6 April 2020: "The Archivist" Critique
Today I'm sharing a critique for "The Archivist" by Joyce Carol Oates, which I wrote in July of 2018.
Before I dive in, this story was pulled from Boulevard Spring 2018 - Vol. 33, Nos. 2 &3, and deals with some very difficult topics: sexual abuse, pedophilia, Nazism. If any of this could be triggering for you, I advise you to avoid this particular story or to just be aware of how it could affect you.
Many people know the name Joyce Carol Oates, seeing as she’s a very prominent writer, and it’s this reason that I chose to read her story out of Boulevard, though I was unprepared for the content.
Violet Rue is a transfer student living with her aunt and uncle in Port Oriskany, and she has managed to catch the attention of her ninth-grade math teacher, Mr. Sandman. In her descriptions of him, it is clear that he is an abrasive man who is very harsh to boys but more lenient on the girls in his classes. Along with some other girls, Violet often spends time after school in “tutorials” with Mr. Sandman, where he would get unsettlingly close while he helped them with their math. In addition to his disregard for boundaries and the borderline verbal abuse, when he would finish the pledge of allegiance, “he lifted his right hand with a flourish, in a kind of salute, fingers pointing straight upward and at the flag. Was this the Nazi salute? We were uncertain.”
One day, after being tormented by some boys, Violet hides in a random car and accidentally falls asleep, only to be woken up by none other than Mr. Sandman, who insists on driving her home. On the drive, he suggests that she stay out of view to avoid starting gossip, and eventually she realizes that he isn’t driving her to her house, but is driving across town to his own. Rather than protest, she politely accepts the invitation to do a private tutorial inside. She reveals that she has to go to the bathroom and is convinced that he’s listening from the outside of the door, but when he’s not, she’s more reassured and accepts a mug of hot chocolate. After she drinks it, she becomes so tired that she falls asleep and has to be woken up by Mr. Sandman, when he calls her “Sleeping Beauty.” He then drives her home but insists that she keep this meeting a secret and that she may tell adults that she is in a Math Club. When she gets home, she does as instructed, and her Aunt Irma accepts the lie before pointing out that Violet’s shirt is buttoned crooked.
These after school meetings continue, even into the winter months, where Mr. Sandman would make comments like “Brrrr! You need to be warmed up, Snow White.” Every time, she’d be offered some sort of beverage. On one occasion, Mr. Sandman asks Violet a favor, to let him measure her as part of a collection he has, with measurements from outstanding students. She allows him to do so, up until he attempts to measure her bust, and he doesn’t press the matter but he does make a comment: “Another time, perhaps, dear Violet, you will not be so skittish.”
In Mr. Sandman’s house, there is an impressive library, and Violet examines the bookshelves to reveal titles such as Collected Works of Shakespeare, Great British Romantic Poets, military history books like Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier 1936-1945, and an adjacent bookcase with the following: “The Coming Struggle, Free Will and Destiny, The Passing of the Great Race, Racial Hygiene, A History of Biometry, The Aryan Bible, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf: A New Reading, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler, Origins of the Caucasian Race, Is the White Race Doomed?, Eugenics: A Primer.” In addition, there are photographs, including Nazis saluting their flag and fiery cities, and copies of documents such as The Bible of Practical Ethics and the ‘Final Solution’.
On a table, there are pictures that Mr. Sandman has taken, including one with a young girl, around Violet’s age, partly clothed and with a vacant expression on her face, and he calls her “an inferior Snow White.”
He begins to speak admiringly of Hitler and lays out his beliefs in the superiority of whites and how all men are created unequal, that mongrelization would be detrimental to whites, that Hitler had the right idea when he “launched a brilliant preemptive strike” against the eradication of the white race, that individual non-whites could be intelligent or talented but non-whites overall were a threat. He also states that he does not actively discriminate against black people – or, as he refers to them, “Negroes” – but “I don’t ‘see’ them and I don’t want to teach them. I am obliged to teach them, but I am not obliged to ‘see’ them.” Through his rant, Violet eventually falls asleep.
When she wakes up this time, Violet is wearing a blue silk robe, lying on a four-poster bed, and she feels as though she had been bathed, lotion rubbed on her, talcum powder on her breasts. She remembers a bright camera-flash. As Mr. Sandman awakens her, she fears he is naked, but he is fully clothed and he tells her that her clothes were soiled so he had to wash them. He allows her to dress in private. On the drive home, he tells her that if she were to say anything about their ‘friendship,’ then she’d be punished by others through expulsion or being sent to a facility for delinquent minors, and he brushes off the possibility that he would be punished too.
There is a section of something remembered:
Bathed me. Held me down. Licked me with his sandpaper tongue. Until I squealed, shrieked. Took my hand in his and guided it between his legs where he was swollen, fattish. Don’t pretend, Vio-let Rue. Dirty girl! The face was contorted. Of the hue of a cooked tomato, about to burst. Eyes about to burst out of their sockets. Breath in gasps. Like a bicycle pump, my brothers’ bicycle pump, pumping air into a tire, that wheezing sound it makes if you are not doing it correctly, and air is escaping. The hand gripping my hand, so that it hurts. Pushing, pressing, urgently, faster and faster, jamming my hand against his swollen flesh, my numbed hand, as he groans, rocks from side to side, eyes roll in their sockets, he is about to faint . . . But no. None of this happened. For none of this was witnessed.
At a later point, Violet opens a closet near the bathroom, where she finds albums full of pictures, measurements, hair clippings from previous girls.
The last time she goes to Mr. Sandman’s house, he accidentally gives her an overdose of barbiturates and cannot wake her, so he dresses her and drives her to the ER, where he attempts to just leave her, but crashes into another car when he tries to drive off. He’s arrested and all the evidence in his house is found. Violet cannot remember anything, nor can any of the previous girls, and she refuses to testify because, in her own perception, he was her friend when no one else was. Mr. Sandman pleads no contest to his charges, expresses contrition and repentance for his crimes, and is sentenced to twenty-five-to-thirty years in a maximum security prison.
Aside from the condemnation of abuse and Nazism, there is another message within the story against victim-blaming, which is essentially the blaming of the victim for the abuse they have suffered. Although Violet kept returning to Mr. Sandman’s house despite the suspicious circumstances and his increasingly disturbing behavior, there is an implication that she is doing so because she craves the positive attention he gives her.
Let me be clear that I don’t mean that what he did was a good thing, but by treating her with ‘affection,’ she was getting positive reinforcement. She may have been drugged and sexually abused, but he also would show her attention that he wasn’t giving to other students, so to her, it would be perceived as positive attention. Especially when someone is deprived of positive attention in other aspects of their life, as it seems Violet is – she is separated from her parents, she meets regularly with a therapist from the Children’s Protective Agency, and she’s bullied at school – then they are more likely to accept positive attention in whatever form they can get it.
Even if Violet knew sexual abuse was wrong and that she should escape from it, she cannot be blamed for the circumstances that put her in that situation, nor should she be blamed for accepting positive attention, even in its negative forms. Victims are put into impossible situations and it is never their fault for what happens to them.
This story was very difficult for me to read, but even so, it was excellently written and there must be recognition for that.
I liked the use of Mr. Sandman for the teacher’s name, especially as it serves as a reference to the song: - Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen Give him two lips like roses and clover Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over - If nothing else, the use is ironic and I appreciate that irony. The song asks for a dream of a man, but the reality in this story is a horrific man who believes in eugenics and Hitler’s “final solution”, and is a serial sexual predator.
I also appreciated the fact that Violet is a realistic victim of abuse. Her reactions to the entire thing are believable, from not wanting to offend Mr. Sandman towards the beginning of the story, to perceiving him as her friend even after the reveal that he was sexually abusing her. She’s authentic. As painful as it was to read, it was very refreshing to see the story of abuse told in a realistic way.
It was also interesting to see the nonlinear storytelling, which allowed the reader to know something terrible was happening before getting the full picture. The story opens with a clear picture of abuse: - “[…] Then taking my hand. Pressing it between his legs where he was fattish, swollen like ripe, rotting fruit. Pressed, rubbed. When I tried to pull away he gripped my hand tighter. Don’t pretend to be innocent, “Vio-let!” You dirty girl.” - But then the story backtracks to the beginning, giving the reader insight as to how the abuse cycle started. There were also intermittent sections that broke up the story, showing more of Violet’s inner-thoughts and feelings during the abuse.
It was also an interesting move to have there be so much emphasis on the Sleeping Beauty comparison. This isn’t to compare to the Disney movie, however, but to the original fairy tale, where the princess is asleep and the prince, so stricken by her beauty, impregnates her while she’s still asleep. She only wakes up after she’s given birth to twins and one of the babies, trying to nurse, sucks the spindle out of her finger. The definite violation of her body is paralleled by Mr. Sandman’s violation of Violet’s body.
Technically, I don’t have issues with this story. In terms of content, I wish I had known just how disturbed I would be, but the actual writing style was admirable. So, ultimately, no negatives, save for the fact that I wish there had been some sort of trigger warning.
Say what you will about trigger warnings, but if I had been a victim of sexual abuse, this could have been extremely triggering and could have resulted in an anxiety attack or a PTSD-related incident, which is exactly why I put one at the beginning of this critique.
No matter how much time has passed, this story will continue to affect me. It's well-written, painful, and important. If you feel you can handle the content (especially after reading my summary), then I encourage you to read it.