While I Was Gone
A decade ago she put a face on every mother's worst nightmare with her phenomenal best-seller The Good Mother. Now, Sue Miller delivers a spellbinding novel of love and betrayal that explores what it means to be a good wife.
In the summer of 1968, Jo Becker ran out on the marriage and the life her parents wanted for her, and escaped--for one beautiful, idyllic year--into a life that was bohemian and romantic, living under an assumed name in a rambling group house in Cambridge. It was a time of limitless possibility, but it ended in a single instant when Jo returned home one night to find her best friend lying dead in a pool of blood on the living room floor.
Now Jo has everything she's ever wanted: a veterinary practice she loves, a devoted husband, three grown daughters, a beautiful Massachusetts farmhouse. And if occasionally she feels a stranger to herself and wonders what happened to the freedom she once felt, or how she came to be the wife, mother, and doctor her neighbors know and trust--if at times she feels as if her whole life is vanishing behind her as she's living it--she need only look at her daughters or her husband, Daniel, to recall the satisfactions of family and community and marriage.
But when an old housemate settles in her small town, the fabric of Jo's life begins to unravel: seduced again by the enticing possibility of another self and another life, she begins a dangerous flirtation that returns her to the darkest moment of her past and imperils all she loves.
While I Was Gone is an exquisitely suspenseful novel about how quickly and casually a marriage can be destroyed, how a good wife can find herself placing all she holds dear at risk. In expert strokes, Sue Miller captures the precariousness of even the strongest ties, the ease with which we abandon each other, and our need to be forgiven. An extraordinary book, her best, from a beloved American writer.
I was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1943, the second child of four. My family was ecclesiastical to its roots - my father was an ordained minister (though he never had a church), and both grandfathers and various great grandfathers and so on back through the ages were preachers. More important, my parents struggled to make their lives meaningful in terms of witness to conscience, to pacifism, to racial equality; and though I don't see the direct embrace of religion among my siblings, and the cousins in my generation, I'm aware, in myself anyway, of a tendency towards self-examination and examination of others-intention, meanings, scruples, ethics-that seems to connect directly to that tradition, and has served me well as a writer.
For about twenty years, my father taught church history at the University of Chicago. I went to a public grammar school in Hyde Park. I was a reader, a painter, an inventor of solitary projects, the quiet child in a fairly boisterous family. I attended a tiny private girls' school, now defunct, for high school. I was writing poetry all the time I was growing up, mostly derivative, though decreasingly sappy as time went on.
At sixteen, after my junior year of high school, I began Radcliffe College. I was, simply, too young to have done this. Overwhelmed, I stumbled unhappily around Harvard for four years, taking comfort mostly in a love of music-rock and roll, the blues, the folk music of the early sixties-and a string of boyfriends. I wrote fiction again only in my senior year of college, and it was in no way noticed or remarked upon, with good reason.
I graduated at twenty and was married two months later. In the early years of my marriage, while my husband went to medical school, I got a degree in tech high school English and did that briefly. I worked at a Head Start program - again, briefly. I got a job as a research assistant in psychology, as a cocktail waitress, as a model. My husband and I separated for a short time. I also wrote a very bad novel during this period, which I've since destroyed.
In 1968 my son Ben was born, and I didn't write more than a few pages of fiction a year for the next seven or eight years. I was separated for a second, final, time from my husband in 1970, and divorced several years later. For the years after my separation, I rented rooms out in my house and worked in day care. In 1977-78, I began writing again in earnest and for the first time with a sense of commitment and conviction, as well as a growing excitement in my own ability, it seemed to me, to respond to some of the formal demands of writing, to understand something of how fiction worked.
For the first years I was trying to write steadily, my productivity was directly proportional to my ability to win grants and fellowships. In 1979, I was awarded a fellowship to the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, which paid me almost as much as I'd been earning in day care. I quit my job and enrolled. At the end of that year I won a Henfield Award, which let me take time to finish another novel, one I'd been working on sporadically for four or five years.
I'd begun by now to have a few stories accepted by a literary magazine - Ploughshares and North American Review - and from this time on I was able to get teaching jobs in various writing programs in the Boston area, stringing together a livelihood as an adjunct professor or lecturer at Boston University, Tufts, Emerson, Harvard Summer School, MIT-sometimes several places simultaneously. In 1983 I won a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliff College, and in 1984 a grant from the Massachusetts Art Council. These let me stop teaching entirely for one year and teach only two courses the following year, so that I was able, during this period, to write The Good Mother, a novel in which a woman comes to understand something about who she is by losing custody of a child. In 1987, a collection of stories I'd been working on before and during the writing of The Good Mother was published. It's titled Inventing the Abbotts. By now I'd begun to work on Family Pictures, relying on my own memories of growing up in Chicago and a lot of reading about the sixties to tell the story of a family with an autistic child over the span of forty years or so, examining the impact of his presence on all their lives, materially, spiritually, and psychologically. It was published in 1990, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and has been widely translated. For Love, my third novel, was published in the spring of 1993, and in the 1995, The Distinguished Guest, my fourth novel, came out.
Over the years the writers I'd cite as influences on me (not that I hold any of them accountable for what I do) have changed, and then changed again. I was a sappy kid, and the writers I liked then were the ones who made me cry, who made me feel sorry for myself by projection - Hans Christian Andersen (Ah! The little match girl who dies looking in from the snow at the cozy family!), and Charlotte Bront's Jane Eyre, so horribly treated by all, so triumphant in the end. Later I read all of Thomas Wolfe, again projecting myself, this time as a sensitive artist. By the time I began to write myself, the big names were Jewish men - Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Mailer. I admired them all, but it wasn't until I read Cheever, with his rueful, affectionate distance, that I felt some fictional sense of at-homeness, some sense of the possibilities for me. In my early twenties, the sexy, funny, always-surprising voice of Grace Paley was a revelation. A little later, the magisterial quality of Willa Cather's prose, her lyricism about place, her romance with the artistic impulse, her complex but clearly expressed notions of how people get to be who the are - these thrilled me.
Among my contemporaries now I read Alice Munro for her brilliant fictional probing of how consciousness works; how we think about - or don't carefully think about - the things which happen to us and which we do. I read Alice McDermott for her looping sentences and her speculations on our need for some kind of belief, for love. I read Ian McEwan for his compellingly plotted explorations of moral life. I read Gish Jen and Jullian Barnes and Carol Shields and Helen Garner and Michael Cunningham and A.S. Byatt and Charles Baxter. I no longer know who influences me, or how, I just read and read.
I left on a Monday. I'd called Anita a day or two before and told her that my mother was ill, that I had to go to Maine and didn't know when I'd be back. I told Ted I was going to Washington for a few days to see a friend from college who'd ended up there. I got on a bus for Boston with a one-way ticket. I was familiar with the city from college visits, but I wasn't aware of knowing anyone who actually lived there. I thought I could find my way around easily and also be completely anonymous.
I didn't see my husband again for seven months.
I arrived with one bag on a rainy evening in May. Within three days, I was sitting in a bright, sparsely furnished living room in Cambridge, being interviewed by four people as a potential roommate for a group house. One of them was Dana, whom I came to love. One was Duncan, another was Larry. And one of them, a tall, slightly slouched man in his mid-twenties, with worried brown eyes and curling dark hair that came down just over the rim of his collar-I remembered him clearly now-was Eli Mayhew.
The first lie I told was my name. "Felicia," I said. And then, because this was, I suddenly realized, a seriously ridiculous name, I also said, "As in 'happy to be here,'" and dipped my head slightly. "But my friends call me Licia. Or Lish." I don't know where any of this came from. I certainly hadn't planned it. It just seemed suddenly the wisest course, to be someone else.
After that, the other lies seemed easy. Seemed to be not so much lies as the story of Licia Stead. And some it was true. I had just gotten a job at Red Brown's Blues, a bar in Inman Square. I was living temporarily at the YWCA. And if I wasn't from Montpelier, if I hadn't gone to school at the University of Vermont, well, Licia Stead might have.
I'd found the house advertised on the bulletin board at a dusty bicycle repair shop I'd gone into, searching for cheap transportation. It was next to ads for used furniture, typists, and three or four other housing options. I tore off one of the little fringed tags with a phone number and made my appointment, along with several other appointments, from a pay phone at the Y.
All this happened early in the summer of 1968, when dozens of houses like ours had sprung up all over Cambridge, all over Berkeley and Chicago and Philadelphia and San Francisco. Some were more political than ours or had a theme of sorts-everyone was into organic food or political action or alternative theater or an arts magazine. Some were, like ours, mixed, a little bit of everything. You found rooms in these houses through bulletin boards, as I had, or through friends, or political organizations, or underground streams of information. They coexisted, often uneasily, with houses belonging to mostly working-class neighbors. People who took care of their yards, who repaired their railings, who had combination screens and storm windows, who kept their doors locked at night.
Not us. The door stood open around the clock. Music blared into the street from the windows-Jefferson Airplane, Otis Redding, Pablo Casals, the Stones, Julian Bream, the Beatles, Brahms, Janis Joplin. Bikes were parked all over the porch and the scrubby front yard. Unlocked, it goes without saying.
I lived that summer like a happy dream. I worked late at the blues club every night and often stayed up several hours later than that, talking to one or another of my housemates. Slowly, I felt, I came to know them all better than I'd ever known Ted, or anyone, in my other life. The house generally rose late through those summer months-no one but Sara had normal working hours-and often two or three of us did something together in the daytime. Drove to Singing Beach, took a picnic and a Frisbee down to the river. On a rainy day, we went to the movies. Or played long, cutthroat games of Scrabble in the living room, with the windows open to the porch and the steady racket of the rain on the porch roof or dripping down on the leaves of the leggy lilac bushes.
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- In the novel's first scene Jo describes the movement of her boat upon the waters: "In the air above us swallows darted - dark, quick silhouettes - and once a cedar waxwing moved smoothly though them. Layers of life above me. Below, I could hear the lap of the deep water through the wall of the boat." How does this reflect the book's epigraph? How do this passage, and the epigraph, work together to express the novel's themes? In what sense are the "trout" in the book's epigraph, and the "deep water" in this passage, metaphors for a universal experience? What do you think they are meant to represent, and how do they foreshadow the novel's events?
- One of the notions Miller returns to throughout the novel is the fracturing of identity, and the disparity between past and future selves. On page 11 she notes, "The impossibility of accepting new versions of oneself that life kept offering. The impossibility of the old version's vanishing." What does she mean by this? How does this relate to Jo's experience in Cambridge? How does it contribute later to her attraction for Eli?
- The first lie Jo tells about herself when she moves into the house on Lyman Street is her name -- she calls herself Felicia Stead. Is this an important lie? What about the stories Jo makes up about her background? How did you feel about this section of the novel, and about Jo/Felicia during this period? Do you think the liberties she takes with these and other details about her previous life enable her to be more herself -- more honest, in a way, because this reinvention of herself is truer to her heart that the life and the identity she fled -- or do they engage her in falsehoods and deceptions that undermine the possibility of truth, and of true friendship?
- Discuss Jo's feelings after Daniel's sermon. She has not seen him since their disagreement the night before; yet as she leaves the church she feels "such a wild reckless joy and excitement that I wanted to yell, to dance under the pelting rain. Daniel! I wanted to shout... Daniel, my husband!" What's changed?
- Discuss the sermon itself - in particular, this notion of "memory as a God-given gift." How do themes of memory and forgetfulness reverberate in the novel as a whole? What relationship, if any, does memory have to morality? How and on what levels do you think Jo was moved by Daniel's sermon? How were you moved by it as a reader?
- After Eli's confession Jo has to make a series of difficult choices. She could have shielded Daniel from the knowledge that she had been prepared to commit adultery, but to do so she would also have had to shield Eli. Should she have turned Eli in to the authorities? Should she have confessed her romantic intentions with Eli to Daniel? What should Jo have done? What do you think the author believes Jo should have done? What would you have done?
- After he confesses to the murder. Eli makes the argument that his scientific achievements counterbalance he crime. "I've worked the rest of my life to assure that who I am has some meaning, some value beyond their part of my past... And I have lived my life that way: making sure every day of its usefulness, of its meaning. I wrecked one life, yes. Dana's life... but I've give, I'm giving now, to thousands, to hundreds of thousands, of other lives." Has Eli redeemed himself? How is your response to this shaped by the fact that - financially, in stature, in his notion of his own self-worth, in the pleasure that he derives form it--Eli has benefited from this work? Can a person who has committed a murder ever be redeemed? What do you think to the author believes, and why?
- Long before Eli's confession to Jo, Eli and Jo meet for coffee and Jo makes a similar comment about her own guild about having treated her first husband so poorly, and how her work has helped to ease her conscience: " It made me feel I'd earned my way back to a normal life." Is this legitimate than Eli's argument? Do you feel that either of them ever really has to face the consequences of their mistakes? Discuss the differences- and the similarities - between the ways in which the two have lives their lives.
- After Jo's description of her second meeting with Daniel, she says, "We were married six weeks later, and I would say we have lived happily, if not ever after, at least enough of the time since. There are always compromises, of course, but they are at the heart of what it means to be married. They are, occasionally, everything." What does she mean by this? What kinds of compromises have she and Daniel made for each other? Discuss this in relation to this end of this novel. Look in particular at the scene where Daniel waits in the shadows for Jo to depart ("He's seen me in the car, and he's stopped there, waiting. He doesn't realize I've seen him. He doesn't want me to see him."), and the scene with Daniel and Jo at the airport ("I made myself register consciously the expression that has passed for a moment over his face as he moved forward to hold me: a sadness, a visible regret.")
- When her children were young, Jo used to tell them bedtime stories about a character named Miraculotta. One night Cassie said to Jo, " I know who Miraculotta really is, Mom... she's you." Later, as an angry, disaffected fourteen-year-old, Cass's awe for her mother has changed to contempt: "You're so limited," Jo recalls Cass telling her, and in response, Jo thinks, "Well yes, of course I am." What does Jo mean by this? Is she referring to herself specifically, or to all parents? What do you feel about Jo as a mother?
- "Deliberately, playfully, I fed fantasies about Eli. I allowed them to become sexual, I gave them specific flesh. I imagined us in sundering, tearing passions in hotel rooms in Boston, in nondescript motels or inns in towns twenty or fifty miles away... It was all right to imagine this, I said to myself... as long as I understood it wasn't going to happen." Do fantasies have a morality? Is it all right to imagine, as long as we don't follow through? Are thoughts, in and of themselves, dangerous? Immoral?
- What do you think of Daniel and Jo's marriage? Would Jo's betrayal of Daniel have been more profound if she'd actually had an affair with Eli? What do you think the author thinks, and why?
- At the end of the novel, several people are confronted by revelations they find shocking about people they thought they knew: Sadie discovers the murder in her mother's past; Jo discovers that her father had a pervious marriage; and Daniel, of course discovers his wife's near infidelity. I her letter to Sadie, Jo writes, "Now there's a different message, I guess something having to do with our inability to know or guess at the secret depths of another person." Later she makes reference to a similar feeling on Daniel's part -- "The momentary possibility that he didn't know me at all" -- and she recalls her mother's words after her mother's confession: "We're the same, aren't we? It hasn't changed us in your eyes to know this." Is it possible to ever really know another person? Should all secrets be told?
- Using Jo's reflections after her mother's confession ("It seems we need someone to know us as we are -- with all we have done -- and forgive us...") and, most particularly, her reflections in the novel's closing pages ("Perhaps it's best to live with the possibility that around and corner, at any time, may come the person who reminds you of your own capacity to surprise yourself, to put at risk everything that's dear to you. Who reminds you of the distances we have to bridge to begin to know anything about one another. Who reminds you that what seems to be -- even about yourself - may not be. That like him, you need to be forgiven."), discuss the theme of forgiveness in the novel.