A novel by Joyce Carol Oates
“A painful truth of family life: the most tender emotions can change in an instant. You think your parents love you but is it you they love, or the child who is theirs?” — Joyce Carol Oates, My Life as a Rat
Which should prevail: loyalty to family or loyalty to the truth? Is telling the truth ever a mistake and is lying for one’s family ever justified? Can one do the right thing, but bitterly regret it?
My Life as a Rat follows Violet Rue Kerrigan, a young woman who looks back upon her life in exile from her family following her testimony, at age twelve, concerning what she knew to be the racist murder of an African-American boy by her older brothers. In a succession of vividly recalled episodes Violet contemplates the circumstances of her life as the initially beloved youngest child of seven Kerrigan children who inadvertently “informs” on her brothers, setting into motion their arrests and convictions and her own long estrangement.
Arresting and poignant, My Life as a Rat traces a life of banishment from a family—banishment from parents, siblings, and the Church—that forces Violet to discover her own identity, to break the powerful spell of family, and to emerge from her long exile as a “rat” into a transformed life.
IF THE FUCKING BAT HADN’T BEEN THERE.
Because none of it had been premeditated. Because it had just happened—the way fire just happens.
Because it had been rattling in the back of the car, for months. Why’d he carry the bat loose in the car he’d liked to say For protection.
Sort of, he meant it. But it was a kind of joke too.
Because most things, fucking things in his fucking life, were jokes. Which included the bat.
Just his old baseball bat. The label worn off, he’d had for years. Couldn’t remember when he’d played baseball last. But the bat was his—his brothers had to have their own damn bats if they had a bat at all.
Never thought about it. Not much.
Rattling in the back of the car along with some empty beer cans and other shit, he’d stopped hearing.
Except that night, one of the (drunk) guys in the back snatched it up. And outside, in the confusion, he grabbed it away from whoever it was, maybe Don Brinkhaus, excited and aroused and swinging the bat because the bat was his and the bat was fucking wonderful, the solid grip, the weight of it, soiled old black tape he’d wound around the handle how many years ago. He’d never been a great batter, but he was OK. Easily embarrassed and discouraged and fucking disgusted, missing easy pitches, striking the ball not hard enough so it popped up like a little kid might pop it, fell straight down, rolled at the first baseman’s feet . . . Wanting to murder any asshole who laughed at him.
But now, no. Fucking bat wasn’t missing its target now.
- The Rat
- The Omen: November 2, 1991
- The Happy Childhood
- Best Kisses!
- “Boys Will Be Boys”
- To Die For
- Louisville Slugger
- The Little Sister
- The Promise
- The Siege
- Because . . .
- The Rescue
- The Secret I
- The Secret II
- Final Confession
- “Dear Christ What Did Violet Do Now”
- The Revelation
- The Bat
- Safe House
- “Praying for Violet”
- The Iceberg
- Turnip Face
- “Mr. Sandman Bring Me a Dream”
- “Dirty Girl”
- The Stalker: 1997”
- “You Are Not Wanted”
- Dirty Girl
- “Violet, Goodbye!”
- The Scar
- The Burrow
- Keeping Myself Alive
- Off the Books
- Rat, Waiting
- Sorrowful Virgin
- Damned Little Dog
- First Aid
- The Misunderstanding
- The Return
- In My Mother’s Garden
- The Guilty Sister
- Howard Street
You write in the acknowledgments that My Life As a Rat appeared in its earliest form as a short story titled Curly Red in Harper’s magazine in 2003, reprinted in the anthology I Am No One You Know in 2004. Why did you decide to develop it into a novel?
I had long meditated upon the life of a girl who had impulsively blurted out the truth under duress, within a few seconds assuring that her clannish family will reject her and that she will become an “orphan”; she will spend much of her life trying to return to her family, hoping to ingratiate herself with them. Over the years I’d accumulated many notes and scenes, and I had always known how Violet’s story would develop.
Many of your novels explore family conflict – this new one probes the tension between family loyalty and independence…
It does seem that the classic family unit is predominant in our lives, and that it is difficult, particularly for a young person, and perhaps for a girl, to break free of the spell of familial love – which can be possessive and stultifying as well as nourishing and enlivening. I have dedicated the novel to my friend of many years Elaine Showalter, who’d been disowned by her family when she married “outside her faith”. (This is simplifying a complex situation, but essentially that was the reason.) We are all bound to our families and it is a sort of fairytale nightmare if one might be disowned or rejected.
Did you want to show the importance of speaking out against injustice despite the consequences? I thought that was powerfully portrayed.
Yes, I think we must do this. I was struck years ago when the brother of the Unabomber cooperated with the FBI to identify his serial-killer brother, Ted Kaczynski – a courageous act – but was denounced in some quarters as a “rat”, as if family loyalty to a murderer was more important than saving the lives of victims to be! There must be civil and moral laws higher than the tribalism of the family, the clan, and the political party. Civilisation collapses when we don’t apply justice unilaterally. The US is undergoing this sort of slow collapse of ethics and civil law under the Trump administration, which prosecutes and pardons indiscriminately, depending upon political loyalties. It’s very destructive, particularly for younger generations, to observe adults behaving in ways that are unethical or criminal.
Kate Saunders, The Times (London), June 22, 2019
My Life as a Rat is Oates at her best — an uncompromising story that explores racism, misogyny and recent American history.
Pamela Miller, Star Tribune, June 21, 2019
Yet every few books, [Oates] pens a near-masterpiece, a story that captures some of the darkness in American life. “My Life as a Rat” is one of those gems, with Violet the vehicle for several explorations, including the ways vulnerable girls and young women can fall prey to domineering men and how loyalty to family can lead to betrayal of the self.
Christopher John Stephens, PopMatters, June 3, 2019
My Life as a Rat shimmers with possibilities by the end of its story…. Most remarkable is that Oates has added another unforgettably strong woman character to her canon, another variation on a seemingly endless theme of possibilities. If happiness usually proves duplicitous, and melancholy a dependable constant, then the journey of an epic Joyce Carol Oates novel is always going to be a trip worth experiencing.
Betty J. Cotter, The Milford Daily News, July 7, 2019, page C1
But Violet Rue’s hypnotic voice carries the day, sending the reader barreling through her life as though down the Niagara River that thunders ominously behind the Kerrigan house. You will be disturbed, but you will keep reading.
Jeffrey Burke, Mail on Sunday, June 23, 2019, page 27
Violet’s woe-is-me narrative can be a bit much, but the odyssey her psyche endures is served well by Oates’s jittery, rough-edged prose.
Sarah Rachel Egelman, BookReporter, June 7, 2019
Race, gender, family loyalty: Oates tackles them all here. Like Violet’s vision of her family, MY LIFE AS A RAT is painfully sharp but fuzzy around the edges. A beautiful and frightening novel, even with its gaps and liberties taken, it leaves readers with a sorrow and a cautious hope for Violet’s survival.
David Luhrssen, Shepherd Express, June 4, 2019
Oates correctly records the currents of class resentment and racial backlash that run like live wires under American society. My Life as a Rat is a #me2 novel set in the near past, a wise choice in a chaotic present day where changes come too fast to be nailed down by any medium as languorous as the novel.
Carol Haggas, Booklist, May 1, 2019, p. 66
Oates’ frequent themes of exile, predators and their victims, racial conflicts, and gender violence coalesce in this psychologically and socially complex portrait of a young woman’s struggle as she loses her family but finds herself.
Julia Scheeres, New York Times, June 4, 2019
Oates has long been preoccupied with male violence, racial strife and female victimhood. “My Life as a Rat” has all three of these elements in abundance. At the despairing center is poor Violet, flung into a cruel and indifferent world. Where she’ll land is the question that produces the book’s major tension, and the reader must agonize alongside her.
Image by Melissa Maples