Lavina Fielding Anderson
Signature Books (Salt Lake City), 1999. Trade paperback: xii,
Suggested retail price: $14.95 (US)
In what has to be one of the most gripping and tension-filled openingchapters of any Mormon novel, Laurel Greer, sixty-three-year-oldmother of five and grandmother of seven, crouches on the floor of herex-son-in-law's car, forces him to drive to an abandoned road inParley's Canyon above Salt Lake City, makes him stop the car, puts thegun to his head and pulls the trigger, then curls his fingers aroundthe butt. Then another son-in-law takes her to her car and she drivessouth toward Las Vegas where, to establish her alibi, her daughter hasalready gone with Duncan, Laurel's husband.
The journey south through the night reveals the motive for Clint'smurder and draws the reader into its moral dimensions. Laurel had beendriving her seven-year-old granddaughter Elizabeth to her piano lessonwhen a chance comment about "the baby videos" triggered such a panickyreaction that Laurel cancelled the piano lesson and took Elizabeth andher just-younger brother Shawn to a therapist the next day. A flood ofsickening revelations followed: of "parties" where Laurel'sgrandchildren, including infants, were required to perform or enduresex acts, were given treats for not crying, and were terrorized intosilence by the slaughter of a kitten. At some of these parties, Clintdanced wearing only the tops of his temple garments and hadintercourse with his mother. Another regular male participant was theother counselor in the bishopric in which Clint served. This secondman's wife, the daughter of an apostle, ran the video camera. Many menwho were strangers to the children also participated.
The children's revelations were only the beginning. Also among Clint'svictims were the children of Laurel's other married daughters and son,and her two youngest daughters, Jeanne and Jasmine. At one point,Laurel and Duncan count up thirty victims that they know of frompersonal knowledge. They give up guessing how many more there mightbe, including Clint's two stepdaughters by his second marriage and thetwo children he has fathered in that marriage. And he seemeduntouchable. The police aborted their investigation, suspiciously soonafter they found out that an apostle's son-in-law was involved, eventhough Duncan is from an old Church family. A lengthy list of bishopsand stake presidents, including Clint's current Church leaders,promises to investigate, to take action, only to withdraw theirinterest and never return phone calls. Clint's bishop even paid hisrent from fast offering funds. After confessing and apologizing to hischildren, Clint recants, once he figures out that he will not beprosecuted. He even sues for custody of the children. This litany ofinstitutional failures completes the motive for murder. Innocent andon-going victims are revictimized by institutional inaction until anindividual, Laurel Greer, takes action to restore justice.
But this formula is only the beginning. The interior action of thenovel is a moral education, first in a monologue as Laurel drivessouth to Las Vegas where she meets Duncan and sends her car back toSalt Lake City with daughter Jeanne, then in a dialogue as she andDuncan continue on to their condo in Palm Springs. In dense, richlyallusive prose (Laurel quotes Yeates and Star Trek, T. S. Eliot andWuthering Heights, plus dozens of others), Marion Smith explores thecomplexities of the human tragedy of child sexual abuse. Laurel'ssickening hatred of Clint is coupled with her involuntary compassionfor the misfit boy being raised and trained by his incestuousmother. Her passion for her children and her eagerness to embrace thestability and solidity of the whole of Duncan's Mormon heritage, givenher own partially active family's dysfunctionality, lead directly toher bitter disillusionment as she perceives that this very Mormonness,rather than providing protection, made her children and grandchildrenmore vulnerable to sexual abuse. It also leads directly to doubtsabout God.
Duncan's journey is parallel but not identical. He communicates therage of a man whose entire life has been an effort to protect andprovide for his family. His trust in the church that had been hiswhole life shatters into bitter shards, but he cannot give up hisallegiance, even when his faith is gone. As a result, his peculiarcrucifixion is his bone-deep conviction that he has put his soul injeopardy by yielding to Laurel's enraged determination that she mustkill Clint; by teaching her how to use the gun and working out theplan, he becomes an accessory to murder. The novel reveals thestresses placed on a marriage by the discovery of child sexual abuse-- another manifestation that the ripples of abuse never end. As theydrive through the night, deeper into an uncertain future, they returnrepeatedly to the anguish of their past.
This novel goes far beyond the simple formula of frontier justice,where a right-thinking vigilante removes a loathsome danger to thecommunity. Conspicuous by its absence from the intense discussions andimages is any reference to righteous Nephi standing over drunken Labanand hearing the Spirit command that the slaying. Instead, themurderers whose names come to Laurel's mind are Raskolnikov and hisunmotivated, almost experimental, murder of a helpless old woman, LadyMacbeth violating her fealty to a sleeping king, and Medea drawing theblade across the throats of her own children. These images provide adeeply ambiguous answer to the question of justice worked out in thisnovel. If this were a vigilante novel, then the happy ending would bethat Laurel gets away with her murder and the world is well rid ofanother pedophile. Instead, Laurel makes a final decision and takes afinal action in the novel's conclusion that redresses the scales of animpossibly complex justice.
In my opinion, however, Marion Smith's chief contribution is to drawinto the reader's consciousness an understanding of the horror ofchild sexual abuse. This statement may seem both over-obvious and evenfaintly ludicrous. Is there anyone, except for pedophiles and thetruly uneducated, who doesn't already believe that child sexual abuseis horrible? Haven't the experiences of abuse survivors already plowedthat dark and painful ground thoroughly? I don't think so.
At three points in the novel, lists appear: (1) a list of victims, (2)a list of the types of abuse the children were forced to endure (thisis what the children told their therapist that Clint had done to them:"Cunnilingus, object rape, enforced fellatio, digital penetration ofanus and vagina, sodomy, fondling of breasts and genitals, the makingand showing of pornographic films, intercourse and other sexual actswith adults including his mother, which he forced the children towitness"; (p. 60), and (3) a catalog of abuse symptoms ("panicattacks, nightmare, sexual dysfunction, dissociation, amnesia,flashbacks, rage, terror, depression, .& .& . body memories likenumbness or terrible pain, .& .& . eating disorders," p. 158). Theclinical language and the sheer pile-up of multi-syllabic nouns areultimately numbing.
Survivors' stories never fail to shock and galvanize sympathy thatconnects listener and speaker; but that completely appropriateresponse of sympathy is by its very nature outwardly directed. Itseparates the sympathizer from the object of sympathy, and the spacein between is a sometimes too-comfortable distance.
What Marion Smith has done throughout Riptide is to create a series ofimages, dreams, and events that erase that distance, creating anexperience with the emotional reality of abuse that will, I believe,leave no sensitive reader unchanged. I counted a score of suchdistance-erasing images, beginning with the scene that gives the novelits title. Clint and little Jasmine are playing in the waves when theyare caught by the riptide. Duncan immediately tries to rescue Jasmine,but the tide "would sweep them out again like straws." Tina, anotherdaughter, is the strongest swimmer and understands how to work with,not against, the riptide. Laurel gives her permission to go out andsave her father and sister. They all survive, including Clint, butLaurel wonders whether her son and daughter, parents of more ofClint's victims, would have "sacrifice[d Duncan and Jasmine].& .& . to .& .& . let Clint drown and their childrenbe saved from him." Meanwhile, she is haunted by the image of "Clintluring everyone into the riptide" (173).
Some of the images are those reported by the children: Jasmine dreamsof a blender in which her loved ones are "ground together bywhirling. .& .&nbps;. blades" (13). In another one, a sharkcircles her and Jeanne underwater, its "huge red penis, dripping inthe ocean water" (13). Jeanne pumps up on the cabin swing, flyinghigh in the air, when the chain snaps on one side.
Laurel's daughter Katherine, who had been married to Clint, standsbefore the wooden clock Clint had brought back from his mission,pushing the hands "around and around the face." It is an image of herown terrible desire that enough minutes will pass to signal that theyhave survived (33). This same daughter terrifies Duncan when he findsher methodically smashing every piece of her Royal Copenhagen china onthe tiled floor of her kitchen. He is sure she is crazy. Laurelunderstands that it is normal to be crazy.
Some of the images are Laurel's nightmares. She dreams of a tornadofunnel sweeping toward them, its winds so powerful that they can'tyank up the door that would lead them into the safety of the stormcellar; the wind catches the baby's body and batters it against thedoor "like a ball on a yo-yo string, breaking" the fragile bones(30). She dreams of a cozy miniature living room inside a decoratedEaster egg where her family is "safe"; then she picks up the egg andshakes it. She is simultaneously tiny, inside the egg, crashing intothe furniture with her bruised and bleeding family, and outside, doingthe shaking (160). She is a moth, blending into the soft dust, a pile"of gray cinder-block bricks placed on top of me -- neatly stacked --no one know that I am here." She can still breathe, barely, but thebricks keep stacking higher, crushing her (163). Her best-beloved dollfalls out of the car window; her father refuses to go back for it(51). She dreams of her family on strings being dipped into a volcanoand being "pulled out twisted and grotesque with lava crusting on us"(57). She repeatedly thinks of rocks -- "black, deformed, lava,habitable only to black crags and bare bleeding feet" or "smoothstream-rounded pebbles, wet and sensuous, their curvings indifferentto human fingers" (118). On a family trip, a berserk Moroccan had runthrough the ferry to Tangier "stabbing strangers" until a tourist "hithim on the head with a bottle" while Laurel searched desperately forfour-year-old Jasmine who had gotten separated from the family(83). One night, she hears a young elk, trapped in their metal gate inthe deep snow. It screams and screams "like Cathy at the window" inWuthering Heights, "trying to come in .& .& . a child who mustscream alone in the cold night" (98). In a game of musical chairs at abirthday party, "a giant male foot in a brown polished shoe" appearsabove the children, then smashes down, grinding the children and thechair splinters into the carpet "while Tina goes on trying to announcewho's won and I bring in the hot dogs and the red Jell-O and thepotato chips" (111-12). A hangman's noose dangles from the branches ofa dead tree, enlarging itself until Laurel can seat herself in it asif it were a child's swing (115). Clint is a huge "black crab"crawling after the "miniature" family, his enormous claws picking upthe child that Laurel had "forgotten to hide" (159-60). A little boyis sinking in quicksand and can't hold on to the stick Laurel reachesto him from the side (160). A granddaughter swings out over a cliffedge, then dives straight into the "dark pool" below. She doesn'tcome up. "None of us could jump to her. We stared at the water andcouldn't move" (160). And there are more.
These images recreate the emotional reality of sexual abuse -- thehelplessness, the insanity, the nightmarishness, the meaninglessness,and above all, the terrible, unending pain. I could not read themunmoved, unchanged. I could not read them with only admiration forMarion Smith's technical facility and her skill with language. Readingthem is an experience with the riptide of sexual abuse.
Smith was not well-served by the publisher's production. Although thenovel's action is dated precisely to 1994, seven years after thediscovery of the abuse, the cover, in muddy shades of greenish-yellowand gray, misleadingly shows a woman with a short waved hair stylefrom the early 1950s, flanked by young daughters with bangs andpageboys from the same period. Ellipses are shown unspaced, makingeye-jerking clots on the page. M-dashes have been rendered asN-dashes, making it virtually impossible not to read some ashyphens. Typographical errors abound: both "MacBeth" and "Macbeth"(correct), "grey" (British spelling), "Mommie/Mommy," and "their's."But these defects in presentation should not be allowed to detractfrom this remarkable journey in moral education and in the emotionalrealities of sexual abuse that Riptide provides.
In an image pivotal to the action of the novel, Laurel recalls lyingon the edge of the Grand Canyon at dawn when she was fifteen, feelingthe world turning under her, unable to tell where the sandstone stopsand her cheek begins. "Perhaps lying there alone at dawn was the bestsingle moment of my life," she thinks. To get there she had followed apath through the Kaibab forest:
& & & & Over and over during the past seven years, Iwatch myself walk that path. .& .& . There's no hurry, but Ihave to keep moving. I go to the rim and its purple shadows. There'sno fear or pain in that. I don't want to die, but perhaps there'll beno choice. One step and I'll be part of the shadow. It feels good tohave that option. It's my biggest comfort. I must go to the very edgeand look down and then decide. No one can come near me there,alone. Two German tourists disappeared from that path this summer. Ienvy them.
& & & & Over and over this scene is my escape. It'sbeautiful and awesome and obsessive. Sometimes it's irresisble. Iknow I can't turn around on the path to the canyon. I can stop on theedge but not turn around. I try hard to think if there are otherchoices. I concentrate while I look at the ever-changing light andshadow. (45)
Marion Smith puts the reader on that path with Laurel Greer. Theprecipice is not just the hunger for oblivion and surcease from pain;it is also the decision of each reader whether to accept his or herown culpability in a world where innocence is violated in terribleways. We can plunge over into the obliterating answers of denial or wecan "stop on the edge" where rescue can occur, but we "can't turnaround on the path."
[Lavina Fielding Anderson]
© 2000 Lavina Fielding Anderson