“Thernstrom's The Dead Girl: The Renunciation of Storytelling.”
CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction
January 1, 2002
As with many modern narratives, the process of mourning and the duty to tell the other's story control the narrative process. This is tree of Conrad's Marlow as he tells the story of Kurtz and the Congo, or Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, who tells the story of Gatsby and the Jazz Age. My aim in this essay is to apply some of the insights from those classic novels to a contemporary work of nonfiction, Melanie Thernstrom's The Dead Girl, thereby calling into question the distinct boundaries of fiction and nonfiction and the supposed clarity of "real life" events. This analysis also tests the unreadability or unknowability of the Other, who, despite all the words about her, remains paradoxically hidden and concealed in a narrative that seeks to reveal her. Thernstrom's narrative commemorates her dead friend Roberta Lee, while at the same time raises many problems of writing narrative, especially those concerned with ethics and narrative technique.
As becomes clear as my hypothesis develops, the fact that Roberta Lee actually lived and that the narrator of the nonfiction novel knew her "in life" in no way diminishes the complexity of our rhetorical analysis. What is at stake in this "true story"? Is a true story any less fictional or rhetorical than any other? Initially, I ground my analysis particularly in ethical moments when the narrator confesses to problematic decisions about how to write, what to write, and with what authority. To do so, I focus first on passages where "the ethics of reading" is at stake because at points Melanie (the narrator) must decide what to tell and how to tell it in the context of her ethical concerns to make sound, responsible decisions. Underlying these ethical dilemmas are the metaphorical nature of all language and the distance that any attempt in language moves away from the once-living, breathing person who is now a dead girl. Second, I examine the contradictory evidence surrounding the ambiguity of Roberta's death, particularly Thernstrom's handling of the criminal trials of Lee's accused boyfriend Bradley Page. Third, for the latter part of The Dead Girl, I examine the relationship between mourning and the act of storytelling and show how Thernstrom must renounce compulsive storytelling to restore her sanity and to gain closure on the Roberta Lee case.
Melanie-as-narrator desires to create a permanent story, subtle and revealing yet faithful to the complexity of Roberta in life. To write at all Thernstrom must confront all of the previous false or partial stories, such as those of the tabloid press, the rescue group at Treehaven, Roberta's family, and the confessional story of boyfriend Bradley Page. I want to show, then, how the ethics of Melanie's reading Roberta and the configuration of all of her stories become like another version of Marlow's reading Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, finally doubting and questioning the possibility of any narration in the failed medium of language.
The Ethics of Storytelling
Thernstrom conveys her conflicted motivation--her scene of writing--to the reader in a number of quick strokes. Her first act of avowed ethical concern is the preservation of her dead friend; she says in effect, "I will save or protect my friend from the predatory forces or counter-narratives that threaten." From the moment of Roberta Lee's disappearance, the actuality of her life gives way to its tabloid representation--a beautiful and talented college student who disappears. In short order, Thernstrom recognizes, Roberta has become a commodity, the center of different kinds of stories created with various motives--a dead girl. Melanie's concept of faithfulness, what Jacques Derrida calls fidelity, centers on the ethical impulse to remember and record, against forces of dissipation and doubt, the kind of young woman that Roberta was (see Derrida, 20-22). By the narrator's careful act of memory, says Thernstrom, Roberta Lee shall be known in the future.
The telling of a story is never innocent, and Thernstrom self-consciously stresses the ethical dimensions of her chosen task. Her awareness of the constructed nature of language and story is apparent in the early portions of the book when she feels trapped by her conscious, deliberate choices about symbolism and the difference between living people and characters in a story:
At the time they were not symbolic. They are of a pattern now; then they were not patterned, as people are not patterns. Only characters are patterned, and people who are alive are not characters. They are almost characters, and the decisions they make each day about who they are and
what they ought to do are constantly forming a character, but it is not formed, or not quite formed, because they are still deciding, and because the story has not been written yet. And as long as it is not written anything can happen, because the smallest changes change the story, and the story shapes its characters. (4)
The disturbing element for Melanie is her growing dissatisfaction with language as a medium and her constant awareness of the gulf between experience-as-lived and the possible art of narration. Intensifying the "failed promise" is Thernstrom's construct of a hypothetical "one true text" that might ideally be written about Roberta. She knows, however, that it is an imaginary perfect text, which would potentially reveal her as she was and stand as a permanent memorial. Although it cannot be fully realized, this "one true text" becomes the benchmark of the narrator's dissatisfaction, calling into question every narrative decision Thernstrom must face. Driving this desire for the perfect narrative is Derrida's idea of fidelity, the intense power of friendship exhibited by the mourning subject longing for the lost object. As with Conrad's Marlow, there is a sense of an untellable story, a story that resists any resolution and completion. Marlow is a tortured narrator in this moral sense because he fears that he will never get it right, that his experience with Kurtz "out there" cannot be translated to his auditors aboard the Nellie anchored in the Thames estuary.
Initial ethical problems are staged when, while reviewing the first few pages that she has written, Thernstrom stops to ponder the difference between "characters" and a living person:
This isn't Roberta; this is a Dead Girl. And any Dead Girl too, who died young and violently, who was beautiful but tragic, and whose memory people mourn in the language of mourning and speak of solemnly. The glossy finish of the photograph; the endless attempt to make sadness seductive. And it is seductive if you tell it well. People will cry for the girl who died if you tell it well enough, [...] Your friend is what is forgotten among the glamour of symbolism, the pose of the photo, the closure of narrative. (6)
What ethical dilemmas of narrative arise here? This book is not simply a particular and unique story about "any dead girl" who died "young and violently"; that story could be derived from a tabloid newspaper or a cheap novel, not from the artistically crafted "statue" or elegy to memory that Thernstrom is trying to write. "Your friend" stands for the unique and individuated life of Roberta Lee, but Thernstrom fears that she will be overcome by the seductions of telling a good story, will be trapped in the well-known pattern of performative language, or will succumb to the "glamour of symbolism" and "closure of narrative." Thernstrom fears these seductions are artificial constraints of narrative structure and not "the real story." A perfect tribute of a true story might be possible, she initially believes, if only she could locate the right neutral and unadorned language, free from all rhetorical tricks.
Her awareness of the constructed nature of language and all stories becomes apparent in the beginning pages of the book where she worries about symbolism. The narrator reveals a sophisticated concern about pattern making and her own role as the one who tells the story. The storyteller takes advantage of the characters, and the writing of a history shapes the person and the character he or she is about to become. Why worry about a symbol, a trope, or an artifact of language? Here Thernstrom is expressing an unbridgeable gap between the living and the dead ones remembered in a written text, confirming the paradigm revealed in the classic novels alluded to earlier. Those symbols and tropes--the staples of storytelling--possess a double valence, both positive and negative. On the one hand, they are needed for the enhancement and creation of Roberta's life as memorial, the discharging of the faithful friend's fidelity; on the other, they feel like cheating, supercharging the tale with meaning and phony artifice that Roberta's existence did not possess in real life. The proper ethical stance for Melanie might be to create a pure form of memory that would enable her to reproduce the exact Roberta she knew, but the symbols and tropes and inadvertent moments of intense memory show her that writing is always secondary and distorted as artificial, reflecting deviance from the true story. The writing of a history is an important act for her to accomplish, but she acknowledges the literary nature of the work she has undertaken. The ethical dimension of the narrator's obligations suggest her role as a guide through earlier false stories, a passage through the labyrinth of all the possible stories, to get to the "one true story." For example, Marlow has to narrate all of the false rumors and opinions about Kurtz to arrive at a complex, enigmatic figure. One significant role for the narrator, then, is to evaluate and rectify prior false or partial stories as a method of seeking the truth about the dead Other.
What oppositions are posed here? What ethical standards are set forth for the narrator? "Your friend," the lost Roberta, "is what is forgotten"; and as craft works against conscience, the seductions of false narrative produce this dead girl, any dead girl. The danger always concerns a false ring of a narrative that is totalized by achieving a premature closure. Ethical considerations trouble Melanie as she approaches the task of the narration, for she recognizes that she must meddle with and manipulate the "pure memory" of Roberta to make her appear to readers.
Another problem Melanie identifies in the ethics of storytelling is the temporal difference between the moment of Roberta's death and Melanie's later act of writing. The fact of death and Thernstrom's desire for commemorative narrative distort "the one true text" she hopes to write. Her awareness colors and distorts all the events--in light of death--because her mourning gaze modifies the viewing of the evidence. In real life, events occur simultaneously, but all narrative possesses an inevitable need to establish a temporal continuum within the text.
I know that the forward motion of time is one of life's most definite
rules-- no exceptions permitted, yes, of course that includes you. Why shouldn't it include you? Time progresses forward at exactly the same measure; it only seems sometimes to go faster. And it only seems sometimes to stand still, like a still lake, as if you could look down to the very bottom and see the shape of the trapped leaves, and the colors, and you imagine the past is accessible to you, but--you are wrong. It's a trick of the light. See how difficult it is to think without metaphor. It's metaphor that makes time appear like still lakes. Time isn't anything or like anything. It moves forward, neither fast nor slow, just forward. And once it has moved a beat ahead, as it has always just moved a beat ahead, it
doesn't go back, even for a small minute. Never. (32)
Closely related to the scene of writing is Thernstrom's desire for telling the story, but she is trapped by various perceptions of time. As a result of those reflections, she recognizes that distortions may grow from perception and desire, just as her grief may cloud her vision. As with other fictional narrators, Thernstrom reinscribes the old problems: What is the motivation for such a story? Does authorial desire color the story? Given the constraints of time and memory and the ever-present medium of language, is the past even accessible? At the heart of those problems is the conflict between avowed goals and the eventual achievements that arise in producing the text itself. If she could only access pure memory with no mediation of time and distortion, her goals would be steadily achieved. Yet as she writes, the elusive text she creates moves away from her intentional control. Melanie's avowed goal is to preserve the memory of Roberta, but that goal is subject to erosion over time and to appropriation by other storytellers. Therefore, Thernstrom confronts the allegory of the unreadability of a system of tropes and figurative displacements, no matter how direct her approach to telling the story may be on the surface.
Despite Thernstrom's struggles with these ethical dilemmas of the biographical mode in which she seeks to write, she is confronted by Derrida's concept of fidelity, the obsession to be true to the Other's story while acting faithfully. But what control does she have over her narrative? Despite her lofty goals established in ethical struggles, Melanie knows she is trapped by the "prison-house" Frederic Jameson speaks of, a labyrinthine structure that pre-dates and subsumes her (Jameson 3-43). She feels that the force of language is "writing her" and that the narrative form is controlling her ethical decisions. What strategy arises from those ethical dilemmas within the scene of writing? If Melanie cannot achieve the hypothetical "one true text," she must find another strategy. If she cannot tell one true story, then she might as well attempt to tell all the stories, showing a series of narrative replacements as one partial or false story gives way to another and another.
Narrative Strategy: Embracing Multiplicity
The inability to tell one true story begins with something as simple as naming Roberta Lee. Derrida points out that the proper name of someone has a conjuring power and that naming is never innocent but already is conjuring with previous texts. Naming someone properly would seem to be the first necessary step in writing a biography. In his second essay in Memoires, thinking of his friend Paul de Man, Derrida considers the incantatory power of speaking the name of his literary friend, "Paul de Man," thinking the utterance may have magical power with memory.
Similarly, the proliferation of multiple identities, the slippery multiplicity of the subject's name enhance Thernstrom's meditation on Roberta Lee. Textually, Roberta is never a single person or self or identity: like Faulkner's Quentin, she is a ghost or a commonwealth. As she pens her "letters" to Melanie, she signs them alternatively as "Roberta" or "Bibi," or sometimes, "B. B." depending on her mood. She is sometimes "Rosamunde" or "Mei-hua"; she is Chinese; she is American; or Chinese-American. From her looks and photographs, she speaks, too, of being androgynous; her physical features suggest a male-female blending. Therefore, her own strategies of self-presentation, as revealed by the problematic letters, show her as a multiple identity. One cannot expect that her biographer could easily tell her story because her name becomes an overdetermined signifier, just as her personality must be perceived from the outside. Similarly, Conrad's Kurtz was a journalist, an artist, a politician; Marlow says, "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz."
Roberta's multiple identities encode her as a mystery; throughout the book, a number of stories circulate about her name. Melanie as narrator seeks to sort out and clarify those stories. The impossibility of "the one true story" is quickly reinforced by looking at the table of contents of The Dead Girl. Thernstrom's strategy is to embrace multiplicity, indicating that the book is about interpreting someone's story, but it is soon clear that various ways of interpreting and narrating are interlinked. The narrative focuses on the life of Roberta Lee, but it also is displaced into chronicling the narrator's own life. As such, it records Melanie's reactions and those of Bibi's friends and family over a considerable time, beginning with Roberta's disappearance.
The first part, "Memory: The Story," establishes the links between pure memory and its narration. Parts 2 through 5 are entitled, respectively, "The First Interpretation," "The Second Interpretation," "The Third Interpretation," and "The Last Interpretation: The Little Match Girl." These titles, like Faulkner's multiple narrators, suggest the epistemological position that a single exposure to a person's life is not possible or totally valid. Because the one true story is not available, Thernstrom attempts to tell all of the stories. She sets forth a partially correct story constructed by the narrator, which soon collapses and is replaced by various new "story lines" that arise from the emerging and frequently changing perceptions of Roberta's "case." Parts 6 through 9 begin to tell an opposite story by negating or undoing the earlier affirmations and ending with Thernstrom's vow to renounce her habitual storytelling. This renunciation is part of her eventual "cure"--the letting go of Roberta's memory--that allows Thernstrom to achieve feelings of closure on mourning. A good subtitle for these final four parts might be "How I Learned to Give Up Storytelling" as a neurotic and obsessive pattern. Freud's essay "Mourning and Melancholia," which I discuss later, is directly relevant to establishing the relationship between storytelling and the narrator's final release from mourning.
The titles in the second half of the book reveal the pattern of negating or unraveling any simple or straightforward account. Cumulatively, their titles indicate a systematic problematizing of the earlier stories told about Roberta's disappearance and life. Part 6, "Uninterpreting: Characters," uninterprets or reinterprets characters; part 7, "Rewriting: The Little Match Girl," reinscribes "The Little Match Girl," with Melanie as the poor heroine who falls into fear and self-loathing; part 8, "Misinterpreting: The True Story and the Fictions of Memory," analyzes the distance between the true story and the competing interpretations of law; and part 9, "A New Story: Memory," reveals a healing, closing narrative that enables the narrator to achieve peace by completing her compulsive acts of narration. Taken collectively, these four parts become a renunciation of the simplistic "story values" affirmed throughout the first half of The Dead Girl.
In a broader sense, Thernstrom deploys parts 6 through 9 to challenge the epistemological value of stories as a form of direct knowledge about the past. How is this so? The spinning out of Roberta Lee's example becomes a general parable of biography's indeterminacy, giving the particular example a cultural and philosophical weight. The narrator's rhetoric says "I am a good reader, and simple cases I can read easily, but this life exhausts my powers of reading and observation," thereby demonstrating the impossibility of accessing the past through reading and writing. Melanie in effect says, "Because I cannot tell the one perfect story, I will tell all the stories while admitting simultaneously that each story is false and always fails to represent the `real life' person for whom it substitutes."
A Meta-Level of Awareness
Reflecting a postmodern concern with theory, Thernstrom often cites literary theorists to frame the narrative problems she faces. With citations from Walter Benjamin and Terry Eagleton, she establishes that theorizing "story values" is as significant a force in her narrative as the loss of Roberta Lee. To a greater degree than some novelists I have mentioned, she questions the truth value of narrative and the hermeneutical complications of all interpretative acts. For example, at Bradley Page's second trial, Melanie's enduring desire to tell stories that are coherent and make sense is most acute, reinforcing the notion that this memoir is really about "competing stories" or ways of seeing as much as a mourning story for Roberta's life. As the second trial begins, some two years after Roberta's death, Melanie thinks the court proceedings will provide a clear-cut, unambiguous revelation of truth. She hopes the trial will become "a most serious human enterprise--the sorting of interpretation into truth" (325), characterized by the certainty and authority that are reassuringly reduced to simple oppositions:
Yes, no, he did it, he didn't do it. They have come to the end of the
book and they want to know who done it. Guilty or not guilty; pregnant, not pregnant; alive, dead. Dead, she was dead. (italics in the original 325)
On the opening day of the trial, the prosecuting attorney's statement about Bradley Page and Roberta rapidly produces a simple story: "What started as a love story, and ended as a nightmare ..." (327). Thernstrom's impulse is to criticize this canned story: "[...I]t didn't start as a love story and end as true crime. Why do they borrow these formulas from dime-store romances?" (327). Her own complex, nuanced story is: "[W]hat began ambiguously and nevertheless somewhat ominously, and ended extremely ominously and very ambiguously, as you might have guessed--[...]" However, she also knows her story will not convince a jury, will not persuade anyone of Bradley's guilt, so she must soon retract her effort: "Jesus, Melanie, can't you speak more clearly? Who is going to buy your version?" (327). With those moves, slippage occurs from the expressed desire for certainty--for simple yes or no answers--to a view that law is not really a search for absolute truth but a competition of story versions vying for a jury's acceptance. What begins upon the supposed bedrock of hermeneutical certainty soon dissolves into the inevitable intertextuality of legal discourse:
What is there, after all, in the case besides discussion? Conversations about conversations about conversations. The first trial was a long conversation interpreting a conversation between Brad and the policemen one afternoon three years ago: this trial is a longer conversation about the inconclusiveness of the first one. There is nothing to say other than comments on what has already been said. (333)
In addition to the obvious play with "story values," the narrator exhibits a meta-level of awareness or self-consciousness about language, narrative making, and truth value. She frequently questions language as a medium, wonders about the evasiveness of metaphors, and quotes from literary critics like Eagleton and Benjamin, who view stories as self-contained constructions of their own rather than mimetic replicas of empirical reality. One crucial example occurs in part 8, chapter 2 when the narrator discusses Brad Page at the second trial. Brad's somewhat naive confession and later retraction are based on an ingenuous idea that he was never confessing to a crime but helping the police build a scenario. He is trying to remember, to "see if" the cops might have been correct about his suspicious knowledge of details, his possible criminal involvement in Roberta's death.
To convey to her reader her mistrust of such talk, Thernstrom establishes the allure of theories of language and explains how such theoretical awareness challenges the usual straightforward or common sense viewpoint that stories are supposed to refer to "the world out there." Her epigraph to the chapter establishes this idea of socially constructed reality, as she quotes from literary theorist Eagleton:
Reality was not reflected by language, but produced by it: it was a particular way of carving up the world which was deeply dependent on the sign-systems we had at our command, or more precisely which had us at theirs ... Meanings are not so stable and determinate ... and the reason they are not is because ... they are products of language, which always has something slippery about it. (qtd. in Dead Girl, italics and ellipses in original 350)
If language is as evasive as Thernstrom claims, then it is apparent how Page both can confess and later disavow his earlier admissions to the police. The heart of Page's problem is twofold: his unusual naivete about the world and how the police work and his "English major" values that allow him to inhabit a realm of abstraction. The psychiatrist who examined Page confirms this abstract tendency by stating that if Page is asked, "Well, Bradley, what do you think the effect of this particular situation would be on you?" then he would answer, "Life is growth." And the psychiatrist would say, "That is fine, what does that mean in reference to the situation?" (356). Such sequences of questions and answers establish Page's tendency to take simple questions and complicate them.
Thernstrom's narrative report emphasizes Brad's platitudes and generalities, his evasiveness about his actions surrounding Roberta's death. The narrative method in this chapter involves first quoting directly from actual court testimony, then adding (often in italics) ironic comments to heighten the baffling exchanges:
Mistakes of metaphor--the substitution of the abstract for the concrete.
Reality becomes language; perspective is everything. Not mental illness exactly, but a fatal flaw all the same. (italics in the original 356)
This same tendency toward abstraction blocks Brad from confronting his exact feelings and his memories of the night of Bibi's disappearance. He tells the police one story--of what may have been his involvement--but he later suggests he was merely telling a story, developing a hypothetical scenario, assisting the police to theorize about the shreds of the evidence. How could this be? Page's recantation is most apparent in the second trial when he disavows certain statements made in the earlier confession tapes. According to Page, he was not actually confessing to a crime but resolving problems of failed memory.
Q. And, as you closed your eyes and tried to remember what happened, did the officers continue to question you?
A. I closed my eyes. They said, "That's good, close your eyes. Sit back, relax and remember what happened." They said to remember seeing Bibi [for the last time]. (bold in the original 360-61)
But after seeing Bibi in the park and perhaps "backhanding her," Page cannot recall what happened next. He later tells the court that striking her was not an actual memory but "an image" in his mind. Consequently, he was joining the police in a theoretical exercise to discover what might have occurred the night that Bibi disappeared. Soon after, when Page is on the stand, he is asked about the apparent confusion between his knowledge of many important details about Roberta's burial and the whereabouts of her body contrasted with his steadfast insistence upon his innocence:
A. If there was a possibility I might have done it, I was trying to find
out, and help [the police] find out, what had happened. (364)
Looking back to the conversation with police, he then affirms that his recollections in the "confession" scene were not actual "memories" but images:
A. Well, they [the police] said there was a possibility that they [the
memories] were real, that they already had me up there doing things I couldn't remember, so that somehow we had to make up a story that I could have done it. (364)
For Page this hypothetical story making is a kind of intellectual game or abstract to deal with conflicting evidence. Because it entails building a scenario, testing his memory, it remains for him mysteriously meaningless when applied to real life. He later says that he was disoriented and confused by the police asking him questions "on different levels." He never requested a lawyer because it did not occur to him that he was suspected of murder:
A. But they also--they are asking that on two different levels, like ... in this scenario, how would this [particular detail] fit in? Or, why did you put it in knowing that it was a scenario? (366)
As the compiler of all these various texts (the confession tape, the cross-examination in court), Thernstrom cannot resist her own ironic, theoretical comment:
In other words, does the narrative function primarily ontologically or mimetically? What is lost in the distance between the signifier and the signified? Difficult questions, of course--even with your background--no
wonder you were confused. (italics in the original 366)
In these comments her role as an avenger of Roberta Lee is clear, for she wants justice done and prosecuting the presumed killer will allow her to achieve closure on her unresolved mourning.
When Brad Page recants his earlier confession, he refuses all the simple yes or no categories offered in his discussion with the police. Under sharp questioning at the second trial, for example, Page explains that he never had guilty thoughts about his actions, but rather that he and the police were having a discussion about truth and lying:
Q. [...]--pardon me, that you talked about lying and fiction and truth and these different subjects, what again, with an overview, was the nature of the discussion?
A. That I said that I was sitting there trying to remember that these
were-- they were fiction, and [the DA] said, "They were lies then." And I said, "Well, no, they are not lies." (bold in the original 367)
Perhaps because of his middle class and college background in language theory, Page is uniquely unprepared for the idea that he is a suspect in a murder case. Instead, he believes he is merely discussing with the police a theory of narrative or fiction making, like one that might occur in philosophy or linguistics courses at the university. Finally, a psychiatrist for the defense suggests that during the confession Page experienced something like brainwashing. "[W]e must remember that Brad is a much more suggestible, less sophisticated, immature person who has never had any preparation for this kind of encounter [...]" (372-73). The psychiatrist reiterates her earlier remarks that Page has a tendency generally "to deal with life in abstractions" (356) rather than presenting facts as they are. Immediately following, Melanie makes her Didion-like ironic repetition, showing her own generational traits that link herself, Page, and Bibi Lee: "Bibi's tendency, Bradley's tendency, my tendency. The tendency" (373). A narrator's awareness of the complications of narrative is occasionally present in Didion and in Faulkner, but Thernstrom explicitly brings a philosophical sophistication of narrative that raises the same kinds of questions I have been addressing in this study. Thernstrom stresses theory making as a part of the narration, raising these concerns to a meta-level of awareness more powerfully than have the earlier narrators that we have mentioned. The police are eliciting a confession, but Page is trying to remember by telling a story, and Melanie is playing a hectoring role in the courtroom by reminding us of the generational defect that all three young people share. They all substitute abstraction for a common sense understanding of guilt and innocence, the routine value of cause and effect.
A Submerged Narrative: Her story-My story
Although the surface story of the second half of The Dead Girl appears to be the second trial and its quest for certainty about Roberta's murder, the submerged story is Melanie's movement from grieving to health, working through her powerful feelings of mourning. An underground story is present also in the novels mentioned earlier--the dynamics of self and Other and the presence of obsessive writing as a cure. For example, Nick Carraway faces the meaning of Gatsby's dream before moving on with life, and Didion's Grace uses Charlotte Douglass's life as an allegory to discover her own illusions. Faulkner's Shreve taunts Quentin Compson with "Why do you hate the South?" and thus links the Sutpen story to the narrator's perpetual sadness because storytelling is no antidote for ancestral guilt.
Despite Thernstrom's conscientious attempt to tell her version of Roberta's story, the plot of The Dead Girl progressively becomes Melanie's own struggle to repudiate story values and recover, thereby releasing herself from the obligation to remember and to mourn. As she rewrites Andersen's "Little Match Girl," she pictures herself as the ill-fated heroine, partially because she is depressed and partially because her long-time saintly boyfriend Adam leaves her, saying: "I needed someone who was happy with me. In the long run, not making you happy made me unhappy too" (296). However, it takes time for a new, hopeful story to break through Thernstrom's morbid and pervasive way of viewing her life:
Doomed is knowing you can't cheat--the girl who must die must die. What can you do? I told you this was a sad story. Doomed is knowing this is a modern story and there is no deus ex machina anymore. Doomed is more than an event: doomed is, and I stop, unable to think of anything big enough to describe doomed. And then, remembering: oh yes, doomed, of course—doomed is--doomed is a way of thinking. (276)
The feeling of "doomed" as excessive melancholia is best understood in terms of the psychic dynamics presented in Freud's essay "Melancholia and Mourning." For Freud the dejected feelings of mourning, like those of melancholy, entail "lowering of the self-regarding feelings," which often find "utterance in self-reproaches" and finally "culmin[ate] in a delusional expectation of punishment" (Freud 244). Hence, part of this recovery story requires a shattering of Melanie and Roberta's shared world of images, the web of meaning they jointly crafted in adolescence. This suffering is well expressed by the jacket copy that suggests a tortured meaning to life's events:
...to Melanie, it was also the culmination of the dark mythology of adolescence, the intricate web of meaning she and Roberta had spun together since childhood. As it unravels before us, we enter their world and meet their friends and lovers. Many, like themselves, are the privileged children of well-to-do families, members of a generation both blessed and blighted. Beneath the gloss of early accomplishment lies another reality: adrift in a spiritual world, they are alienated and often depressed.
Freud's idea of the guilty association between mental suffering and the loss of the Other is illustrated in a session with Melanie's therapist, as Thernstrom begins to understand the pathology of clinging to Roberta's memory. Her memories play a dominant role in her own life, just as story making about Roberta's loss reaches the intensity of an illness. In a classic breakthrough moment, Melanie wishes to emulate Roberta by figuring her own life into the sad story of Andersen's Little Match Girl. She compares herself to Roberta because surrendering her friend's memory would be selfish, a perverse form of betrayal:
"Who would you be hurting or leaving out by being selfish?"
"I don't know."
"Roberta? If you were happy, you wouldn't be like Roberta anymore, would you?"
"No," I say, really worried now. "I won't be like Roberta anymore."
"So, it's as if you would be moving away from what you were together."
Taking action on that recognition is not immediate, for time must elapse before Melanie can move forward; she must first heighten her own pain and live in the "doomed" scenario of one who grieves perpetually. Effective minor characters such as Bob and Claudia, often pointedly and impolitely, exercise the role of bursting the bubble of Melanie's grieving with the reality principle Freud calls for. Claudia, for example, says that breaking up with Adam is not tragic, as Melanie sees it, but rather normal and realistic:
Adam is not breaking up with you because you are ugly or stupid or fatally flawed. The two of you are breaking up because there were problems in the relationship. He treated you like a child, for example. That kind of thing. Normal psychological problems, [...] (288)
Although the reader senses that Claudia's diagnosis is absolutely correct, Melanie's strong identification with her dead friend grips her in a lengthy depression. In addition to her good friend's counsel, Melanie also receives occasional advice from the departed Adam, who creates a sign to end the dark mythology.
He takes a piece of my lined notebook paper and prints out in his big clumsy hand: MELODRAMA. Then he draws a prohibition sign around it, with the line running right through the word. [... writing], "By order, the Board of Health." (italics in original 289)
Such moves parallel the progressive and gradual diminution of Melanie's melodramatic tendencies. The gradual dawning of reality comes about in fierce discussions with her friend Bob, who explodes into sarcasm over Melanie's pathological mythologizing: "Concentrate as hard as you can on being as miserable as possible all the time. Suffer. That definitely ought to help matters. O depth and symbolism [...]" (339). Such feelings are consistent with Freud's model, because a strong cathexis exists with the lost one inspiring pain and suffering as the gradual detachment of the mourner's ego occurs:
Nevertheless its [reality's] orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are
carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected. [...] Why this compromise by which the command of reality is carried out piecemeal should be so extraordinarily painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of [mental] economics. (Freud 244-45)
In The Dead Girl, for example, Melanie struggles to configure her own life to read like the sad fate of the Match Girl, shaping every event to fit her pre-established scenario of doom. Hence, losing Adam, attempting suicide, and feeling that she has no future collectively support her inverted loyalty to Roberta:
But Roberta was murdered, I think. But Adam has left me. But I have no future. I can't go back home, I have no home, I have no plans, and the
things I plan won't turn out well. I know they won't turn out well because they've already not turned out well because--(italics in the original 309)
This moment is perhaps the height of self-abnegation and self-loathing that Melanie falls prey to, but lighter moments foreshadow eventual health as when she calls her self-crafted cloud "the dark mythology" (309), or when she ironically notes that a certain incident will become "prime Match Girl material" (298).
As Freud explains, the grieving subject requires most of all the passage of time to complete the process of mourning and re-emerge into "reality." For Thernstrom, the process of healing involves both getting closure on Roberta's murder and, as mentioned above, renouncing her compulsive storytelling. The best image of closure is achieved when she is hoping for a "story" or an "image" that will provide closure at the second trial,
Even if this were all fictional, a trial scene, and you were writing the lines for the D. A., what could you think for him to say that would be powerful enough to close the story--to tie up all the stray threads of a narrative too long--an image, an idea, an epitaph. (386)
This desire thematizes the drive that many narrators experience: to tie up loose ends, to make a good story, to bring about closure; and to achieve totalization. In the second trial, the D. A. locates the "image" Melanie wants in a videotape depicting the discovery of Roberta's corpse. As in all ceremonial rhetoric, the duty is to bring forth the body:
you remember it as blue because there is something blue or blue-colored about memory and remembering death, and particularly remembering things lost and inaccessible, as what is lost in and illuminated by this blue light is utterly lost. I want, I need, I believe, I think. You imagine, at first, you see only branches, and then you realize they give way to something in the center, and entangled submerged in black earth and branches, you see white limbs--a knee, part of thigh, half a face, long dark hair. [...] A vine grows from what you think was her stomach. [...] You imagine she could still shake it free, this earthsleeping girl--brush the brambles from her black hair [...] but she is so laden with black ground, it is difficult to distinguish which is which. (387)
This scene provides an emotional culmination, for Thernstrom, for on the next page, she obsessively repeats the phrase "she was dead" eight times, reinforcing a final acceptance of Roberta's death: "It doesn't matter what she looked like; she was dead. She was sleeping in the earth; she was held in the blue light, she was dead, she was dead. The machine is turned off, the image dissolved" (388). Here Thernstrom locates the proper image, one that is wrapped in memory's blue light that sums up for Melanie her long suffering and long mourning. From that point forward in her narrative, she gradually releases herself from story values and from the suffocating responsibility that blocks her re-entry into the real world.
For Freud, the mourning libido is gradually able to detach itself from the lost object as reality returns. For Thernstrom, this process comes in the final three chapters after Brad Page's second trial has ended with a sentence of manslaughter. Healing in this context entails a renunciation of compulsive storymaking as reality gains the upper hand, just as Melanie begins accepting the world, "normally," on its own terms. The emotional release of the scene is coupled with a comprehensive rejection of storytelling and a new level of acceptance that her journey--the process of mourning--is nearly over. Now she knows that her repetitive storytelling was a displacement of her difficult, complex feelings over Roberta's irreparable loss:
It's easier to think about fiction and the construction of fictions and anything likewise elaborate than the feeling that lies beneath. All the simple things, which you would think someone would naturally feel right away, I never got a chance to feel. I only felt the exaggerated versions--the story themes. I said all these things, but I never got to say the plain ones, like my friend Roberta was an especially wonderful person and had the loveliest glossiest hair. (404-05)
More than three years after Roberta’s death, Thernstrom's healing is documented in part 9 of the book. The closure of this submerged plot means accepting the intense feelings for Roberta while being able to say "goodbye," as if to move on with her life. The mention of "loveliest, glossiest hair" even dwells on sentimental thoughts that occur as she gives up on storymaking as a cognitive, intellectual activity and says "goodbye" on more personal, emotional grounds. Three pages before the end of the book, she renounces storymaking in a quite similar way to Didion's Grace saying, "I have not been the witness I wanted to be." Late at night, on her knees in the bathroom, Thernstrom prays for release from her lengthy labors of mourning:
Dear God, I say, I return the story. I return the story and the meaning of the story and the need to make meaning of the story. Our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect and I can't do it anymore and I never could do and I return it all so 1 have nothing left. (427)
Now the submerged story of The Dead Girl is not Roberta's story of life and death but Melanie's story of suffering over her friend's death and her eventual resolution of all-powerful feeling. To become healed, Melanie must escape from her descent into narcissism, so that the self that is expressing grief is not overwhelmed by the constant story of the Other.
This same underground story has been present in varying degrees, of course, in the earlier narratives alluded to; a tension between the self and the Other has colored all of them. We saw Nick Carraway pausing to reflect on Gatsby before moving on with his life and Didion's Grace using Charlotte Douglass to understand the illusions of her own life. Or, we might think of Faulkner's Shreve's question to Quentin as hinting that the Sutpen family story is a link to a wider story of the aftermath of the Civil War in the South and Compson's own ancestral guilt.
Thernstrom documents the emergence of a young woman from adolescent dreams into full responsibility of adulthood. A superimposed narrative, beneath the Roberta story of the Other, is Melanie's own story of mourning and disturbance, followed by her "healing" and letting-go of memory. As deconstructionists make clear, all writing involves this metaphysics of presence, the illusion that writing recovers some lost subject, bringing it magically into being. The world of adult responsibilities and duties now must be accepted. In one sense Melanie's narrative reveals "survivor's guilt," for she has been condemned to live while Roberta must die. Forced to live implies inventing a new version of herself, which is achieved by the end of the book, largely by the renunciation of storytelling and grieving. In psychological terms, it means giving up, letting go, and saying a final good-bye to all that was Roberta Lee.
Derrida, Jacques. Memoires for Paul de Man. Trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, Eduardo Cadava, and Peggy Kamuf. Wellek Library Series. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.
Freud, Sigmund. "Mourning and Melancholia." Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 14, Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953.
Jameson, Frederic. The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.
Thernstrom, Melanie. The Dead Girl. New York: Basic, 1990.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, IRVINE