An Essay by Joyce Carol Oates


What is a family except memories?

This is a question asked by Judd Mulvaney, the youngest of the Mulvaney children. I think it's a question we might all ask: Can there be a family without memories, or a family wracked with heart-break and mystery in which memories are partly erased, denied? When I wrote We Were The Mulvaneys, I was just old enough to look back upon my own family life and the lies of certain individuals close to me, with the detachment of time. I wanted to tell the truth about secrets: How much pain they give, yet how much relief, even happiness we may feel when at last the motive for secrecy has passed.


Readers have reacted in sharply contrasting ways to the dilemma of the heart of the novel: If a loving, family-oriented woman must choose between her husband and one of her children, whom does she choose? Corinne Mulvaney is a deeply, unself-consciously religious woman who acts out of love and duty, but also with an unquestioned sense of God's intentions. She doesn't think of herself or her own wishes but those of others; until the end of the novel, when she befriends an energetic, irrepressible woman named Sable, Corinne doesn't think of herself as an individual at all. She's Corinne Mulvaney, known to everyone as Michael Mulvaney's wife. Her behavior will seem baffling, even unconscionable, to those who don't share her faith. I don't believe that, in her place, I would have acted as she did, but I don't judge her harshly. Perhaps I even envy her faith.

It happens in some families, perhaps many more than we know that a "split" occurs. A parent is hurt. It might be a father, as in this case, it might be a mother. Someone who is strong-willed, very loving, but also very dominating. Someone who, until the split occurs, you wouldn't expect to be so stubborn. So heartrendingly stubborn. This parent is hurt, or insulted, or thwarted, or "disappointed." This parent's pride is lacerated. And the individual, often a child, who has caused the rupture can't be easily forgiven. Maybe he or she doesn't wish to beg for forgiveness. Maybe he or she is as stubborn as the parent. And suddenly... the family is "split." People choose sides. People cease speaking to one another, sometimes for years. And only after a duration of time can things be made right again and healing can begin again.

In lucky families, this is. Think of the many families who never heal, never forgive!

The Mulvaneys are a family in which the pride of one dominant individual is fatally injured, but they are also a family in which forgiveness finally, belatedly, occurs. I based this story on "real-life" experiences, as the expression has it. Yet as I wrote the novel, it came to acquire a fairy-tale quality; it came, in time, to remind me, so very unexpectedly, of a Shakespearean tragedy in which no one is actually "wrong" and yet all suffer.


Two Mulvaney children, Marianne and her older brother Patrick, are among my favorite characters from my writing. They abide deep in my heart. I can "see" them so vividly! Marianne is sweet, good-natured, docile, though in her own way stubborn; Patrick is the brainy boy, outspoken, rather a smart aleck within the family, but unswervingly honest and idealistic. He would die for his family. He would - almost - commit a terrible crime for his sister.

I wish I could claim to be as naturally "good" as Marianne. I know that there are girls and women like Marianne. (Her character is based partly on one of my high school friends.) I would like to hope that I could be magnanimous like Marianne, and forgive those who have wounded me, but I'm not sure that this is so. It's enough for me as the novelist to know and take solace in the fact that such individuals as Marianne do exist. I celebrate their generosity and goodness. I reach out to them: Thank you! Your being is an example to us all.

Finally, I have to say of We Were the Mulvaneys that it's the novel closest to my heart. Passages were transcribed in white heat, as in a fevered dream. I was scarcely inventing or imagining, only just "remembering." My writing is so much about homesickness. The rural landscapes and waterways of upstate New York, where I was born and grew up on a small, not-very-prosperous farm north of Lockport. The sights, smells and texture of life in a small town. The intense emotions of high school life, ephemeral anxieties and joys. The wounds that can cut deep, and scar for years, or a lifetime.

In We Were the Mulvaney's animals are almost as important as people. I wanted to show the tenderness in our relationships with cats, dogs, and horses. Especially cats. Marianne's cat Muffin was based on a real cat of that name and everything about him in the novel is, or was, true in life. Marianne's experience is exactly what mine was. Muffin's life was saved for 13 miraculous months. Or, his death was forestalled. Exactly as in We Were the Mulvaneys, except that I was already married, and all the circumstances were different. This is a sentimental confession, but I may as well make it...

And so, to continue in the vein of sentimental truth telling: "Stump Creek Hill" does exist, under another name, in southern New Jersey. It is an abandoned animal shelter "dedicated to the care of sick, injured, abandoned, and elderly wildlife and domestic animals." Just as this shelter saves the lives of numberless animals, so too, in the novel it saves Marianne from isolation and despair. I wish there were more Mariannes in our midst, and I wish there were more "Stump Creek Hills." In the meantime, we can do our best to support such selfless organizations, and, within a smaller, more domestic compass of activity, we can do our best to prevent the situations that cause such hurt to the innocent.

As Dr. Whitaker West says, "That's the best kind of thinking - wishful."

Last modified: Friday, December 9, 2016, 9:42 AM