Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story: A Memoir
Publisher: Ecco (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
2011, 417 pages, hardback, $28

IF YOU’RE LIKE me, when you think “Joyce Carol Oates,” you think “prolific.” Author of 39 novels, 20 short story collections, 8 novellas, and 10 poetry collections, numerous plays, essays, young adult and children’s books—not to mention the novels written under other pseudonyms—Oates is not the kind of writer who can be easily kept from her craft. However, her recent memoir, A Widow’s Story, reveals that even a Herculean writer has her creative limits: for months after the unexpected death of her husband, editor Raymond Smith, Oates could not write fiction.

Through short chapters, poetic fragments, and email correspondence, A Widow’s Story weaves together the events leading up to and following her husband’s death and asks readers to consider who we are when we lose someone whose life was so bound up in our own. “Joyce Carol Oates” the writer and Joyce Smith the widow go toe-to-toe in this work that explores the agony of grief, the unmoored private identity of the bereaved, and the ways in which writing can curse and save reader and writer alike.

As a widow, Joyce Smith views her writer’s identity as a wedge that prevented her from fully connecting with her husband. (While Ray had read her critical essays and reviews, he never read any of her fiction.) This dread sends her into a depressive tailspin as she recognizes that as much as they loved each other, swaths of his life were also obscured from her. If “[s]o much of our behavior—our “personalities”—is so constructed,” was the identity she performed for her husband loving enough?

Despite this paralyzing regret, one of the hidden blessings of being “Joyce Carol Oates” comes through the control that public identity affords Joyce Smith during her unbearable, private grief. In “Oasis,” Smith eventually finds relief from her isolation by performing her writer’s identity. While “[w]riting [may not be] a life,” such a vocation lends balance to someone so burdened with grief. By day, Oates teaches workshops, lectures, and signs books. By night, Joyce Smith hunkers down in her “nest” at home and suffers through the grieving process alone. Only by forcing herself to assume the public writer identity does she begin to move through this part of the grieving process. For Joyce Smith, “‘Oates’ is an island, an oasis, to which on this agitated morning [she] can row, as in an uncertain skiff, with an unwieldy paddle—the way is arduous not because the water is deep but because the water is shallow and weedy and the bottom of the skiff is endangered by rocks beneath.” Thankfully, the Oates public identity proves a skilled navigator through the rocky edges of grief.

In the months following Ray’s death, friendships help Oates/Smith blend her public and private identities, and even offer her loving bonds she had never fully recognized prior to her widowhood. As she so eloquently writes, “[T]he widow inhabits a tale not of her own telling… [but rather] a nightmare-tale and yet it likely that the widow inhabits a benign fairy tale out of the Brothers Grimm in which friends come forward to help.” These friends are numerous, and she intersperses selected email exchanges throughout the book between herself and the writers and colleagues who reach out to her during this terrible time, suggesting that though on first glance, this book promotes an individual’s journey through grief, that individual’s journey is sustained by the world around her. While A Widow’s Story is a memoir about loss, isolation, and withdrawal from the public to grapple with personal grief, it’s also a story about communion, about suffering loss and ultimately gaining strength from the people who gather around us at our darkest hour.

Ms. Oates writes that “the memoir is a repository of truths, as each discrete truth is uttered, but the memoir can’t be the repository of Truth which is the very breadth of the sky, too vast to be perceived in a single gaze.” Ultimately, one person’s explanation of grief can never fully encapsulate that experience for everyone, but A Widow’s Story offers fragments of the self, of loss, of healing, of connection, and of survival. Maybe that’s all we can hope for when facing inevitable loss, that though “[w]ords may be ‘helpless’…words are all we have to shore against our ruin, as we have only one another.”

—Gwynne Middleton