Harvard professor of Russian culture—that summer he was learning his twelfth language—who suggested I would love it. I did.
In my thirties, I found The Uses of Enchantment, a novel by Heidi Julavits, titled eponymously from developmental psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s exploration of fairy tales from a Freudian angle, leading to hypotheses about the natural ferocity of adolescent girls’ sexuality. The topic of the novel: a high school student who seduces her teacher, stages her abduction, and weeks later reappears to condemn the teacher as her abuser. It’s only when she returns home ten years later, as her mother is dying, that she faces the consequences of the lie.
In every decade since my youth, our culture has slowly evolved to see young women who behave in immoral or wayward or out of control ways (all polite if not judgmental words), not as inherently deviant but as likely victims of early trauma, sometimes sexual but not always. It’s the disparity between, first, what are our culture knows today about the effects of sexual trauma on young people and, second, the culture of condemnation—against which Sheila O’Connor’s Evidence of V is set—that makes it such a challenging and revelatory read.
First, there’s the style of the book, which is explained so well by its subtitle: A Novel of Fragments, Facts, and Fictions. It is, indeed, all three of these things, focused on the fact of the author’s mother’s birth mother—only known in the book as V—and her imprisonment for the crime, at age fifteen, of immorality (evidenced by her impregnation by the nightclub owner in his mid-thirties who turned her out as a singer/stripper). You read that right… committed at fifteen until the age of twenty-one for what we’d call today statutory rape.
Fragments make up a fair part of this unusual novel, such as the 1936 fiscal year-end statistics for the Minnesota Home School for Girls at Sauk Centre quoted from Report to the Minnesota State Board of Control. In it we learn that girls as young as nine were committed that year for “offenses against society” such as disorderly conduct, incorrigibility, truancy, and immorality.
And around all is the fiction. O’Connor must imagine many things, which she does bravely but with a careful hand, restraining herself from sensationalism or the temptation to sooth the reader with the occasional, if not funny, clever insertion. The author is honest about the iota she learned from public records about V, and about the opposite of iota that will never be known—things her storyteller-self had to conceive in an unblinking way.
There’s also a present-day, personal angle to the book as the author writes about her own erratic childhood with her mother—V’s baby, June. A Hamline professor of creative writing, O’Connor tells of dysfunction, drug addiction, and distance among the children that June raised, wondering if a lack of motherliness in June may be due to trauma inherited— like you would blue eyes—from V, her victimized mother. (There is now evidence that cultural trauma is passed along from generation to generation, not just in behaviors but in our very DNA.)
So why read such a sad and unchangeable tale from the past? I think the answer is that the evidence of such abuse is still ingrained in our society. The things that happened to V in 1935 are called human trafficking, child sexual abuse, and rape today. But just because we have new words for them doesn’t mean they have gone away or become less brutal, less heartbreaking. Don’t be lulled. Read Evidence of V. Then contemplate your own past prejudices and judgments of young women we now know to be, not wayward but victims.
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