Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rape: A Love Story (2005)

I have read enough work by Joyce Carol Oates to understand her view of a world in which women and young girls often suffer physical violence at the hands of men when they least expect it to happen to them. I know that she is not afraid to use brutal words and images to tell the stories of these women and to describe the criminals who go after them. All of that is included in Rape: A Love Story. But it is the second half of the book’s title that hints at the most intriguing part of Teena Maguire’s story.

Teena, a thirty-something widow with a 12-year-old daughter, made a fatal mistake one dark night by deciding to cut through a deserted Niagara Falls park with her daughter on the walk home from a Fourth of July party. What should have been a relaxing ten-minute walk led instead to an experience that almost killed her and changed more than a few lives forever. Her daughter’s childhood would end in an instant, a Niagara Falls policeman would define “justice” in new terms, families would be pushed to the brink of bankruptcy in order to pay for unscrupulous defense attorneys, and a few thugs would realize that things were different now even for them.

Teena and Bethie were followed into the park by a gang of young men from the neighborhood, men high on booze and drugs and with one thing on their minds. They forced the two into an old boatshed where they punched and kicked them and gang-raped Teena. Luckily for Bethie, she was able to wedge herself into a spot so hard to reach that the rapists lost interest in her. But she had to listen to everything that happened and, when it was finally over, it was up to her to find help before her mother bled to death in the shed.

The complicated love story begins when young Niagara Falls policeman John Dromoor, first on the scene, finds himself intensely drawn to Teena and her daughter. He simply cannot forget what he saw that night and promises Teena and Bethie that he will do everything in his power to make things right for them. Bethie, who is terrified to live in the same neighborhood as the men awaiting trial for her assault, looks to Dromoor as her protector and feels a special kind of love for him. The mysterious, but unspoken, love that the three share seems to offer the only chance that Teena and Bethie have to put their shattered lives at least partially back together.

Oates has packed a lot into this book of barely 150 pages. She reminds the reader that violent crime impacts more lives than just those of the victim and the attacker. Families of the victim suffer a special kind of hell, but families of the attacker are forced to confront the dirty underbelly of family loyalty in a way that few really pass when it comes down to a question of whether or not to hire lawyers to distort the truth in an attempt to save their sons from prison. Will they excuse them for a terrible crime because they share the same blood? Will they really try to destroy the reputations of the victims in order to save their criminal sons? Sadly, we all know the answer to those questions.

Rated at: 4.5


  1. I know a friend of the family who was raped and got married to the main officer in her case a little over a year ago.

    This sounds like a good book, but probably one that I'll avoid. For me, rape is one of the most difficult subject matters for me to read about, and the way our justice system deals with it upsets me as well. Nevertheless, I really should read some Oates!

  2. I'll have to pick this one up; thank you, Sam, for mentioning it. On a similar (if less violent) vein, I've had to see what family members do when it comes out that one of their own has been emotionally (and somewhat physically) abusive toward his spouses, and the results tend to be pretty ugly. I'll never understand people's ability to put blood relationships so far above what's right in priority.

  3. It's not an easy book to read, Eva, because of the subject and the way that this crime victim was vilified by her community. I find it terrible to think that families will protect horrible criminals just because they are part of the family. This part of human nature makes me sick.

  4. I totally agree with you, Heather. I'd like to think that I'm above that kind of behavior but I've never been tested, so who knows?

  5. I am teaching this book this coming semester, in a class called Sexuality and Ethics in Contemporary Culture. I think Oates wants us to think about the kind of families, and the kind of communities that could produce the viciously hateful, cruel, selfish young men that rape a mother in front of her daughter almost to death. Their hatred for their victim is remorseless, expensive, and mysterious. Indeed, what's in it for them? I am also teaching The Laramie Project, about the brutal murder of the gay student Matthew Shepard. We have attitudes out there that go way beyond legitimate or even tough debate; in fact they're meant to shut it down. Rape is an assault against the very soul of democracy, and all citizens should battle it.

  6. Interesting points, Anonymous, and they are hard points to argue against. Rape is a complicated crime in that sex seems to be the least of its motivation. Rapists are some of the sickest criminals out there and it appalls me that rape is not considered to be a more serious crime than it is by so many courts. The results of rape are long term and truly devastating to the victim.

    Good luck on the class.

  7. Intriguing post. However, I wish to nitpick: In the book, it was not Teena who "made a fatal mistake". The fatal mistake was made by the people who raped her. It was their choice, their responsibility, their blunder.

  8. Mudd, I did not mean to imply that the victim was responsible for her own rape...but I do think that she should have considered the odds of walking through the park on her own with only her daughter as was a fatal mistake in the sense that she unluckily placed herself in harm's way.