Nightlife

Behind Closed Doors

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Aug 25, 2004
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Susan R. Sloan’s new novel, -Behind Closed Doors-, is a far superior study of domestic violence and its effects on multiple generations.

Sloan begins her story by telling us that a sixty year old woman named Valerie O’Connor Marsh has come to the end of a trial during which she has faced charges of murdering her husband, the abusive Jack Marsh. Her defense is that she was protecting someone else -- we are not told who in the prologue -- from her husband’s murderous rage. The contention of the prosecutor is that Valerie simply took a long-awaited opportunity to murder a man she had come to hate.

It’s a fitting place for Sloan to begin her story, since the next 400 pages lay out Valerie and Jack’s life together like a chain of evidence. It’s a familiar story -- the initial meeting, the charm and passion of courtship, the uncertain tremors of doubt on the part of Valerie’s father that go unheeded, and the disastrous first marital night followed years of the typical abuser’s pattern: sudden outbursts of violence followed by heart-rent pleas of regret and vows never to strike out in anger again -- vows that are broken, usually sooner rather than later.

Sloan gives us a Jack who is like a wolf: endlessly appreciative of women, unable to stay faithful to his wife, savage and heedless when on the attack. Jack’s oft-described striking yellow eyes are a means of enhancing the metaphor; when the youngest son, Ricky, is born with those same yellow eyes (and born prematurely as the result of Jack nearly killing Valerie), there’s no doubt that Ricky will lead a life of trouble.

And indeed, from a tender age, Ricky shows all the signs of following in his father’s footsteps; after a savage schoolyard fight, Ricky assures his mother that all will be well come the next day because he intends to take the other child a present. As if that weren’t chilling enough, Valerie later observes Ricky and his brother talking about the incident like a couple of teenaged hoodlums might -- but Ricky is only five, and his brother not so very much older.

Ricky’s older siblings do not generally turn out much better: his older brother leaves home at age 16, to avoid the day he will kill his father or be killed by him. The next oldest, a daughter, follows in short order and is not heard from for years after. (Her fate, when revealed, is heartbreaking.) One daughter, a nearly supernaturally calm presence, finds her way to a convent, to her father’s horror. There is one more daughter, but her fate comes midway through the book, during childhood -- a nightmarish incident that pushes Valerie over the edge, where she dangles with only a few loyal friends to help her.

Nor do traditional sources of solace offer aid to Jack’s embattled wife. The Church lectures Valerie that she must submit to her husband -- it is a wife’s duty. Valerie’s own family, while supportive, turns out to be an unwitting collaborator in Jack’s reign of terror, having ingrained in Valerie the notion that what happens in the family -- even bloodshed and tragedy -- must remain in the family. Valerie is trapped as much by her times as by her marriage, and this is something Sloan seems to underscore by setting her book, as she does, in a span of time from the late1940s on to the first few years of the 21st century, as if to offer a rebuttal in a surround-sound of breaking bones and full color glory of blood spilled and lives yanked out of shape to the notion that the family was automatically safer and better off in days gone by. Some families were not; some are still not.

The latter half of the book deals mainly with Ricky’s misadventures as a young echo of his father -- a teenaged delinquent, then a twenty-something tough. His life unspools quickly, even as Valerie and Jack struggle to put their own lives on track. But Jack’s deep-seated fears and uncertainties sabotage every attempt at normalcy, and finally his marriage to Valerie is too damaged to resemble anything intact, and life for everyone becomes a matter, emotionally and physically, of getting by.

Sloan’s book is a true-at-heart family epic, one that does hold happy endings for everyone involved. It is also compelling from the first page to the last, vexing and impossible to keep out of your hands. Anyone from a violent family background will recognize the emotions and situations Sloan describes; everyone else will find this novel brings half-understood horror stories into full focus. Harrowing and unforgettable, -Behind Closed Doors- throws still-shut doors into social and familial pathology wide open.

by Susan R. Sloan

Publisher: Warner Books. Pages: 467. Price: $25.95. Publication Date: August 25, 2004. ISBN 0-446-53029-8

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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