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In this dark novel of imprisonment, entangled thoughts, and curious alliances, Susanna Moore deftly analyses the human desire to connect and the struggle to survive in desperate circumstances. The Big Girls, set in the fictional Sloatsburg Correctional Institution on the banks of the Hudson, is a study of passion and identity, crime and relationship, and the many human responses to pain and violence. Upon entering this netherworld of Inferno, we hear the desperate cries of the inmates. We are moved to wonder what the multiple character voices of this novel suggest to us about our culture and its institutions. Where do women go when they are locked up within institutions, or within themselves? What is wrong with our prison system and our treatment of the mentally ill? How can we best engage in therapy with people in need as we, with our own needs, work out our own lives?
Moore invites the reader to participate in bringing together the issues of four distinct viewpoint characters. Helen, a young, working-class inmate, draws both our sympathy and our sense of horror. She has killed her children but she is perhaps the most sensitive and thoughtful character in this novel. Torn by an abusive past, she creates an imaginary figure, Ellen, who has committed the murders. Helen is delusional but keenly observant of her surroundings. She is a sadly entangled woman whose limited choices and troubled past have led her here. Like the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gillman's The Yellow Wallpaper, she obsesses about her environment and begins measuring everything, perhaps to gain a degree of control over an impossible situation. Her therapist is Dr. Louise Forrest, the head of mental services at the facility. We are drawn into Louise's world, as she tells us of her work with the women, her first months at this job, her peculiar son Ransom, and her former husband Rafael, who is sleeping with a would-be actress named Angie. One begins to wonder why Louise has chosen this difficult career, as we hear of her own neuroses and struggles with intimacy. Why would she work here when she is a single mother who has to commute to Manhattan to her eight year old son, Ransom? There are hints of desire and danger, as she is drawn into a relationship with Ike Bradshaw, a corrections officer with a checkered past.
There is power in Moore's narrative technique. Her skill lies in creating character voices. Her characterizations emerge gradually through short segments in which we pick up who is speaking. We learn about Helen, Louise, Ike, and Angie gradually through the stories they tell us. This multiple narrative reminds us of how we all tell stories and gradually unfold the narrative of our lives. The four narrative voices remain distinct, while their stories overlap. Helen overhears conversation among the prison guards, reminding us that we too are listening to her story and overhearing the people in this place. The many-voiced world of this novel lets the reader interpret the people and the environment that these characters speak of.
The Big Girls is filled with dark deeds. Horrible things continue to occur in this prison, as they have occurred in the lives of the inmates. The big girls have come from a world about which questions of gender and power can be raised. Crimes, such as infanticide and jealous love, have emerged from areas of intimacy. This hell on earth has become a container for the instincts that women share: the maternal instinct, the desire to connect, moments of envy or jealousy.
Three of the novel's four narrators are not incarcerated. Yet, their narratives suggest that there is as much unease in the relationships outside the institution as there is in the minds of those within it. For all of the narrators appear imprisoned in their relationships, their behavior, and their perspectives.
Helen, who is clearly mentally ill, reveals the reasons behind her illness. Like her therapist, we gradually come to know about Helen's past. At times, this broken soul is remarkably lucid. She talks in her therapy sessions with Dr. Forrest about her abusive childhood, the creepy abuser she calls "Uncle Dad", and her marriage to a controlling man who was a preacher. We learn about her fellow inmates from her: Of Keesha, she writes: "She'd been in prison so many times it didn't frighten her. The streets frightened her." Later we learn from her that "Keesha's really sick. It just happened so quick." As her fellow prisoners are introduced to us, we feel the desperation in their lives: "A big piece of evidence at Wanda's trial was a tape of her talking to her dead husband at the cemetery." The horrors and despair of prison life come to us through Helen's narrative: "[T]he new girl in Number 49 ate the soles of her sneakers and almost died." She reports on what she has overheard: "I received word Saturday morning at home that Priscilla, the pregnant girl in 22, had hemorrhaged to death in the prison clinic."
The novel's technique, centered in voice and point of view, is reminiscent of Eugene O' Neill's stage play, Lazarus Laughed, in which the surface dialogue between characters is betrayed by their private thoughts. In O'Neill's play, on stage, the characters wear masks, as it were, but what lies underneath, revealed by their interior monologues, is much more troubling. As Moore's novel unfolds, we can read under the narrators' comments and begin to see their blind spots and limitations. We hear self-confession, confusion, concerns.
Like her patients, Dr. Forrest has trouble in her past. She tells us: "I had a breakdown when my son Ransom was born, a fact Rafael later used our divorce as evidence of my instability." Her son, an odd youth, is obsessed with medieval battles and often stays in his room in a miniature plywood fort complete with a drawbridge that his father had built for him. He was given his name by his father, and becomes another disturbing figure in the novel. Rafael, the boy's father, is still in the mix of Louise Forrest's life. So is Angie, a vapid, self-centered actress who is sleeping with Rafael. Angie's narrative, in its triviality and incongruity, begins almost as comic relief, like the gravedigger's song in Hamlet's graveyard. She daydreams of being a starlet. In her world of manicures, hairdos, and auditions, she seems as stuck as other characters here.
These relationships are entangled. Louise is caught up a new relationship with Bradshaw- one that has its own perils. Meanwhile, the actions of Rafael and Angie affect her. "I believe in the unconscious," Louise says, at one point, rejecting an e-mail comment about her from Angie's psychic on Maui. "That my former husband would give the date of my birth to some con artist infuriates me… I really do prefer to organize my own hopes and failures and I don't intend to be deprived of that pleasure."
Among this story's intriguing features is Moore's investigation of relations among the prisoners. This is a community or family, who have made connections within adverse circumstances. They attempt to find some human warmth or kindness in this cold place. Scenes burst on us randomly, suggesting that life is random and uncertain. Yet, as these accumulate we are drawn back to reflections upon human relations, depravity, and the quest for hope and healing.
© 2008 Robert P. McParland
Robert P. McParland, Ph.D., Felician College, NJ