Monday, September 12, 2016

Joyce Carol Oates and the Resurrection of JonBenet

Standing in line at Publix I saw this headline on the cover of the National Enquirer: "JonBenet BODY EXHUMED." Not true, of course. Beneath the uppercase, large-font scream are two words in a scarcely visible font: INVESTIGATORS DEMAND.

No, not exhumed, but resurrected by network television and tabloids on the occasion of her murder's twentieth anniversary.

JonBenet's fictional resurrection, however, began in earnest with Joyce Carol Oates' 2008 novel My Sister, My Love narrated by Skyler Rampike, a fictionalized version of Burke  Ramsey, JonBenet's older brother. 

The victim herself becomes Bliss, whose mother Betsey, equal parts deranged stage mother, Snow White's wicked stepmother, and Michele Bachmann, abuses her into becoming a Shirley Templesque figure-skating celebrity  -- with just a tad too much sensuality attached. 

Anyone who was sentient back in 1996 when JonBenet was murdered knows what a fiasco that whole thing was -- the loss of the lovely little girl, the botched investigation, the power plays of the wealthy parents, and ultimately an anticlimactic surrender. 

Soon -- if it hasn't happened already -- the late JonBenet will join the Holy Band of souls Americans cannot relinquish, cannot set free, the others being Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, who, like JonBenet, were never allowed to grow up.

They can't leave now! We're not through picking their bones clean!

Ms. Oates doesn't turn away from this outrage, nor does she fall for its vulgar appeal. She does the most difficult thing: She immerses herself in it. She enters into deep conversation with the family -- now called the Rampikes -- dwelling within them so intimately as to become their (the Ramseys') co-creators. 

It's not much of a reach to say she becomes their Creator, period. She counteth the hairs upon their mostly empty heads!

The ingenious decision to make Skyler her narrator gives Ms. Oates great leeway to satirize an entire culture. It's all there, folks: social and professional climbers, capitalist alpha males, alcohol and drug addiction, child neglect, child abuse, immigrant abuse, celebrity worship, religion as status symbol (Trinity Episcopal!), joy- and praise-filled megachurches, gimmicky postmodern literature, Big Pharm and its epic herd of cash-cow acronymous pills and injections, and, my favorite, the hardened rehab minister with the heart of gold.

I loved Skyler's combination of pretentiousness and uncertainty in his literary skills, his attempts to incorporate French phrases while having to spell them phonetically, and his simultaneous use of and contempt for self-conscious postmodern techniques and lapses into sentimentality.

I laughed at about every other page in this book. But why? What is happening to Skyler and Bliss is never good -- it's awful, outrageous! Maybe this will help:

A mother and daughter at Target are about to start shopping. One of the mother's legs is covered with bandages and braces of all stripes -- I'm guessing due to either an ACL or knee-replacement surgery --, so she and her daughter set out to dislodge a cart for the walking-impaired from its fellows, mom on one side, daughter on the other. 

When the daughter finally yanks free the sought-after cart, the mom is left grasping the others, now directed by the laws of physics to push back at her, ultimately leaving the poor soul sprawled and yelling on the hard tile floor.

Watching that scene play out practically made me nauseous. But as I picture it now, I have to laugh, and that's the kind of laughter My Sister, My Love evokes.

Maybe George Saunders is right when he says "humor is what happens when we are told the truth quicker and more directly than we are used to." Sadness and despair jump out at us from this book, and this excess of sorrow makes us laugh.

If, on the other hand, this extraordinarily rich, imaginative recreation of the Ramsey family tragedy isn't intended to be dark humor, I need to seek help immediately.

We'll probably never know what happened to JonBenet. But after reading My Sister, My Love, I thought of what Don DeLillo said in an author's note at the end of Libra, his fictionalized biography of Lee Harvey Oswald: "Because this book makes no claim to literal truth, because it is only itself, apart and complete, readers may find refuge here."

And while I'm quoting, Oscar Wilde once said, "Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance." The actual, literal occurrence in the Ramsey case, obviously, is someone killed and sexually molested JonBenet on Christmas night, 1996. 

But the murder was set in motion not in the days and weeks leading up to it, but when JonBenet was four years old, and her mother set out to fill in all the gaps in her (the mother's) heart, to turn all her past losses into victories, to make herself matter in a fame-hungry society, by transforming her daughter -- with Victor Frankenstein's hubris, but none of his skills -- into someone completely alien to herself. 

Ms. Oates' fictional version is the truth, the kind that only Art can provide, a truth unavailable to even the most advanced forensics, reminding us that once the damage is done, we really don't need to name the last straw put on the camel's back. Put in perspective, it is of the smallest importance.


  1. Excellent blog post. I think I'll actually read that book. Thanks for writing this - informative and very interesting.

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