Joyce Carol Oates
Exclusive Essay
What is a family except memories?

This is a question asked by Judd Mulvaney, the youngest of the Mulvaney children. I think it's a question we might all ask: Can there be a family without memories, or a family wracked with heart-break and mystery in which memories are partly erased, denied? When I wrote We Were The Mulvaneys, I was just old enough to look back upon my own family life and the lies of certain individuals close to me, with the detachment of time. I wanted to tell the truth about secrets: How much pain they give, yet how much relief, even happiness we may feel when at last the motive for secrecy has passed.

Readers have reacted in sharply contrasting ways to the dilemma of the heart of the novel: If a loving, family-oriented woman must choose between her husband and one of her children, whom does she choose? Corinne Mulvaney is a deeply, unself-consciously religious woman who acts out of love and duty, but also with an unquestioned sense of God's intentions. She doesn't think of herself her own wishes but those of others; until the end of the novel, when she befriends an energetic, irrepressible woman named Sable, Corinne doesn't think of herself as an individual at all. She's Corinne Mulvaney, known to everyone as Michael Mulvaney's wife. Her behavior will seem baffling, even unconscionable, to those who don't share her faith. I don't believe that, in her place, I would have acted as she did, but I don't judge her harshly. Perhaps I even envy her faith.

It happens in some families, perhaps many more than we know that a "split" occurs. A parent is hurt. It might be a father, as in this case, it might be a mother. Someone who is strong-willed, very loving, but also very dominating. Someone who, until the split occurs, you wouldn't expect to be so stubborn. So heartrendingly stubborn. This parent is hurt, or insulted, or thwarted, or "disappointed." This parent's pride is lacerated. And the individual, often a child, who has caused the rupture can't be easily forgiven. Maybe he or she doesn't wish to beg for forgiveness. Maybe he or she is as stubborn as the parent. And suddenly... the family is "split." People choose sides. People cease speaking to one another, sometimes for years. And only after a duration of time can things be made right again and healing can begin again.

In lucky families, this is. Think of the many families who never heal, never forgive!

The Mulvaneys are a family in which the pride of one dominant individual is fatally injured, but they are also a family in which forgiveness finally, belatedly, occurs. I based this story on "real-life" experiences, as the expression has it. Yet as I wrote the novel, it came to acquire a fairy-tale quality; it came, in time, to remind me, so very unexpectedly, of a Shakespearean tragedy in which no one is actually "wrong" and yet all suffer.


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