Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Widow's Story: A Memoir

One year and six weeks before her husband’s death, Joyce and Raymond were lucky to walk away from an automobile accident that could just as easily have killed both of them.  Joyce Carol Oates and her husband, publisher and editor Raymond Smith, would look upon each day after that accident as a gift, bonus time granted them on their time together.  That would all change on February 18, 2008, when Oates would so suddenly be thrust into widowhood that she would be left reeling from the shock for months to come.

Joyce and Raymond Smith had been married for forty-seven years, and they expected to be together for a good many more, on the morning Joyce awoke to find her husband feeling poorly.  Because she could see that his illness was more severe than he believed it to be, Oates convinced Smith to let her drive him to Princeton Medical Center.  There he was admitted with pneumonia, but the couple expected that he would be treated and released in only a few days.  Up until the early hours of February 18, when Oates received an urgent phone call from the hospital, that seemed to be exactly what would happen.

Technically, Raymond Smith did not die of pneumonia or its complications.  He died, instead, from a secondary infection he picked up inside Princeton Medical Center, and his was a death for which Oates was completely unprepared.  One minute she was feeling optimistic about her husband’s homecoming; the next, she found herself trying to make it back to the hospital before he died.

Suddenly, her life seemed to lose all meaning.  Gone was the man around whom she centered her world and, staggered by her grief, Oates lost all desire to go on alone.  She could not sleep, had no desire to eat, and felt even her spirit fading away as the thought of suicide more and more appealed to her.  What kept Oates going in those early months was her ability to lose herself in her “JCO” personae; she became a Joyce Carol Oates impersonator, an author with commitments that allowed her to travel from reading-to-reading across the country.  She did not have to be Joyce Smith, widow, until she returned to her lonely New Jersey home.

John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Smith (1986)
A Widow’s Story will remind many readers of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), in which Didion explored her own reaction to sudden widowhood.  Like that memoir, A Widow’s Story can, at times, be disturbing in its frankness about the effects of the despair and grief that follow the loss of a longtime spouse and companion.  Most disturbing to me, personally, was the realization that even someone like Oates, with her vast network of friends, colleagues and well-wishers, essentially had to weather the storm on her own.  Good intentions and simple kindnesses did little to relieve her of the pain that crushed both her spirit and her will to live. 

Oates is a survivor now, as is Didion.  What she tells us about her experience is not pretty, and it is not particularly inspirational.  But it is real, and that, after all, is what Joyce Carol Oates is all about.  This woman pulls no punches in her fiction, and she pulls no punches here.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. This one sounds hard to read but compelling just the same. I often think how hard it is to have such a close relationship with someone for so many years and then lose them.

  2. Kathleen, it is extremely hard to read this one. The despair and loss of purpose that Ms. Oates expresses is crushing and hard to witness. But it is a frank look at where so many of us are headed in the future. Perhaps a book like this one will help prepare us; perhaps not.