contend, it’s only the sharing with Betty that gave your life its real meaning, then how would you not have read every word “Updyke” wrote in order to meaningfully share Betty’s most important interest in life? Harry Angstrom’s, Piet Hanama’s, Henry Bech’s names—let alone John Updike’s—should have been as familiar to you as your own, as you explored every aspect of their fictional lives in conversations with Betty. With Betty having a doctorate in American Literature and you being a professional psychologist, what insights the two of you working in tandem could have extracted from the richly textured works of this master, John Updike!!—imagine the endless, vibrant conversations you two could have had, WOULD HAVE HAD, if sharing had been the essence of your relationship!! Just a couple of his great short stories, “The A and P” and “A Lucid Eye in Silvertown”, ALONE should have provided fodder for a score of conversations on cold winter nights in Middleboro if it were only sharing that gave meaning to your life with Betty.

    But clearly that was not the case. “Updyke” tells us that. And, commensurately, I’m sure Betty left you to pursue your interests largely on your own, with each of you only ‘sharing’ the occasional line or anecdote from your own pursuits. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with what you two did. It’s completely normal. I cite it only to prove that in your ACTUAL LIFE sharing was a pleasurable adjunct to, not the raison d’etre of, your existences.

    But now, with Betty’s loss, you have created this (false) notion of your life with Betty: Constant sharing with the perfect sharer.

    And only because of this (false) notion do you believe it will be impossible to have true joy in your life in the future, since you can never expect to duplicate this (false) idyllic sharing you supposedly had. And because of this (false) notion, life per se, life by itself, is seen by you as possessing little worth.

    Demythologizing your life with Betty would appear to be the key to quickly ending your bereavement and letting you be fully happy again.

    But I recognize you’ll likely despise me for having said that. To even use the phrase ‘demythologize your life with Betty’ is to desecrate the holiest of things in your life. You’ve indicated several times in your posts you’re not a believer in God. But you clearly have a religious devotion to this image of your relationship with Betty. So my act of blasphemy will engender deep anger, even hatred. Even though you’re a psychotherapist, certain truths are as painful for you as for anyone else. And hating the speaker of those truths is as inevitable.


    P.S. If somehow you consider us to still be sufficiently on speaking terms for you to respond, please, in replying, don’t think you have to cite a thousand little things you two did share to convince me “there was a whole lotta sharin’ goin’ on!” I ALREADY BELIEVE IT!! I believe there were not a thousand little things you shared, but a million! Maybe two!! But my point is, your not meaningfully sharing something of the incredible magnitude of Updike in Betty’s life demonstrates that it COULD NOT BE TRUE that without the sharing your lives had NO MEANING.

    YOUR LIFE HAD PROFOUND MEANING, HAL, APART FROM, INDEPENDENT OF, THE SHARING. The sharing was a beautiful addition, but your lives were enjoyable even without it. As your life right now, and your future life, can be—which is the whole point of this post and the last one.


  33. I think you make too much of my spelling Updike. I read and enjoyed “Rabbit Run” and his New Yorker pieces and reviews. I found is beautifully crafted descriptions didn’t suit me and I never felt a kinship with “Rabbit”. I wasn’t the kind of reader Betty was. She read anything and didn’t care whether she identified with a main character. She had a best male friend she’s have discussions about literature with.

    But Betty and I also enjoyed political discussion and talking about pop culture, dog, cats, nature, gossip, many many topics.

    For some reason you seem intend on devaluing my marriage, no doubt in a well meaning attempt to break me out of what you see as an impasse in resolving my grief. I won’t subject you to a shrink’s speculation that you have your own less than fully conscious reasons for doing so beyond saying a hope you have an open mind to a bit of self-evaluation on this subject.

    Betty and I valued the everyday moments we shared far more than the intellection discussions.

    You didn’t address what I wrote about how a long time lover not changes you psychologically through introjection but actually insinuates themselves into your brain.

    I have reached the point in my grief where I am as actively as possible trying to meet new women through several online websites. I have gone on about a dozen lunch dates and several day trips. The women were likable and we usually had many common interests, but we didn’t have that mutual chemistry.

    Of course I have Betty as a comparison and the memories of what love at first sight felt like with her and several other women before her. I think JCO probably felt that when she met Charles. Of course we won’t know until and unless she writes about it.

    I don’t think I do myself a disservice if I want to feel that initial mutual attraction, the subtle non-verbal behaviors, the desire to touch each other, the conscious manifestations of the physiology of love.

    A spate of books have been published recently based on the neurology and biochemistry of love. I bought several of them. They all seem to suggest that who we fall in love with is based more on physiology that psychology.

    My opinion is that we need to consider the effects of both in our culture (considering cultures where arranged marriages seem to work).

    I want to find a new love of my life but I do not want to settle for someone who I don’t love. I know there is no Betty out there. But there are women with whom I can have a loving relationship. The problem is our finding each other.

    As a male whose only baggage is his feelings about his late wife I am quite a catch, not only because so many men my age do have baggage, but because there are more available women in my age range than men.

    Back to your belief that I have mythologized Betty. I think this is stretching the definition of the common usage of that word. There is a more accurate word. To some extent I have IDEALIZED her. I know that, and I have been dealing with accepting the unvarnished truth of who she was and what our marriage was like. I know I have to look without flinching at my idealized memories. I have not created a myth around her.


  34. correction

    You didn’t address what I wrote about how a long time lover not ONLY changes you psychologically through introjection but actually insinuates themselves into your brain.


  35. First things first, Hal!

    You say, “For some reason you seem intent on devaluing my marriage, no doubt in a well meaning attempt to break me out of what you see as an impasse in resolving my grief.”

    Not ‘devaluing’, Hal, which in this context implies reducing something to less than its true value, but simply ‘demythologizing’ (which scans a lot better than ‘de-idealizing’, doncha think?)–restoring it to its true value. The very first remark I made in my last post was, “Hal, the statement, ‘Betty and I had an exceptional marriage and she was an incredible woman’ can be absolutely true (I believe it IS absolutely true)”. Here I am saying I believe it is absolutely true that you and Betty had an exceptional marriage and that she was an incredible woman. In what universe is that ‘devaluing’ your marriage?

    And yes, the reason you suggest for my doing it is indeed ONE of my reasons. Your previous posts (and your latest one even more explicitly) indicate you’ve been actively exploring new possibilities but you’ve been less than enthralled with all of them: “I have gone on about a dozen lunch dates and several day trips. The women were likable and we usually had many common interests, but we didn’t have that mutual chemistry”–the possibility of interference as a result of idealizing your relationship with Betty certainly comes to mind, a possibility you make more plausible when, in your latest post, you say: “To some extent I have IDEALIZED her. I know that, and I have been dealing with accepting the unvarnished truth of who she was and what our marriage was like. I know I have to look without flinching at my idealized memories.” And consider this analogy, Hal: When a physician is examining a beautiful young woman in his office, without even having to “will” it, his subconscious, grasping the situation, automatically prevents him from having the physical reaction he might have in another context. [Boy, how’s that for ‘delicacy’ on my part!!] I’m sure doctors quickly grasp this phenomenon. (I’ve actually discussed this with a doctor friend, and he acknowledged this, although he smilingly added, “Rodg, one time my subconscious slipped up”.) Similarly, without your willing it, your idealization of Betty (or even a continuing “fidelity” to her) is preventing you from having the physical reaction you might have to these women on the lunch dates and day trips. The only difference is that, unlike the physicians, you don’t realize what’s going on and mistakenly attribute your lack of a reaction to deficiencies in these women, or just a vague failure of chemistry for unknown reasons. How do you like my analogy/hypothesis, Hal?

    In any case, it turns out we really don’t disagree, in fact, we’re quite fully in accord on the basic point of your needing to resolve the problem of your idealization of your relationship with Betty.

    But before our Woodstock moment lasts even two seconds, let me quickly re-inject controversy, mischief-maker that I am!!

    But seriously, I was startled to see you so cavalierly dismiss the fact that you rarely discussed Updike with Betty, first by citing a male friend she already did that with (so you’d be redundant???), and then by saying, “Betty and I valued the everyday moments we shared far more than the intellectual discussions.” Hal, discussing “The Use of Religious Symbolism by Tolstoy in His Novels Before and After His Conversion to Christianity” would be an intellectual discussion. But discussing characters, events, moral quandaries, etc. in John Updike’s vivid, realistic portrayals of contemporary life isn’t some dry intellectual pursuit—it’s pure fun!! It’s the shimmering stuff of life!! That’s true even if you don’t have a particular interest in Updike. And then there’s the concept of doing it for Betty’s sake, even if it weren’t fun for you!

    I find it so strange that you, the world’s foremost exponent of the ‘life-is-almost-meaningless-without-sharing-experiences-with-our-true-love’ philosophy, wouldn’t feel this way, and I, someone who loves sharing experiences but feels life is fantastic even without it, DO feel this way. Let me give you a perfect, current illustration of that. A few years ago, someone who’s a good friend of mine (but not the love of my life, like your Betty was) developed a real interest in the TV show “Mad Men” (but it wasn’t the lifelong passion that Updike was for your Betty). During the first season she’d repeatedly urge me, with increasing ardor, to watch the show so we could discuss it. “Rodg,” she would say, “You’ll love it. It’s full of intrigue, puzzling motives, quirky behavior, hidden agendas, plus I badly want your input.”

    I hate TV and I don’t watch it except for Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, but finally I said to myself, “This really means a lot to her, plus it would be fun to discuss it, even if I don’t particularly care for the show.” And indeed, that’s the way it turned out. Starting in Season 2, I’ve watched the show and had the same kind of tepid reaction to it that you had to Updike. But unlike you, I have faithfully continued to watch every week. A ritual has emerged during the Mad Men season: every Tuesday evening I call her up (the show airs on Sunday, but she needs a chance to watch it a second, and sometimes a third time before discussing it!) and we spend two or three hours dissecting the subtle significance of every raised eyebrow and fleeting smile, what was Faye’s real motive for saying that, why did Don uncharacteristically snap at his daughter, etc. Though I don’t particularly like the show, I love our conversations about it, and about all the tangentially related subjects that come up—AND I ESPECIALLY LOVE HOW HAPPY AND PASSIONATE SHE IS WHEN TALKING ABOUT IT. Though she and I have been friends a long time, I’ve never felt closer to her than on these Tuesday nights. I am amazed that, THROUGHOUT YOUR ENTIRE LIVES TOGETHER, you chose to forgo this experience with Betty and the “Mad Men” of her life, Updike.

    Then you mildly take me to task: “You didn’t address what I wrote about how a long time lover not only changes you psychologically through introjection but actually insinuates themselves into your brain.” Perhaps you should invite Professor Charles Gross to comment on this, Hal!!

    I would say that neuroscience in recent years has demonstrated that if you do ANYTHING long enough (and long enough isn’t very long at all!) your brain will be perceptibly altered, even when viewed with the still rather crude tools they’re using to discern neurological changes. So it’s not just a long-time lover. Now please don’t accuse me of trying to ‘devalue’ the changes in your brain wrought by your life-long love of Betty, but if you spend a month LEARNING TO USE A HULA HOOP PROFICIENTLY your brain’s architecture will be noticeably altered by it, and probably to about the same degree as by 40 years with the love of your life!!!

    Sorry, Hal, but the Truth is often quite a party-pooper!!—like old Mr. Angelino of my adolescence who’d come in, turn on ALL THE LIGHTS, and bellow, “Okay, kids, time to go home!! Hey—you two in the corner!! Do you think I can’t see you?? I said THE PARTY’S OVER!” Yes, the Truth can be QUITE ANNOYING turning on all the lights the way it does.

    Oh, one other thing. Having mentioned my love of Jon Stewart, his show on Tuesday, May 3rd was particularly good, or the first two segments anyway (before his guest came on). You can find it on the Daily Show website, just click on “Full Episodes” at the top of the page, and then scroll down on the Full Episodes page to May 3rd, if you’re interested. (But be prepared for some serious taboo-violating, if you watch it. If you’re with one of the ladies from your Over 55 matchmaking site at the time, COVER HER EYES DURING SEGMENT TWO!!!!!……….and maybe cover your own eyes!) I am amazed that Leno, Letterman et al. aren’t embarrassed to continue working in their profession now that they’ve seen Jon Stewart. (And it’s not just that he has the advantage of cable’s freedom—the writing is brilliantly imaginative satire and Jon Stewart has a Meryl Streep-sized repertoire of facial expressions and vocal intonations (far beyond any of his rivals)—they make already excellent material exponentially more hilarious. He’s Lenny Bruce without the drug habit!)


  36. Mad Men was one of our favorite shows and we often talked about it. Methinks you make too much of Updike being her favorite author and I not discussing his books with her. We rarely discussed books! Make what you please of that.

    It is your interpretation that I ” cavalierly dismiss” Betty’s liking Updike. If you knew her you’d know she couldn’t have cared less that we didn’t discuss literature. Her best friends in graduate school were those who general talked about anything but literature, that is when they weren’t getting drunk together at Paul Revere’s Bar.

    She considered the professors and graduate students who always had deep discussions about literature as pretentious and pompous.

    I was not a literary inclined person and she had no interest in psychology, so these were topics were discussed with others.

    One thing Betty taught me well was how to rein in my hypergraphia (which I think is a neurologic disorder). She was a very good editor and she taught me how to hone down my writing to the most salient points.

    Betty was as interest in pop culture as she was in literature. She was an avid fan of the critically acclaimed television series The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Upstairs, Downstairs and like I noted, Mad Men. She especially liked British dramatic and comedy series.

    She also really enjoyed the crime procedurals in the Law and Order and CSI series.
    We enjoyed our ongoing competition be the first to say out loud the solution to a crime or the next words a character would say.

    I’m surprised you make the assumption that I am not a Jon Stewart fan since I think I’ve given ample hints as to my liberal political leaning ( librarians and psychotherapists are mostly liberals anyway ). You devote an entire paragraph to trying to enlighten me about The Daily Show.

    As far as taboo violating, if you really only watch Stewart you are missing some real hard core taboo violating if you never watch Bill Maher and South Park.

    Your equating the brain changes that occur in learning to use a hula hoop with being in love misses my point that only recently have scientists been researching the biochemical and neurological changes that come with love. These occur in different parts of the brain than the changes that occur when new skills involving coordination are mastered.


  37. Joyce Carol Oates replies to the charge, as expressed by Julian Barnes in the New York Review of Books, that she should have explicitly mentioned in her memoir of her later remarriage:

    “… since nothing seems to arouse reproach in reviewers quite so much as the possibility that the memoirist is less miserable at the time of the writing and afterward than she was at the time of the experience about which she is writing, it is only sensible to include an appendix to remedy this …”

    Read her full response here:



  38. Regarding the appendix, this is what I wrote I was hoping she would do on this blog on March 29:

    I did know of JCO’s remarriage, but have mixed feelings about it not being included in an afterword to the book. This is because while I still miss my wife intensely and perhaps once a week have a brief “meltdown”, I am trying to meet new women and would like to get married again.

    Nobody provokes the feelings I had for my wife and I lament that I will never meet someone and we’d fall in love. I wish I knew the barest of details of JCO’s courtship and new marriage so I’d see how it felt to grieve as hard as we both did, and still make a new life with someone new.\\


    As I struggle to have hope I can meet someone new to share whatever time each of us has left, I am glad JCO did. It would be helpful to other widows and widowers to be inspired by her story of a new love.


  39. Of course, it is the height of absurdity to suggest that Joyce is guilty of “a breach of narrative promise”. The hints of a brighter future provided for the minimally discerning reader at the end of ‘A Widow’s Story’ amply fulfilled her ‘narrative obligations’. Naturally, anyone who regards the account of the first months of Joyce’s widowhood as exceptionally insightful, as I do, would be eager to read a sequel examining the next stages, but we certainly are not ‘owed’ such an account.

    But Joyce—-YOUR LAST PARAGRAPH!!!! WHAT ON EARTH WERE YOU THINKING????? You say,“nothing seems to arouse reproach in reviewers quite so much as the possibility that the memoirist is less miserable at the time of the writing and afterward than she was at the time of the experience about which she is writing”.

    First of all, Joyce, you obviously don’t have the slightest, flimsiest shred of evidence that ANY reviewer is annoyed because ANY memoirist has recovered some measure of equilibrium and normalcy at the time of writing. But you actually GENERALIZE it. Your words indict REVIEWERS AS A CLASS, feeling this way about MEMOIRISTS AS A CLASS. If you have a disturbing lack of evidence for the charge against ANY, how frightening is your utterly baseless hurling of the accusation against most or all reviewers in their attitude toward most or all memoirists.

    But even apart from your obviously complete lack of concrete evidence is that the charge is contrary to human nature. Except for those people who have lost a spouse themselves and are envious of the rapid end of someone else’s loneliness by quickly remarrying while their own loneliness promises to linger forever–except for such people, human beings generally (and I assume reviewers as a class are typical human beings) don’t harbor such feelings. I am a fairly cynical person (in certain moments verging on the misanthropic) and yet even I would never accuse human beings generally of wishing a deeply suffering person to continue suffering. Why? Why would a normal person wish that Joyce? You don’t even suggest a reason! Do you really believe that it’s just a fundamental part of what it is to be human, Joyce, one of the primal drives: hunger, thirst, sex, and a desire that a memoirist not be ‘ less miserable at the time of the writing and afterward than she was at the time of the experience about which she is writing’?

    Or is it that the ridiculous and ugly accusations by Janet Maslin and others have made you so angry that you lashed out with ridiculous and ugly accusations of your own?

    I very much think so. And here’s the irony Joyce. While your accusations certainly do the class of reviewers a terrible injustice, the greatest injustice you commit is against yourself. Don’t you realize, Joyce, that anyone reading the many pages of intimate self-revelation that is ‘A Widow’s Story’ emerges with the strongest possible admiration, sympathy, and affection for you? Do you have so little sense of your own worth and virtue that you think people (EVEN REVIEWERS!!) could finish your account and want you to continue to be miserable?

    I, a reader with just a typical ‘heart’, no better than average, fervently hoped as I read the book that it would have a ‘happy ending’; I seized, delighted, upon the clues you left at the end which suggested exactly that, and I rejoiced when I read online about your own re-Joycing, your regaining your lost Joyce persona with Charles, and your tossing aside the melancholy garb of widowhood.


  40. Joyce, if you read the exchanges between Roger and I you’ll see where he was trying to break me out of feeling sorry for myself – using a sledge hammer – but for that I forgive him.

    Today I am waiting for a visit from a new woman in my life. She should be here in a half hour. Maybe she will be the new love. I hope so.

    I also just received the book recommended by Roger, The Schoepenhauer Cure” (Irving Yalom), in the mail today which I have started. So far I am finding it riveting. It drew me right in because the narrator discovers in the first chapter that he has a melanoma which gives him a 25% chance of living five years. My wife survived two cancers before the third which killed her. The second was a melanoma which statistically had a 50% five year survival rate. So I know first hand what it is to go thorough the uncertainty of THAT diagnosis.

    As to the notion expressed in your last sentence, I agree with Roger. A memoir about a trying time, as contrasted with a diary, is by definition writing after the the fact. Hopefully most memoirs have happy endings, though some published diaries don’t. Anne Frank comes to mind as someone who didn’t survive to write a memoir.

    If she lived and reconstructed her life to be happy again, who would have resented her for taking the diary and making it into a memoir with a happy ending befitting the truth.


  41. Do you really think I used a “sledgehammer”, Hal? And, if you do, couldn’t you at least have suggested that it was thoughtfully wrapped in many layers of the finest cashmere??

    Truly, my actions seemed necessary. Why? It was clear that the question was not, Were you throwing yourself PHYSICALLY back into the arena (your active use of the online dating service demonstrated you were) but rather, Were you allowing yourself to be EMOTIONALLY responsive to these women you were meeting? No sparks at all in a dozen dates says, “Clearly not”, and your idealization of, or ‘fidelity’ to, Betty seemed to be the reason. Hence my very meticulous chipping away (with the most delicate L’Unghietto sculptor’s chisel—sledgehammer my foot!!) at your cherished but damaging-to-you-right-now fantasies about Betty and your relationship with her.

    One thing about Joyce’s last paragraph surprised me. It was not that, underlying it, was a long-brewing anger over the various reviewers’ unfair and sometimes odious accusations (those critics who faulted her for not explicitly discussing her remarriage in A Widow’s Story and those others, like Maslin, who made numerous vile and baseless condemnations). Anger, and a wish to lash out is entirely normal and expected under those circumstances. No, what surprised me was this: Someone as perceptive and reflective as Joyce should realize that any intelligent reader of her letter would immediately recognize the absurdity of her charge against reviewers as a class, and also immediately understand, “Boy, she must just be so darned mad at these guys she doesn’t care if what she says makes the slightest sense, only whether it hurts them or not.” Since practically all readers of the New York Review of Books fall into the category ‘intelligent’, that meant that basically everyone reading Joyce’s letter would react very negatively to that final paragraph, as I did. But if Joyce herself had reached that obvious logical conclusion she would have deleted that paragraph before sending the letter. So was Joyce so blinded by rage that she temporarily lost the skill of predicting other people’s reactions and/or the ability to engage in simple syllogistic reasoning? Evidently so—and that’s what is so surprising!

    My God, the volcanoes that seethe, waiting to erupt, even in the most placid-seeming people!!!


  42. Cashmere wrapped, indeed, why no silver Siberian sable?

    A mere dozen women – I met hundreds and dated many of them and slept with dozens before Betty…

    if you want more details of my latest life changes they are private between us to email me.


  43. Hi, I just want to mention that I found this interesting discussion after doing a search for “janet maslin cruel.” I was prompted to do so by reading her NYT review today of the book by the woman who had an affair with JFK beginning when she was 19. Although I have not read the book, I found Maslin’s review to be astonishlingly cruel toward the author. Please check it out I also happen to have read Maslin’s review of JCO’s memoir. The discussion here makes a strong case that Maslin’s review of that memoir was also cruel as well as reckless and simply inaccurate. Finally, the interaction with “Nan” was quite compelling. You did a good job of showing how she massively distorted the account of the dinner party planning. It was quite striking how Nan could not acknowledge at all that she had not accurately represented the description in the book. Thanks.


    • Peter,

      Janet Maslin reveals herself to be hopelessly out of touch with the sexual mores of the 1960’s when she emphasizes this: “If there is one question that Ms. Alford’s story poses, it is this: How did she end up in bed with the president on her fourth day at work? This may be the hardest part of her adventure to imagine….”

      I wouldn’t question it is she ended up in bed with Kennedy on her first day of work. Someone should remind Maslin of our cultural history and tell her that the early sixties marked the start of the free-love generation with its one-night-stands and casual sex.

      It is odd that Maslin seems so much the prude here even though she refers to “Portnoy’s Complaint”. This seems to be either to mock Alford’s debutante nickname the Monkey, or to demonstrate how clever she is. Clever? I beg to differ. “Portney’s Complaint” wasn’t published until 1969 so how could anybody have known that Monkey was the nickname of the main female character in the book when Alford was attending Miss Porter’s?

      I first read “A Widow’s Story” and found it helped me in my own grief over the death of my wife of 40 years. The only problem I had with it was that I wished JCO wrote a follow-up essay about what it was like to meet someone new and fall in love again. Many widows and widowers I have met over the last two years are struggling with this.

      I fault the NYT Book Review for allowing someone to write the review who wasn’t themselves a widow or widower. I am sure they could have found a guest reviewer like Donald Hall.


  44. Janet Maslin almost without fail pans books I enjoy. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and a new thriller/ mystery, Into the Water by Paula Hawkins are two examples that come to mind. While the two books are very different, with one being a near masterpiece they do have one. or two things in common; those being humor and a willingness to entertain their reader.

    Janet Maslin is a humorless, bitter, no taste hack.

    JCO is a giant, a demigod of American letters. “We Were the Mulvaneys” exemplifies all that is good in American letters. I suppose she slighted Maslin at some point and the soulless old crone finally took her revenge. Fuck her and the horse she rode in on!


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