03/11/2011 01:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Joyce Carol Oates: A Widow's Derangement

A Widow's Story is called a memoir, but the word seems too slight for the grandeur of what Joyce Carol Oates does in this work of startling intimacy, humanity, humility, and wisdom -- "Wisdom one might do without," she says, "if wisdom springs from terrible loss."

Working from the diaries she wrote at night when she couldn't sleep, she tracks, with breathless immediacy, the six months from the morning of her husband's first signs of illness to his unexpected death days later, and the devastating six months that followed, when she became a victim of what she calls "the derangement of widowhood."

Raymond Smith's death, after 47 years of marriage -- Oates was 22 when she met and married him, and took his last name -- cast his wife in a role she'd never known except through her fiction: a woman whose feelings were out of control, off the rails. Even though she continued to teach and make public appearances, for the first time in her life, at age 70, Joyce Smith was beside herself, unhinged, unmoored, what many endure in times of upheaval, illness, or hardship, devastation she had been spared until late in life.

Ray Smith had been Oates' first love. (She adopted her maiden name when she began to publish.) Their marriage was placid, loving, childless, intellectually compatible, and financially stable. Her personal life, she says, was "as measured and decorous as Laura Ashley wallpaper." Elsewhere: "Though I may have had, since adolescence, a kind of intellectual/literary precocity, I had not experienced much; nor would I experience much until I was well into middle-age -- the illnesses and deaths of my parents, this unexpected death of my husband."

Now, like a character she might have invented, she is consumed with grief, anger, confusion, terror, insomnia, loneliness, self-loathing, and frequent thoughts of suicide. She finds comfort in teaching and time with friends, and distraction in public appearances -- though early on, she wants to have a T-shirt printed for such occasions:


But of course Oates can't change the subject internally. It's her ability to record what she experiences as the loss of her central identity, Wife of Ray Smith, while maintaining a gripping, forward-moving narrative that reminds us of her public identity as Joyce Carol Oates, the master storyteller. It's this public persona from whom she feels estranged as she gropes for ways to die and reasons to live.

Among the most moving sections -- it's hard to choose among them, as nearly everything here is hugely affecting -- are her emails to and from friends who are widows, whose wisdom and stories she seeks out and clings to.

In an unforgettable scene, soon after Ray dies, she visits the health club to which they often went as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, not sure if she's there to work out or cancel her membership. When she finally announces she wants to cancel because "we're moving away," she freezes when asked where they are moving. "My mind is blank. I am having trouble remembering why I am here. And why -- alone? 'Just away. We're not sure where.'"

On the subject of moving and moving on, much has been said in reviews of the book and in Oates's media appearances about the fact that she married again a year after Ray died. Janet Maslin in the New York Times condemned her in the harshest language, as though she were on trial, for not mentioning the marriage in the memoir. Maslin apparently overlooked the last page of the book, where the new man is introduced and his significance suggested -- though it is not spelled out.

Speaking to this during her reading at the 92nd Street Y, Oates told Leonard Lopate that it seemed to her "disrespectful" to have stated the fact directly. "It violates the integrity of the book you have written," she said.

At the heart of the criticism seems to be a feeling of betrayal, as though getting married a year later (though the narrative ends after six months) and not mentioning the marriage specifically diminish the authenticity of her grief. As though anyone who could marry again "so soon" could not possibly feel all she felt -- and ask us to feel for her.

On a personal note, I taught at Princeton with Joyce Carol Oates in the 1990s and worked with her on an essay she contributed to an anthology I edited between 2008 and 2009. I'm not her confidant. I don't know more about her decision to marry than she's said in public, but the criticism -- the hint that she is in some way a trickster -- seems awfully far off the mark, and psychologically simplistic as well.

It's not hard to understand that one can grieve a lost child forever, love the child who replaces her -- and that the replacement child bears a special burden. Not hard to accept that in a lifetime, one loves many people in a myriad of ways. Memories don't disappear. The expectations of marriage at age 70 are entirely different from marriage at 22. And it's possible that without the support she has now, Oates may never have revisited these harrowing diaries and constructed this brave, spellbinding and ultimately optimistic memoir.

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including the bestseller Almost, and editor of Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, to which Joyce Carol Oates contributed an essay.